Lashkar-e-Taiba: a profile

Raja Karthikeya
5 December 2008

The Mumbai attacks have brought renewed focus on Lashkar-e-Taiba, which had hitherto been seen as merely a Kashmiri separatist group. Indian investigators suspect the outfit to be involved in last week's run-and-gun rampage that left nearly two hundred people dead in Mumbai. A serious look at Lashkar's background and tactics suggest that it is unlike any terrorist group that has operated in India or indeed in the international arena.


Lashkar-e-Taiba ("Army of the Righteous") originated in the mid 1990s as the militant arm of Markaz Dawatul Irshad, an Islamist organization founded in the late 1980s by Hafiz Mohamed Saeed, a professor of theology at Punjab Engineering College. Lashkar's grew in prominence after Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence decided in the early 1990s to stop supporting groups that sought an independent Kashmir (e.g. Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) to groups that supported Kashmir's annexation by Pakistan. Raja Karthikeya Gundu is a Junior Fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy


From the beginning, Lashkar was unique from the other Kashmiri separatist groups. Its members were not ethnic Kashmiris, but were predominantly Pakistanis, from Punjab province. (This in fact, places it at odds in strict ideological terms, with the dogma of Maulana Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamat-e-Islami and thence of political Islam in Pakistan. According to Maududi, it is un-Islamic "for the citizens of a country to stage jihad against another country if the two countries have diplomatic relations").

Lashkar's recruits are mostly from the middle and lower classes, and an overwhelming majority of them have college education. Most young recruits do not join Lashkar to make a career in terrorism. They join it motivated in equal part by religious conviction, and a desire for adventure and a sense of purpose. Most recruits leave after two years of fighting across the border to return to Pakistan and pursue other careers.


Lashkar in its early days discovered a simple and innovative tactic to spread terror - that of staging suicide attacks where armed men storm a secure location amidst a hail of grenades and gunfire. The expectation is to temporarily capture an area with no expectation of return and with the certainty of death in the subsequent shootout with security forces. The first instance of such an attack was the storming of the Border Security Force headquarters in 1999 in Bandipora in Jammu and Kashmir.

These "fidayeen" methods were backed by forced theological dogma and historical examples including that of Hasan al-Shibh, a Shia leader who rebelled against Seljuk Turks in the 11th century. The pro-Pakistan groups fighting in the Kashmir valley, which organised themselves into the United Jihad Council in 1994, found Lashkar an anomaly and for years, the group operated alone. When it joined the council in 2003, it steadily infiltrated and diluted the council's agenda from one of independence to joining Pakistan. This is believed to have caused the split between Kashmiri political parties advocating secession from India and the parallel militant movement. In terms of targets, Lashkar has often attacked soft targets like religious shrines and economic targets in order to stir sectarian strife even as its main targets remain symbols of state.


From the perspective of ideology, Lashkar is unique within Pakistan in that it was born out of the Jamaat-Ahl-e-Hadith sect rather than the Deobandi sect like the majority of militant groups in the country. The Ahl-e-Hadith sect is a puritanical movement that opposes veneration of saints and occult practices and almost all facets of the Sufi strains of Islam historically popular in South Asia. In recent years however, the group has acquired ever greater Salafist overtones and there was even friction between Lashkar's founder and leaders of its parent Ahl-e-Hadith sect. It must be noted that Lashkar's ideology is not Luddite and the group embraces modern technology like mobile phones and TVs. (In fact, Hafiz Saeed has been interviewed several times on television.)

The Ahl-e-Hadith is the largest Islamic sect in Bangladesh and has more adherents in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. Hence, Indian suspicions of Lashkar strengthening its presence in Bangladesh as well in a bid to stir up trouble in India's north east since 2001, come as no surprise.

Links to global jihad

Many in the west did not know about Lashkar-e-Taiba before the Mumbai attacks. However, the group has appeared on the west's radar several times in the past decade. When the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles in 1998 into Taliban controlled Afghanistan as retaliation for the East Africa embassy blasts, several of the missiles inadvertently hit Lashkar-e-Taiba training camps. After the launch of the "war on terror", Abu Zubaydah, a senior al-Qaeda leader was captured in March 2002 in a Lashkar safe-house in Pakistan. In 2004, Australia swiftly banned the group after the arrest of a French-born member of the group planning to strike targets in the country. In 2003, the FBI indicted 11 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba for training for jihad on paintball ranges in Virginia in the United States. In 2006-07, three relatives of Hafiz Saeed were arrested in Massachusetts for committing fraud with religious visas. Rashid Rauf, the Briton who was the chief accused in the 2006 plot to blow up transatlantic airliners is also believed to be one of the Lashkar's recruits.

In a recent article, Steve Coll mentions a conversation with Lashkar's senior cadre in early 2008 where the latter proudly talk of a "HR policy" to allow junior members to go on leaves of absence to fight alongside the Taliban in western Pakistan and Afghanistan. (Coll also mentions the group's amphibious operations in the lake near its Lahore compound.)

Lashkar since 2001

When Pakistan banned Lashkar after the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 under US pressure, the group appeared to splinter into several groups (e.g. Al Arifeen, Al Nasireen), but the core soon reincarnated as Jamat-ud-Dawa. Although the US banned the new avatar as a foreign terrorist organization in 2006, Musharraf refused to follow suit citing lack of evidence. In fact, Lashkar was arguably the only militant group banned by Pakistan after 9/11 which did not declare war against the Musharraf administration. Although Hafiz Saeed continued to make weekly sermons at the Qudsia mosque in Lahore, including hateful calls for jihad against the US, Israel and India, and even accused Pakistan's rulers of selling out to Americans, he never named Musharraf as a target. In a 2005 interview with NBC, Musharraf slipped up and argued that Lashkar had never been banned. The Musharraf administration turned a blind eye to the presence and activities of Lashkar.

After the 2002 ban, the group stepped up activities in India's hinterland. The most spectacular of these attacks was in 2006, when the group bombed the commuter train network in Mumbai killing 209 people. Simultaneously, Lashkar tried to exploit inter-religious tension within India, for instance through a suicide attack on a temple in western India in 2002 - an attack which bore eerie resemblance to the Mumbai attacks. The attack was claimed to be in revenge for the communal pogrom that killed thousands of Muslims earlier that year. Lashkar also raised money for its activities by claiming it was gathering funds for the benefit of riot victims. In short, Lashkar tried to set up action- reaction cycles which would further polarize Hindus and Muslims in India and create outright conflict between extremists of either religion. The Malegaon bombings by suspected Hindu militants suggest that Lashkar's agenda of division has blossomed poisonously.

Welfare activities

Inside Pakistan, since 2002, Jamat-ud-Dawa established itself as a charitable organization, raising millions of rupees in donations. It chose education as its main medium of proselytization and claims to now run 197 schools and at least one university in Pakistan. These schools are not all madrasas. Several of them are English medium and teach modern science and math. But in all of them, armed jihad is taught to the students as an obligatory duty. Besides schools, Jamat-ud-Dawa runs an ambulance service, hospitals and blood banks in Pakistan, and was involved in massive relief and rehabilitation activities after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir and after the October 2008 earthquake in Balochistan. The relief activities were accompanied by propaganda using loud speakers preaching armed jihad.

Perception within Pakistan

Although the group started with and continues to have a "liberate Kashmir" agenda, it has over the years metamorphosed into one with the agenda of creating a super-state by restoring "the throne of Delhi to Muslims". This species of nationalistic rhetoric merges comfortably with the group's pan-Islamist rhetoric. The group sees itself as a guardian of Pakistani and Muslim identity. Thus, in the eyes of many Pakistanis, Lashkar-e-Taiba is a "civilian militia". The group's members are generally seen as patriots. Unlike other radical groups with a Kashmir-based agenda, Lashkar has never entered Pakistani politics or displayed aspirations of political power. The group's compound near Lahore is a self-sustained community, not very different from those of religious cults.

Thus, while the majority of Pakistanis would not ever join the organization nor endorse its violence, they find the organization to be a just force of citizens fighting for an ideal, largely sympathizing with its anti-Americanism and anti-Indian sentiment. This understanding is important in seeing why the government of Pakistan may be reluctant to provoke the public by handing over Hafiz Saeed to the Indians.  

In recent years, Lashkar has built up operations in Karachi in southern Pakistan, away from its traditional base in the north in Punjab.

Lashkar's threat

Lashkar's resilience and mutability are real causes for concern. Most terrorist groups do not survive ten years of operation. Lashkar has only grown stronger in its fourteen or so years of existence, despite bans by the US and Pakistan and the pressure on terrorist groups after 9/11. It has successfully adapted itself to the changing political environment in Pakistan (from democracy to dictatorship to democracy) and transformed itself from a largely militant organization to one with extensive philanthropic activities, without losing its capacity to commit terrorist acts outside Pakistan. It has attracted young, urban professionals and enjoys wide support within its constituency.

It has shed the lure of branding just like al-Qaeda and operates under a number of aliases. Its not-so-clandestine charity front and the charity's vigorous work in post-disaster relief operations have helped it raise millions of rupees which will help it survive international crackdowns. The Mumbai attacks testify to its intelligence gathering and planning capabilities in a hostile environment. Specific tactical details of the standoffs in Mumbai, (such as the blowing up of an elevator in order to take cover inside the elevator shaft) indicate the level of professionalism its cadres have achieved. The very modus operandi of the attack (an amphibious landing) could rank it alongside the Tamil Tigers in terms of innovation.

Last but not least, Lashkar's leadership is ambitious. Even if their agenda has been impacted by al-Qaeda, they aspire to achieve the status of "liberators" and will not be content to play second fiddle to any larger group. Thus, we must be prepared for more attacks from this group. Mumbai's tragedy may just have changed the game.

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