By Sebastian Rotella
By arrangement with ProPublica
Imagine a terrorist group that recruits tens of thousands of young men from the same neighborhoods and social networks as the Pakistani military. A group whose well-educated recruits defy the idea that poverty and ignorance breed extremism. A group whose fighters include relatives of a politician, a senior Army officer, and a director of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission.
“When you have an organization that enjoys such a degree of open support, there are no options for U.S. policy other than counterintelligence, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism targeting…”
That is the disconcerting reality of Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the world’s most dangerous militant organizations, according to a study released today by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. The report helps explain why Pakistan has resisted international pressure to crack down on Lashkar after it killed 166 people in Mumbai—six U.S. citizens included—and came close to sparking conflict between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India.
The findings, which draw on 917 biographies of Lashkar fighters killed in combat, illuminate “Lashkar’s integration into Pakistani society, how embedded they are,” said co-author Don Rassler, the director of a research program at the center that studies primary source materials. “They have become an institution.”
The three-day slaughter in 2008 drew global attention because it targeted Westerners as well as Indians and implicated Pakistan’s spy agency. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) continues to protect the masterminds, according to Western and Indian counterterror officials. U.S. prosecutors indicted an ISI major in the deaths of the Americans: He allegedly provided funds, training, and direction and served as the handler of David Coleman Headley, an U.S. reconnaissance operative now serving thirty-five years in a federal prison.
The fifty-six-page West Point report is titled “The Fighters of Lashkar-e-Taiba: Recruitment, Training, Deployment, and Death.” Though it refrains from policy suggestions, there are implications for U.S. counterterror strategy. Lashkar’s popularity and clout defy conventional approaches to fighting extremism, said co-author Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University.
Although banned by Pakistan in 2002, the group still functions unmolested, the ISI provides funds, military training, and arms, and ISI officers serve as handlers for Lashkar chiefs, according to Western and Indian investigations.
“When you have an organization that enjoys such a degree of open support, there are no options for U.S. policy other than counterintelligence, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism targeting,” Fair said in an interview.
Lashkar was founded in 1989 by Hafiz Saeed, its spiritual chief today, and other ideologues. The ISI deployed Lashkar as a proxy force against India, especially in the disputed Kashmir region. Although banned by Pakistan in 2002, the group still functions unmolested, the ISI provides funds, military training, and arms, and ISI officers serve as handlers for Lashkar chiefs, according to Western and Indian investigations. The U.S. officially declared Laskhar a terror group in 2001.
The West Point researchers said they used “massive amounts of material that the group produces about itself” to analyze the trajectories of Lashkar fighters who were killed between 1989 and 2008. The researchers translated from Urdu the 917 biographies that appeared in four extremist publications, including one written by mothers of fallen militants.
Recruits often become holy warriors with the help of their families, which admire Lashkar’s military exploits in India and Afghanistan and its nationalism and social service activities at home, the study says. Unlike other terrorist groups, Lashkar does not attack the Pakistani state.
The group’s vast training camps have churned out fighters at an alarming rate. The study gives an estimate of between 100,000 and 300,000 total trainees. By comparison, a U.S. counterterror official told ProPublica he has seen figures as high as 200,000, though he put the number in the tens of thousands.
Most recruits examined in the study joined at about age seventeen and died at about twenty-one, generally in India or Afghanistan. Their backgrounds contradict “a lingering belief in the policy community that Islamist terrorists are the product of low or no education or are produced in Pakistan’s madrassas,” the report says.
They joined Lashkar—which spews anti-Western, anti-Semitic, and anti-Indian rhetoric—because they wanted more meaningful lives, admired its anticorruption image and felt an obligation to help fellow Muslims, the study says.
In fact, the fighters had higher levels of secular education compared to the generally low average for Pakistani men, the report says.
Relatively few studied at religious schools known as madrasas. They joined Lashkar—which spews anti-Western, anti-Semitic, and anti-Indian rhetoric—because they wanted more meaningful lives, admired its anticorruption image and felt an obligation to help fellow Muslims, the study says.
“These are some of Pakistan’s best and brightest and they are not being used in the labor market, they are being deployed in the militant market,” Fair said. “It’s a myth that poverty and madrasas create terrorism, and that we can buy our way out of it with U.S. aid.”
Lashkar’s publications downplay its longtime links to the security forces, the authors said. But connections emerge nonetheless. Lashkar recruits aggressively in the districts of the Punjab region that produce the bulk of Pakistan’s officer corps—“a dynamic that raises a number of questions about potentially overlapping social networks between the army and (Lashkar),” the report says.
“It looks like based on what we have as if there’s a considerable degree of overlap,” Fair said. “The military and Lashkar are competing for guys with the same skill set.”
At least 18 fallen fighters had immediate family members who served in Pakistan’s armed forces. Although most recruits were working or lower middle-class, some “had connections to elite Pakistani institutions and Pakistani religious leaders and politicians.” The study cites Abdul Qasim Muhammad Asghar, son of the president of the Pakistan Muslim Leagueʹs labor wing in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Another case stands out: a fighter known by the nom de guerre of Abdul Razzaq Abu Abdullah. His 2003 obituary by his mother describes his maternal uncle as “a director of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission.”
Abdul, one of four brothers from the town of Chak Deenpur Sharif in Punjab province, showed interest in holy war as a teenager. His uncle tried to discourage him and found him a post in the military, the biography states. But the young man finally joined Lashkar and died in combat in Indian Kashmir at age twenty, the report says.
The authors did not substantiate the account or identify the Pakistani official at the atomic energy commission. But the allusion evokes persistent fears that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is vulnerable to Islamic terrorists. Pakistani nuclear officials have had contacts with al Qaida in the past.
The CIA has had particular concerns about Lashkar in this regard, according to veteran counterterror officer Charles Faddis. Between 2006 and his retirement in 2008, Faddis led a CIA unit dedicated to preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Lashkar’s influence with the Pakistani security establishment and its reach into the Pakistani diaspora were worrisome, Faddis said.
“They were the kind of group that concerned us,” Faddis said. “They operated in Pakistan with a lot more ease than al Qaida. They had the ability to make connections with military officers, well-educated people abroad, scientists. The Pakistani government was extremely reluctant to confront them.
“All of this added up to a bad situation,” he said.
Lashkar’s impunity is reflected in the continued defiance and power of Saeed, the spiritual chief. Although India charged him for Mumbai and the State Department offered a $10 million reward for his arrest, Pakistani authorities have done nothing except to provide him police security, U.S. and Indian officials say.
Saeed denies involvement in Lashkar’s military wing, a claim disputed by the study. In a “surprising number” of cases, Rassler said, trainees who were deployed on combat operations went to Saeed to seek his personal approval.
“In their own publications, they are saying he plays an operational role,” Rassler said.
Lashkar has not carried out a major attack since Mumbai, devoting more energy instead to political activism. But the group continues to engage in terrorist activity outside Pakistan and has cranked up its anti-American rhetoric, Fair said.
Lashkar is among the militant groups that use the tribal areas of Pakistan as a base for attacks on U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan, according to U.S. counterterror officials. Nonetheless, Fair said U.S. forces have not targeted Lashkar fighters in Pakistan with missile strikes out of concern that this would anger Pakistan, whose help is needed in Afghanistan. Instead, there are discussions of taking more aggressive action against Lashkar in other countries.
“We are essentially being held hostage by the war in Afghanistan,” she said.
An award-winning foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, Sebastian Rotella worked for almost twenty-three years for the Los Angeles Times, covering everything from terrorism to arts to the Mexican border. He served most recently as a national security correspondent in Washington, D.C., and his previous posts include international investigative correspondent and bureau chief in Paris and Buenos Aires, with assignments in the Middle East and North Africa.