Lashkar-e-Taiba Capable of Threatening U.S. Homeland
Stephen Tankel Testimony June 12, 2013 House Homeland Security Committee
Lashkar-e-Taiba is clearly capable of posing a threat to the United States,
but one that must be kept in perspective.
Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is one of Pakistan’s oldest and most powerful militant
groups, says Stephen Tankel. In testimony before the House Homeland Security
Committee, he explains the group’s operational capabilities and assesses the
prospects for an attack on the American homeland.
Reallocate intelligence resources: With the decimation of al-Qaeda’s
central leadership, Washington should increase the number of intelligence
officers and analysts focused on LeT and other emerging terrorist threats.
Degrade overseas networks: The United States should deepen
counterterrorism cooperation with India, Saudi Arabia, and the United
Kingdom to disrupt LeT’s overseas financing and recruitment.
Target Western trainees: Washington should increase pressure on Pakistan
to identify, arrest, and extradite any Westerners training or attempting to
train with LeT.
Warn Pakistan: The United States should signal to Pakistan’s military
and intelligence services the severe repercussions that would result if LeT,
or elements within it, mounted an attack on American soil.
Tankel concludes, “LeT is clearly capable of posing a threat to the United
States, but one that must be kept in perspective. . . . The United States
must remain attentive to the evolving threat and vigilant in taking steps to
degrade the group.”
Lashkar-e-Taiba (the Army of the Pure or LeT) is one of Pakistan’s oldest
and most powerful militant groups. India has been its primary enemy since
the early 1990s and the group has never considered itself to be an al-Qaeda
affiliate, but the U.S. is clearly on its enemies list. Since 9/11, the
group’s anti-American rhetoric has turned into action. LeT has been actively
attacking U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan since 2004-2005, its
presence there increased in the last several years and it deployed a small
number of fighters to Iraq following the U.S. invasion of that country. LeT
has also killed Americans and other Westerners in terrorist attacks in India
and contributed to other plots targeting them as well. The group has the
capabilities to launch terrorist attacks outside of South Asia, including
against the U.S., and is likely working to augment those capabilities.
However, the question of LeT’s intent to engage in a unilateral attack
against the U.S. homeland remains hotly debated.
Before turning to LeT’s capabilities and intent, it is important to
recognize why Pakistan is unlikely to attempt dismantling the group in the
near term. First, the Pakistani military and its Inter-Services Intelligence
Directorate (ISI) have long considered LeT to be the country’s most reliable
proxy against India and the group still provides utility in this regard.
Second, Pakistan is facing a serious jihadist insurgency. LeT remains one of
the few militant outfits whose policy is to refrain from launching attacks
against the Pakistani state. Fearing LeT’s capability to execute or assist
with terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s heartland, the security establishment
does not want to take any action to change this calculus. LeT has built a
robust social welfare apparatus via its above-ground wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa
(JuD), and assorted other legitimate relief organizations. As a result,
concerns also exist regarding its capability to provoke social unrest in
strongholds such as Lahore. Moreover, LeT actually provides assistance at
times against some of the groups involved in anti-state violence. This
assistance includes challenging the ideological underpinnings of waging
jihad against a Muslim government, providing intelligence regarding
anti-state militants’ activities, and in some instances even targeting
anti-state militants directly.1 LeT has provided similar intelligence and
direct action assistance against separatists in Balochistan as well. In
short, the group has utility both externally and internally. Third, some of
LeT’s members enjoy strong personal relationships with members of Pakistan’s
The safe haven LeT enjoys within Pakistan has provided it the freedom of
movement necessary to develop capabilities and capacity that enable it to
threaten the United States. At the same time, its integration with the
Pakistani state raises questions as to whether LeT leaders would risk their
group’s position to execute such an attack. The following focuses on a
LeT-led operation against the U.S. homeland. It is important to note,
however, that the primary threat to U.S. citizens from LeT terrorist attacks
remains in South Asia, either unilaterally as was the case with the 2008
Mumbai attacks or via operations executed in concert with the Indian
Mujahideen.3 Further, LeT could act as part of a consortium, meaning it need
not take the lead role in an attack in order for its capabilities to be used
against the U.S. homeland.
Capabilities to Launch an LeT-led Attack Against the U.S.
LeT’s training camps in Pakistan remain open and the group boasts a stable
of men who can provide instruction in small-unit commando tactics,
reconnaissance, counter-intelligence and the construction and use of
explosive devices. The group has transnational networks stretching across
South Asia, the Persian Gulf and Europe, with a particularly strong
connection to the United Kingdom, and reach into the U.S. and Canada. LeT
operates a robust above-ground infrastructure that, combined with
investments in legitimate enterprises in Pakistan and fundraising networks
abroad, has enabled it to operate independent of direct ISI financial
support. While it continues to enjoy reach-back capability into the
Pakistani military and ISI, LeT also has leveraged its financial resources
and operational freedom to develop an educated cadre among its membership.
Collectively, these individuals amplify technical, training, and planning
Soldiers on secondment from the military trained many of LeT’s trainers, and
some of them took early retirement to join the group. As a result, LeT
militants and trainers are considered to be among the most tactically adept
and its bomb-makers to be among the best in the region.4 Its own camps
continue to operate in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Mansehra, and
elsewhere in Pakistan. As LeT has deepened its collaboration with other
outfits, cross-pollination among trainers and trainees has occurred. At the
same time, LeT does not enjoy historically strong ties with other groups in
the region and actually suffers from a deficit of trust with some of them.
This should not discount the possibility that LeT trainers or camps might be
used to prepare militants from another group for attacks against the U.S.
However, the focus here is on the group’s capabilities to plan, prepare, and
execute a unilateral terrorist attack.
LeT’s own training traditionally begins with the Daura-e-Suffa, which
focuses on imbuing religious principles, including the obligatory nature of
jihad, as well as proselytizing. It lasts approximately three weeks, is
often conducted at the group’s compound in Muridke and includes lectures by
senior leaders. This is followed by the Daura-e-Aama, which consists of
lectures, additional religious indoctrination and prayer, physical training,
and some introductory weapons drills. It also lasts about three weeks and is
typically conducted in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. A small number of
those who go through the Daura-e-Suffa and Daura-e-Aama advance to the
Daura-e-Khasa, which takes place at a higher elevation in Mansehra. This
lasts approximately two to three months and includes physical training,
guerrilla warfare tactics, survival techniques, firing different types of
light weapons, and instruction on the use of hand grenades, rocket
launchers, and mortars. These time frames are not fixed and militants may
train for considerably longer as well as skipping the initial Daura-e-Suffa
and Daura-e-Amma in some instances.5
LeT also runs a bevy of specialized programs providing instruction on a
range of skills. In addition to maritime training for those who operate at
sea and commando training for individuals who will undertake fidayeen
attacks, these include instruction on counter-intelligence, IED
construction, sabotage and surveillance, conducting reconnaissance,
communicating in code, and the use of sophisticated communication
technologies.6 The focus on support activities such as reconnaissance and
communication is crucial to LeT’s capability to execute complex operations
abroad, as evidenced by the 2008 Mumbai attacks.7
Attack Planning Capabilities
LeT is a patient organization, known to perform surveillance of targets for
the purpose of creating target packages that it could use in the future. For
example, the 2008 Mumbai attacks began with surveillance of the Taj Mahal
Hotel conducted two years prior and with no immediate attack in mind. David
Headley, the Pakistani-American who undertook reconnaissance for the
attacks, made multiple trips to Mumbai, conducting extensive surveillance of
multiple targets. This included taking photographs and making video
recordings. He was taught how to use a GPS and plotted out the future
terrorists’ movements around Mumbai, bringing that GPS with the coordinates
back to Pakistan so the attackers could practice. LeT’s close relationship
with the Pakistani military enabled it to pull in a member of the navy to
help plan the maritime insertion.8 The final operation also revealed several
smart tactical decisions. Splitting the attackers into small teams made it
more difficult to intercept all of them and also created the sense of a
larger attack force. Exploding IED’s away from the attack sites contributed
to the confusion.
LeT used Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) during the Mumbai attacks and
this made it more difficult (though clearly not impossible) to intercept its
communications.9 According to Indian officials, LeT operatives based there
now communicate almost exclusively with their handlers in Pakistan via VoIP
or other technological means that are difficult to monitor. Notably, the
group historically has focused significant resources on building up its
technological capabilities, including sending members for graduate work in
the field of Information Technology. This raises questions about LeT’s
capability to engage in clandestine communications with transnational
operatives. Its significant financial assets likely enable the group to
invest in sophisticated programs and to experiment with various
LeT’s transnational networks stretch across South Asia, the Gulf and into
Europe and North America. These are used primarily for fundraising and to
support its regional operations, including attacks against India. However,
LeT operatives have been known to operate in a number of European countries
that participate in the Visa Waiver Program.11 Thus, it is believed to be
capable of talent-spotting, recruiting, and vetting radicalized Westerners.
LeT’s use of social media geared toward English-speaking audiences suggest
the group also is attempting to position itself as a destination of choice
for Westerners, especially members of the Pakistani diaspora in the U.S. and
Europe, interested in associating with jihadist groups.12
It must be noted that LeT historically has used Western operatives to
support its own operations in South Asia. Nevertheless, networks or
operatives used for support purposes can be re-directed to support terrorist
attacks. There are several notable examples of LeT foreign operatives
suspected of supporting al-Qaeda-led attacks, though it is unclear whether
the Pakistan-based LeT leadership sanctioned these activities.13 The one
example of the group using one of its operatives to launch an attack against
a Western country occurred in 2002-2003. Sajid Mir, who is responsible for
managing LeT’s overseas operatives and oversaw the planning and execution of
the 2008 Mumbai attacks, directed a French convert to Islam based in Paris
to travel to Australia, where he was to assist an LeT-trained local to
execute a terrorist attack.14 It is unclear from the open source whether the
LeT-trained local in Australia was directed to execute the attack by LeT
leaders or if he germinated the idea and reached out to the organization for
assistance. If the latter, it is also not clear if the entire LeT leadership
sanctioned deploying the Paris-based operative to assist or if Sajid Mir was
acting independently or on behalf of a faction within the group. Thus, the
operation illustrates not only LeT’s capacity to project power far beyond
South Asia, but also the difficulty of determining the dynamics behind the
decision to do so.
Pakistanis constitute the majority of those trained in LeT camps, but the
group has a history of training foreigners too.15 After the U.S.
counterattack against Afghanistan destroyed the training infrastructure
there, LeT stepped in to train local militants as well as foreigners who
pre-9/11 would have trained in al-Qaeda camps, but now were looking for
other avenues of instruction.16 Since the mid-1990s, LeT has provided
training to Indian Muslims for attacks against their own country, a practice
that continues today. Some of these men have executed attacks on LeT’s
behalf, providing the group with plausible deniability, while others have
proffered logistical support to Pakistani members of LeT who infiltrated
India to carry out operations. Still others are associated with various
indigenous jihadist networks, most notably the Indian Mujahideen, or have
settled into life in India, essentially becoming sleeper agents the
authorities fear could be activated at another time.17
LeT has long had a policy of training Westerners. The majority of them are
members of the Pakistani and Kashmir diasporas in the U.K., but the group
has been training Americans since 2000.18 The first Americans known to have
trained with LeT were from Virginia and were part of a coterie of would-be
jihadists that ultimately became known as the Virginia Jihad Network. Sajid
Mir, the commander in charge of overseas operatives, arranged for several of
them to provide assistance to a British Let operative who traveled to the
U.S. on multiple occasions from 2002-2003 to procure military gear for the
group. Although the men clearly were used in a support capacity, one concern
about such networks is that their purpose can change over time. Indeed,
Sajid Mir also asked two of the trainees to undertake missions involving
information gathering as well as the dissemination of propaganda.19 One of
them told the FBI in 2004 that he was asked specifically to perform
surveillance on a chemical plant in Maryland.20 Precisely what LeT or
elements within it planned to do with this information is unknown, though
they clearly were interested in both surveillance and expanding the group’s
networks in the U.S.
In 2005, two men from Atlanta Georgia with ties to the ‘Toronto 18’ as well
as to a British Pakistani who acted as a talent spotter for LeT identified
possible targets for a terrorist attack in the U.S. 21 A month later the duo
traveled to Washington, DC, where they shot video recordings of possible
targets, including the U.S. Capitol; the headquarters building of the World
Bank; the Masonic Temple in Alexandria, Virginia; and a group of large fuel
storage tanks near a highway in northern Virginia.22 One of the men traveled
to Pakistan later that year intending to study in a madrasa and then train
with LeT.23 He arrived the week after the London Underground bombings that
occurred on July 7th and was unable to realize his ambitions, possibly owing
to the heightened security environment in Pakistan where two of the London
bombers had trained. Notably, at least one of them is believed to have spent
a night at Muridke, though there is no open source evidence suggesting LeT
had any direct involvement in the 7/7 attacks.24
LeT has trained others living in America since then, none more famous than
Daood Gilani, who took the name David Coleman Headley in 2006 to help
facilitate his reconnaissance trips in Mumbai and elsewhere for the group.
He joined LeT in February 2002, participating in the Daura-e-Suffa that
month. In August 2002 he went through the Daura-e-Aama and then in April
2003 the Daura-e-Khasa, LeT’s three-month guerrilla warfare training
program. More specialized trainings followed, and in 2006 he began
conducting reconnaissance in India that ultimately led to the 2008 Mumbai
attacks. Headley was trained and handled jointly by LeT and Pakistani
intelligence, and used in a support capacity. However, without his
contributions in terms of reconnaissance, it is unlikely the 2008 Mumbai
attacks would have been as operationally successful. Notably, despite his
access to America and Americans, LeT used Headley overwhelming for
operations against India. (Headley’s involvement in an aborted plot against
Denmark is discussed below.)
Given the benefits Headley provided to the group, it is reasonable to assume
LeT may have increased its efforts to recruit and train other Westerners or
to find ways for Pakistani members to acquire citizenship or residency in
Western countries. For example, in September 2011, the Federal Bureau of
Investigation arrested Jubair Ahmad, a 24 year-old Pakistani immigrant
living in Woodbridge, Virginia. Ahmed received religious training from LeT
as a teenager, and later attended its basic training camp while living in
Pakistan, before entering the U.S. in 2007 with other members of his family.
After moving to the U.S. he provided material support to LeT, producing and
As should be clear, LeT has all of the tools necessary to strike the
homeland. The group’s instructors are very proficient for a non-state actor,
it has developed an array of sophisticated training programs and it enjoys
significantly more freedom to conduct those programs than other groups in
the region. LeT’s transnational networks enable it to identify and vet
possible Western recruits, including Americans or citizens from visa waiver
countries in Europe. The group also has the operational space as well as the
organizational wherewithal to build relationships in the Pakistani diaspora
community. A cautious and calculating organization, LeT primarily has used
its overseas operatives to support operations in South Asia. The danger of
LeT’s training apparatus and transnational networks, however, is that they
can be redirected toward international attacks. As the 2008 Mumbai attacks
demonstrated, given enough time and space to plan, LeT is capable of
inflicting significant and spectacular damage once it decides to do so.
Intent to Launch an LeT-led Attack Against the U.S.
LeT is a pan-Islamist group committed to defending the umma and avenging
what it perceives to be the oppression of or violence against Muslims. The
U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the use of unmanned aerial
vehicles (drones) to launch missile strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere make
it an obvious ideological target. India remains the group’s main enemy and
if the group could only attack one country then that likely would remain its
target, but LeT is a robust enough organization to launch attacks against
multiple countries. And it added America to its enemies list long ago. LeT
has killed U.S. citizens in Mumbai in 2008, though they were not the main
targets of the attack. The group has also deployed fighters to Afghanistan,
where they directly confront U.S. forces, and previously to Iraq. Yet there
is no evidence LeT has ever attempted an attack against the U.S. homeland,
despite access to some of its citizens and residents. So what’s stopping it?
LeT’s leadership retains an element of nationalism that is distinctly at
odds with al-Qaeda and still finds common ground, as it has since the 1990s,
with elements in the Pakistani military and ISI. LeT and its backers remain
co-dependent: each afraid of the repercussions that might stem from
splitting with the other. Furthermore, unlike al-Qaeda Central, which
confronts a challenging security environment, LeT controls a robust social
welfare infrastructure and its leaders value the influence that comes with
it. In the 1990s the group needed the state to build up its infrastructure,
whereas now it is reliant on the state not to tear it down. It is worth
highlighting the leadership’s devotion to dawa through the delivering of
social services and the fact that protecting its domestic infrastructure has
at times limited its military adventurism. This leadership operates openly
in Pakistan’s settled areas, not from a hidden redoubt.
This freedom of movement carries with it a number of benefits, but also
serves as another leverage point that can be used to constrain LeT’s
activity. As a result, significant elements within the group are still
“tamed by the ISI” as one former member observed.26 Pakistan’s security
services are believed to use this and other means of leverage to put
pressure on LeT to refrain from striking Western interests abroad. Unless
the Pakistani security establishment wants a showdown with the United
States, this is unlikely to change. At the same time, cracking down on LeT
is not the top U.S. demand made on Pakistan. The group does not want that to
change, nor does it wish to invite greater unilateral American action
In short, LeT’s restraint has more to do with strategic calculation than
ideological inclination. If Pakistan were to crack down sincerely on LeT,
then the group’s cost-benefit calculus could change. However, key LeT
leaders also might authorize a strike against the U.S. if they believed the
group could avoid retribution or that it could withstand the costs and that
these were outweighed by the benefits. It is also important to note LeT’s
history of using false names to claim its attacks and, in some instances, of
training radicalized actors indigenous to their target country to carry them
out. In other words, unlike al-Qaeda, the group is likely to do everything
possible to hide its hand in any attack on the American homeland. It is
impossible to predict with certainty whether the day will come when LeT
changes its calculus or, if so, what the tipping point might be. A number of
variables could inform such a shift. Two of the most important are
inter-related: ISI situational awareness of and influence on LeT; and
organizational dynamics within LeT.
ISI Situational Awareness and Influence
The level of Pakistani control over LeT is hotly debated and it is arguably
more useful to think in terms of situational awareness and influence. The
ISI reportedly retains a liaison relationship with LeT, meaning that there
are designated go-betweens, with senior leaders also having specific
handlers.27 Local interlocutors in Pakistan, including one former and one
current LeT member both of mid-rank, assert that the security services have
informants within the organization and also engage in other forms of
intelligence collection regarding its activities.28 This provides a
significant level of situational awareness. However, given the uncertainties
associated with most principal-agent relationships of this nature, it is
also reasonable to assume that LeT has taken countermeasures to enable some
clandestine activities. In terms of influence and guidance, the ISI
leadership generally provides descriptive rather than detailed instruction.
This means it sets broad guidelines and leaves implementation up to
line-level ISI officers and, in some cases, LeT militants themselves.
According to David Headley, his handler, known to him as Major Iqbal, was
aware of all the targets chosen for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Moreover, Major
Iqbal reportedly was the person who recommended LeT target the Chabbad
House, believing (wrongly) that it was a front for the Israeli Mossad.29
Given the nature of relationships between LeT leaders and the ISI, it is
reasonable to assume others were also aware of the operational details. This
is reinforced by the fact that at times Headley met with Iqbal to brief him
on information, which the latter already had.30 It is unclear whether the
ISI leadership was aware of the scope and scale of the attacks. If not, this
may have resulted from LeT’s handlers not passing information all the way up
the chain of command or from the turnover that was taking place in the ISI
at the time.31 In October 2008, one month before the Mumbai attacks, LeT
began plotting a terrorist attack in Denmark. Major Iqbal was present for
the initial discussions that took place between Sajid Mir and David
Headley.32 Several months later, in the wake of the fallout from the 2008
Mumbai attacks, Sajid postponed the operation indefinitely as a result of
what he told Headley was ISI pressure to do so.33
In summation, regardless of what the ISI leadership may or may not have
known about Mumbai, from LeT’s perspective it was a sanctioned operation.
And when the group allegedly was told to put an attack against a Western
country on hold, its leaders apparently submitted. This suggests a
reasonably high level of ISI situational awareness and influence. Yet with
the 2014 drawdown of U.S. and Coalition forces from Afghanistan, there is
cause for concern about how this might impact the LeT-ISI relationship.
First, LeT is likely to attempt to keep a small presence in Northeast
Afghanistan, where its members have worked to carve out territory. If it
succeeds, then access to safe haven in Afghanistan for LeT conceivably could
reduce ISI situational awareness of what its members there are doing. At the
very least, it could increase plausible deniability for LeT and, thus, for
the Pakistani state itself. Each could conceivably claim they did not
sanction plots orchestrated from across the border, even if planned in
Pakistan, with the result being to heighten the likelihood such attacks
Second, LeT is likely to agitate for regenerating the jihad directly against
India, both in the form of terrorist attacks against the mainland and
increased activity in India-administered Kashmir. The latter has been torpid
since the late 2000s. Several LeT-led attacks there this year suggest
attempts to regenerate the conflict, but it is highly unlikely to succeed in
spurring violence on the order of magnitude of that which existed before the
conflict began to ebb. If the Pakistani security establishment is not deemed
supportive enough of these efforts and they fail to bear fruit, this could
heighten the chance that LeT or factions within it undertake unsanctioned
attacks either against India or Western targets.
Third, if the situation in Pakistan continues to deteriorate, key LeT
leaders could make the determination that the security establishment is in
no position to severely punish the group or those individuals in it who are
considered essential to keeping the rank-and-file in line. They may also
assume—rightly or wrongly—that as the American presence in the region
shrinks, Washington will have less leverage over Pakistan and thus fewer
options for responding to an attack against the U.S. homeland.
Hence, these leaders could surmise that they, as individuals, and the group
collectively were well enough positioned to withstand the consequences of an
attack against the U.S. At the same time, a deterioration of the situation
in Pakistan could mean that those anti-state jihadist groups with which LeT
competes were going from strength to strength. Thus, attacking the U.S.
homeland could bring significant prestige within the jihadist universe at a
time when some LeT leaders felt the group needed a win. Such a decision
would be inextricably linked to dynamics within the organization, discussed
LeT remains more coherent than most groups in Pakistan, but internal
tensions exist regarding where the group should focus its energies and how
close it should remain to the state. The most obvious point of tension
concerns whether to remain regionally focused (i.e. primarily fighting
against India and in Afghanistan) or to expand the group’s involvement in
the global jihad. David Headley’s account suggests there was debate over the
decision to include targets such as the Chabbad House for the Mumbai
attacks.34 Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the Operational Commander of LeT, and
Sajid Mir, the man responsible for overseeing transnational operatives, were
in favor and clearly won the day. In short, two of the group’s most
important militant leaders promoted expanding LeT’s target set.
Even those LeT leaders who favor a growing involvement in the global jihad
against America do not believe this should come at the expense of war
against India. However, this policy of attempting to have it both ways opens
the group up to additional factionalism, which could be exacerbated if LeT
is unable to regenerate its jihad against India post-2014 or it were to lose
one or several of its founding members. LeT’s involvement in Afghanistan has
been a formative experience for some of those who comprise the next
generation and possibly a transformative experience for some of the current
crop of leaders. Just as more than two decades spent waging war against
India hallowed that cause, almost ten years spent fighting against U.S.
forces in Afghanistan may have influenced the preference structure for some
of the group’s members. The rise of new leaders who cut their teeth in the
post 9/11 world could have important implications in terms of LeT’s future
Another important point of tension concerns the degree to which LeT should
sublimate its jihadist impulses in order to pursue a reformist agenda via
its above-ground infrastructure. LeT and JuD are two sides of the same coin,
but they also represent different sets of priorities. Hafiz Saeed may lead a
militant organization, but he does so from his position as a cleric who
lives comfortably in Lahore and values spreading his interpretation of the
Ahl-e-Hadith faith and promoting reformism in Pakistan. Zaki-ur Rehman
Lakhvi is a militant’s militant. He has fought in Afghanistan and
Indian-administered Kashmir, lost a son to jihad, and is currently on trial
for his role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It is reasonable to assess that he
is more committed to militancy than missionary outreach. Notably, these
debates are about more than just ideological preferences. They are also
about power within the organization.
Additional variables could inform whether these tensions inflame or abate,
as well as how that process impacts LeT’s behavior. First, fighting in
Afghanistan has not only provided an opportunity to confront U.S. forces
directly, but also necessitated collaboration with an array of other
militant actors including al-Qaeda. This has the potential to create
conditions in which other actors with more extreme agendas can influence LeT
members. It also means the group is competing with those other actors for
credibility.35 Second, and related, LeT’s close ties to the Pakistani state
open up its leaders to criticism from the rank-and-file as well as other
militant groups seeking to poach some of its members. Although
organizationally opposed to attacks in Pakistan, it is a myth that no LeT
member has ever been involved in violence there. Some occasionally get out
of line.36 Others have left to join other militant groups engaged in
violence against the state.37 The desire to reset the narrative that the
group is fighting the ISI’s jihad and not Allah’s jihad, which striking the
U.S. would help to do, is unlikely to change LeT’s calculus on its own. Nor
should one expect the group to cross the strategic Rubicon and launch a
unilateral attack against the U.S. homeland out of concern that some
members, no matter how valuable, are breaking away. However, these could be
among a number of factors that influence LeT leaders or factions within the
group when they are considering whether or not to expand the group’s
Any attempt made to disarm and demobilize LeT without Pakistani support,
specifically from the military and ISI, is destined to fail. Without host
country support, the U.S. would have to employ direct military action to
target LeT’s infrastructure, which is based in the settled areas of Pakistan
near to population centers. Similarly, U.S. efforts to convince the
Pakistani security establishment to break with its historical policy of
supporting irregular outfits in general or LeT specifically are also
unlikely to succeed in the short term. Nevertheless, there are steps the
U.S. can continue to take to degrade LeT and areas where it could increase
First, barring a resurgent al-Qaeda, the drawdown of U.S. forces from
Afghanistan could create space for Washington to focus more on LeT. Resource
allocation should be realigned away from al-Qaeda Central and Afghan-centric
militants, especially intelligence officers and analysts whose expertise
will be essential for identifying emerging and evolving jihadist threats
from LeT and other regional actors. This does not mean flooding Pakistan
with clandestine officers focused on LeT. The Raymond Davis episode
highlighted the dangers inherent in such activities. Rather, the U.S. could
augment collection efforts in LeT’s near abroad as well as increase
analytical capacity further for intelligence collected. This might include
commissioning a reassessment of LeT’s historical involvement in
international attacks in light of new information that has surely been
gathered since the intelligence community enhanced its focus on the group
post-Mumbai. Even this seemingly minor effort, could reveal important
lessons about LeT’s calculus at critical times in its evolution.
Additionally, LeT has had the same leaders since the group was founded and
these men are not getting any younger. It would be worthwhile to explore the
scenarios that might eventuate were a battle for succession to occur.
Finally, the United States should develop a response plan in the event of a
LeT-led attack against the homeland that includes a mix of inducements,
rewards, retributive measures, and unilateral actions vis-à-vis Pakistan.
The United States should be prepared for a phased escalation in the event of
Pakistani reticence and should develop oversight mechanisms to ensure
Pakistan keeps any commitments it makes.
Second, the U.S. should continue to pursue actions necessary to degrade
LeT’s international networks and contain its operations outside Pakistan.
The U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism is more than a decade
old, but counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries really
accelerated immediately after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.38 However, engagement
on counterterrorism has since leveled off. Regenerating this engagement and
enhancing counterterrorism cooperation is in both countries’ interest, and
efforts to do so should be supported. In the last several years, the United
States, India, and the United Kingdom all took steps to facilitate
counterterrorism efforts in Bangladesh. As a result, the LeT presence is
reduced, and maintaining vigilance on that front remains important. The
Persian Gulf is still fertile soil in terms of a support base for South
Asian militancy. U.S. counterterrorism efforts vis-à-vis the Gulf
historically focused primarily on terrorist threat financing. The arrest and
deportation by Saudi Arabia of two Indian LeT operatives suggests a greater
focus has been given to monitoring and infiltrating Gulf-based networks that
could be used to recruit operatives or provide logistical support for
terrorist attacks.39 The Gulf has not suddenly become a no-go area for LeT
militants, but reducing their confidence that it is a guaranteed safe space
for operations could have an impact on how militants conduct activities
there. The U.S. should continue to press Gulf allies, especially Saudi
Arabia, on these issues and to encourage their cooperation on
counterterrorism efforts with India. Finally, the U.S. is already engaging
in counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing vis-à-vis LeT with
allies in Europe. Some Western allies place a higher premium on these
efforts than others, suggesting there is room for improvement.
Third, the LeT threat must be taken seriously, but should not drive U.S.
policy toward Pakistan. At the same time, Washington’s objectives vis-à-vis
Pakistan need to expand. When tough choices have had to be made,
Washington’s priority has been killing al-Qaeda and countering
Pakistan-based insurgents fighting in Afghanistan. The 2014 drawdown in
Afghanistan and success degrading al-Qaeda Central create an opportunity to
elevate the priority given to LeT. They also demand revising the U.S.
counterterrorism architecture in South Asia in line with the decreasing
threat from al-Qaeda and evolving threats from regional actors like LeT
against which unilateral direct action has less utility.40 Any policies
regarding LeT or counterterrorism more broadly must nest within a wider
approach geared toward encouraging, enabling, and compelling Pakistan to
address its myriad infirmities. Such an approach includes, but is not
limited to, redressing the current civil-military imbalance and creating
conditions for action against militancy that could bear fruit down the road.
In the short term, this means gearing an overall approach toward maintaining
a level of engagement and influence that allows Washington to execute
transactions on narrow security issues, exploit opportunities to reinforce
positive structural change within Pakistan when possible, and remain
prepared to engage in crisis management should the need arise.
Laying the groundwork for future action against LeT is complicated and does
not promise satisfaction. However, Washington is unlikely to have success
attempting to force strategic steps Pakistan is not yet ready or able to
take. Given the ground reality, the U.S. should remain focused on containing
LeT in the short-term, but also mindful of opportunities that can be
exploited to weaken it or separate the group from its support base. This
means continuing to signal to the Pakistani security establishment the
severe repercussions that would result were LeT, or elements within it, to
attack the homeland. Additionally, Washington should increase pressure on
Pakistan to identify, arrest, and extradite any Westerners training or
attempting to train with LeT. While being mindful of the need to protect
sources and methods of intelligence collection, U.S. officials should seize
opportunities to enlighten their counterparts in Pakistan about the
involvement of any current or former LeT militants in anti-state violence as
well as about activities the group attempts to keep hidden from the ISI. The
U.S. should also explore the viability and potential consequences of efforts
to exploit aforementioned fissures within the group. Finally, the U.S.
should prepare for the possibility, albeit unlikely in the near-term, that
Pakistan attempts to mainstream LeT or elements of it. This includes
exploring how the U.S. might assist, overtly or covertly in such an
enterprise, the costs and benefits of doing so, and the possible outcomes
that might eventuate.
LeT is clearly capable of posing a threat to the United States, but one that
must be kept in perspective. The group is not the proverbial shark in the
water that must keep moving in order not to die. It has practiced a
significant degree of strategic restraint given its capabilities, suggesting
it can be deterred. This is not cause for indifference. LeT is also a
patient organization and one for which the current strategic calculus is not
fixed indefinitely. The U.S. must remain attentive to the evolving threat
and vigilant in taking steps to degrade the group.
1 Regarding LeT’s ideological utility see, for example, Sermon by LeT
cleric Mubashir Ahmad Rabbani entitled “The Schism of Excommunication,”
undated. Al-Qaeda refuted points from “The Schism of Excommunication,” in a
book entitled, Knowledgeable Judgment on the Mujrites of the (Present) Age.
C. Christine Fair, “Lashkar-e-Tayiba and the Pakistani State,” Survival 53,
no. 4, 2011. Information regarding LeT’s intelligence gathering is based on
field interviews in Pakistan. Regarding LeT direct action against anti-state
actors see, for example, Stephen Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story
of Lashkar-e-Taiba (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), pp. 196,
200-201. Tahir Khan, “Mohmand Agency: TTP accuses rival groups of plotting
attacks on its bases,” The Express Tribune, June 9, 2013.
2 For a detailed analysis of LeT recruiting patterns and overlaps with
those of Pakistan’s military see, Anirban Ghosh et al, The Fighters of
Lashkar-e-Taiba: Recruitment, Training, Deployment and Death (West Point,
NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2013).
3 Networks associated with LeT were suspected of supplying the
military-grade RDX used in the 2010 bombing of the German Bakery in Pune and
an LeT commander (Mirza Himayat Baig) cooperated with the Indian Mujahideen
to execute the attack. Praveen Swami, “Lashkar-linked terror charity raises
fears,” The Hindu, September 2, 2011. Chandan Haygunde, “Aspiring teacher to
terror accused,” Indian Express, April 19, 2013.
4 The latter are reportedly responsible for building some of the improvised
explosive devices used in Afghanistan as well as instructing others on how
to do so. Tankel, Storming the World Stage, pp. 198-199.
5 For a detailed assessment of LeT’s training infrastructure and programs
see, Ibid, pp. 74-79.
6 “Testimony of David Coleman Headley to the Indian National Investigative
Agency,” 3-9 June 2010.
7 The Mumbai attacks were several years in the making and benefited from
extensive surveillance by David Headley.
8 At one meeting, the men examined nautical charts and discussed various
landing options. The naval frogman directed Headley to explore the position
of Indian naval vessels in order to avoid a gunfight before entering Indian
waters, which Headley did upon his trip to Mumbai. Ibid.
9 Transnational operatives were used to set up the VoIP, which also was
intended to make it more difficult to trace.
10 The group reportedly purchased para-gliders and commissioned an expert
in their use to train a small cadre of members. “Chinese training LeT men in
paragliding: Abu Jundal,” DNA India, July 3, 2012.
11 Tankel, Storming the World Stage, pp. 96-102, 164-167.'
12 The group is active through its above-ground organization, JuD, on
Twitter and Facebook. JuD previously had a youtube page that featured
various LeT attacks in India and Pakistan.
13 For example, activists in Paris associated with the group are suspected
of providing some logistical support to the “shoebomber” Richard Reid. LeT
operatives in the U.K. are also suspected of providing money to those
involved in the 2006 attempt to bomb transatlantic flights from the United
Kingdom using liquid explosives. Regarding assistance to Richard Reid see,
Judgment in Republic of France vs. Rama et. al., Magistrates' Court of
Paris, June 16, 2005. Regarding the 2006 bomb plot see, Dexter Filkins and
Souad Mekhennet, "Pakistani Charity Under Scrutiny In Financing of Airline
Bomb Plot," New York Times, Aug. 13, 2006. Joshua Partlow and Kamran Khan,
"Charity Funds Said to Provide Clues to Alleged Terrorist Plot," Washington
Post, Aug. 15, 2006. Henry Chu and Sebastian Rotella, "Three Britons
convicted of plot to blow up planes," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 8, 2009. John
Burns, "3 Sentenced in London for Airline Plot," New York Times, July 12,
14 Sajid Mir arranged for members of the group’s network in Paris to
provide money for the trip. Australian security
officials said the men intended to select a suitable target and purchase the
chemicals necessary to build a large bomb,
though it remains unclear whether they intended to assemble it or LeT was
planning to deploy another foreign explosives expert for that purpose.
Regarding the role of LeT’s French networks see, Jean-Louise Bruguière, Ce
que je n'ai pas pu dire (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2009), pp. 469-472.
"Committal Hearing of Faheem Khalid Lodhi," Downing Centre Local Court,
Sydney, Australia, Dec. 17, 2004. Natasha Wallace, "Court Battle Over Secret
Evidence," Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 18, 2004. Judgment in "Republic of
France vs. Rama, et. al." Appeal Judgement in "Fahim Khalid Lodhi vs.
Regina," New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, Dec. 20, 2007.
"Frenchman Played ‘Major’ Role in Australia Terror Plot, Court Hears,"
Agence France-Presse, Feb. 8, 2007. Information regarding activities in
Australia from, Australian security officials said the two men intended to
select a suitable target and purchase the chemicals necessary to build a
large bomb, though it remains unclear whether they intended to assemble it
or LeT was planning to deploy another foreign explosives expert for that
purpose. Interview with former member of the Australian security services.
Appeal Judgement in "Fahim Khalid Lodhi vs. Regina." Martin Chulov,
Australian Jihad: The Battle Against Terrorism from Within and Without,
(Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2006), p. 143. Liz Jackson, "Program Transcript:
Willie Brigitte," ABC, Feb. 9, 2004.
15 It claims to have trained recruits during the 1990s for combat in
Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, Kosovo, the southern Philippines,
and, of course, Indian-administered Kashmir. MDI website, “A Brief
Introduction to the Markaz and the Group X,” undated.
16 Chulov, Australian Jihad, p. 151. Mariam Abou Zahab, ‘Salafism in
Pakistan: The Ahl-e Hadith Movement,’
in Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, ed. Roel Meijer (London:
Hurst, 2009),p. 140. Amir Mir, The
True Face of Jehadists (Lahore: Mashal Press, 2004), p. 70. Josh Meyer,
‘Extremist group works in the open in
Pakistan,’ LA Times 18 Dec. 2007.
17 Regarding the Indian jihadist movement see, Stephen Tankel, The Indian
Jihadist Movement: Evolution and Dynamics, Washington, DC: National Defense
University, forthcoming (provisional title).
18 Indictment in “United States vs. Randall Todd Royer,” The United States
District Court for the Eastern-District of Virginia, Alexandria Division
19 Memorandum Opinion in “United States vs. Masoud Khan et al.,” The United
States District Court for the Eastern-District of Virginia, Alexandria
Division 4 March 2004
20 United States Attorney's Office Eastern District of Virginia, “Virginia
Jihad Member Convicted of Perjury, Obstruction, ” Feb. 5, 2007.
21 United States Attorney's Office Northern District of Georgia, “Terrorism
Defendants Sentenced: Ehsanul Islam Sadequee Receives 17 Years in Prison;
Co-defendant Syed Haris Ahmed Receives 13 Years,” Dec. 14, 2009.
22 Indictment in “United States of America vs. Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul
Islam Sadequee," United States District Court for the Northern District of
Georgia, July 19, 2006.
24 Tankel, Storming the World Stage, p. 163.
25 Stephen Tankel, “Lashkar-e-Taiba’s American Connections,” Foreign
Policy, Sept. 6, 2011.
26 Author interview with former Lashkar-e-Taiba member, Jan. 2009 in
27 “Testimony of David Coleman Headley to the Indian National Investigative
28 David Headley’s testimony supports this contention. See, Ibid.
29 Sebastian Rotella, “Witness: Pakistani Intel Officer Ordered Hit on
Mumbai Jews,” ProPublica, May 24, 2011.
30 Superceding Indictment in “United States of America vs. Ilyas Kashmiri,
Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed [a/k/a ‘Major Abdur Rehman,’ a/k/a ‘Pasha’], David
Coleman Headley [a/k/a ‘Daood Gilani], Tahawwur Hussain Rana.” “Testimony of
David Coleman Headley to the Indian National Investigative Agency.”
31 Ahmad Shuja Pasha became Director General of the ISI in October 2008, a
month after the Mumbai attacks were originally scheduled to take place. He
reportedly visited LeT’s Operational Commander, Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, in
jail following the latter’s detention in the wake of the attacks in order to
“understand the Mumbai attack conspiracy.” “Testimony of David Coleman
Headley to the Indian National Investigative Agency.”
33 Plea Agreement in “United States vs. David Coleman Headley [a/k/a ‘Daood
Gilani],” The United States District Court for the Northern District of
Illinois, Eastern Division, Mar. 18, 2010.
34 “Testimony of David Coleman Headley to the Indian National Investigative
35 For example, after LeT acceded to ISI demands to delay the Danish plot,
David Headley began working with al-Qaeda to execute the operation.
36 See for example, Amir Mir, “ Lahore episode further blemishes Punjab
govt’s record,” The News, Mar. 11, 2013. Tankel, Storming the World Stage,”
37 See, for example, Tankel, Storming the World Stage,” pp. 130-131.
38 The two countries also launched a Homeland Security Dialogue
Ministerial in May 2011.
39 U.S. intelligence is believed to have played an important role in the
capture and handover of at least one of the men. Stephen Tankel, “Sharing is
Caring: Containing terrorism in South Asia,” Foreign Policy, June 20, 2012.
40 While the U.S. should not abandon the option of drone strikes, it should
use them in coordination with U.S. diplomats attuned to their impact on the
broader political and security environment.
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