WASHINGTON — Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group suspected of conducting the Mumbai attacks, has quietly gained strength in recent years with the help of Pakistan’s main spy service, assistance that has allowed the group to train and raise money while other militants have been under siege, American intelligence and counterterrorism officials say.
American officials say there is no hard evidence to link the spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, to the Mumbai attacks. But the ISI has shared intelligence with Lashkar and provided protection for it, the officials said, and investigators are focusing on one Lashkar leader they believe is a main liaison with the spy service and a mastermind of the attacks.
As a result of the assault on Mumbai, India’s financial hub, American counterterrorism and military officials say they are reassessing their view of Lashkar and believe it to be more capable and a greater threat than they had previously recognized.
“People are having to go back and relook at all the connections,” said one American counterterrorism official, who was among several officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still progressing.
Pakistani officials have denied any government connection to the siege on Nov. 26-29, in which nine gunmen and 163 other people were killed. A Pakistani official confirmed on Sunday that security forces had initiated an operation against at least one Lashkar camp.
The Associated Press, citing militants and an unidentified senior official, reported Monday from Islamabad, Pakistan, that Pakistani troops had seized a former Lashkar camp, in the Pakistani part of Kashmir, that is now used by the group’s charity wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa. “More than 12 people” were arrested, The Associated Press said.
The official who spoke to The New York Times gave no details about the operation he confirmed, Pakistan’s first known response against the group implicated in Mumbai. “The government of Pakistan has always said it would act on any evidence that is presented to us,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details about security operations. “We will make sure that nobody uses Pakistani territory to carry out militant activity.”
While Al Qaeda has provided financing and other support to Lashkar in the past, their links today remain murky. Senior Qaeda figures have used Lashkar safe houses as hide-outs, but Lashkar has not merged its operations with Al Qaeda or adopted the Qaeda brand, as did an Algerian terrorist group that changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, American officials said.
Unlike Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, who have been forced to retreat to mountain redoubts in western Pakistan’s tribal areas, Lashkar commanders have been able to operate more or less in the open, behind the public face of a popular charity, with the implicit support of official Pakistani patrons, American officials said.
American and Indian officials believe that one senior Lashkar commander in particular, Zarrar Shah, is one of the group’s primary liaisons to the ISI. Investigators in India are also examining whether Mr. Shah, a communications specialist, helped plan and carry out the attacks in Mumbai. “He’s a central character in this plot,” an American official said.
For years, American intelligence analysts have described Lashkar as a group with deadly, yet limited, ambitions in South Asia. But terrorism experts said it clearly had been inspired by the success of Al Qaeda in rallying supporters for a global jihad.
“This is a group that years ago evolved from having a local and parochial agenda and bought into Al Qaeda’s vision,” said Bruce Hoffman, a professor and terrorism expert at Georgetown University who has followed Lashkar closely for several years.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, which means “army of the pure,” was founded more than 20 years ago with the help of Pakistani intelligence officers as a proxy force to challenge Indian control of Muslim-dominated Kashmir.
Indian officials have publicly implicated Lashkar operatives in a July 2006 attack on commuter trains in Mumbai and in a December 2001 attack against the Indian Parliament. But in recent years, Lashkar fighters have turned up in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting and killing Americans, senior American military officials have said.
As American, European and Middle Eastern governments crack down on Al Qaeda’s finances, Lashkar still has a flourishing fund-raising organization in South Asia and the Persian Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, counterterrorism officials say. The group primarily uses Jamaat-ud-Dawa to raise money, ostensibly for causes in Pakistan.
The Mumbai attacks, which included foreigners among its targets, seemed to fit the group’s evolving emphasis and determination to elevate its profile in the global jihadist constellation.
Lashkar also has a history of using local extremist groups for knowledge and tactics in its operations. Investigators in Mumbai are following leads suggesting that Lashkar used the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, a fundamentalist group that advocates establishing an Islamic state in India, for early reconnaissance and logistical help.
An Indian man arrested in connection with the attacks, Fahim Ahmad Ansari, had been described beforehand by Indian newspaper reports as a former member of the Students’ Islamic Movement who met with Lashkar operatives in Dubai in 2003.
American officials said investigators were looking closely at the likelihood that the attackers had local support in Mumbai.
Mr. Hoffman said that Lashkar had developed particularly sophisticated Internet operations, and that intelligence officials believed the group had forged ties with regional terrorist organizations like Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia by assisting them with their own Internet strategies.
Although Pakistan’s government officially banned Lashkar in 2002, American officials said that the group had maintained close ties since then to the Pakistani intelligence service. American spy agencies have documented regular meetings between the ISI and Lashkar operatives, in which the two organizations have shared intelligence about Indian operations in Kashmir.
“It goes beyond information sharing to include some funding and training,” said an American official who follows the group closely. “And these are not rogue ISI elements. What’s going on is done in a fairly disciplined way.”
Still, officials in Washington said they had yet to unearth any direct link between the Pakistan spy agency and the Mumbai attacks. “I don’t think that there is compelling evidence of involvement of Pakistani officials,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on CNN’s “Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer” on Sunday. “But I do think that Pakistan has a responsibility to act.”
She said evidence showed “that the terrorists did use territory in Pakistan.”
An American counterterrorism official said: “It’s one thing to say the ISI is tied to Lashkar and quite another to say the ISI was behind the Mumbai attacks. The evidence at this point doesn’t get you there.”
Moreover, some terrorism analysts said that Lashkar’s dependence on its original sponsors had lessened in recent years. With wealthy donors in no short supply, an established recruiting pipeline and a series of training camps, Lashkar “has outgrown ISI’s support,” said Urmila Venugopalan, a South Asia analyst for Jane’s Information Group.
The protection that Lashkar operatives enjoy inside Pakistan has allowed the group to thrive at the same time that Al Qaeda’s leaders have been forced to hide in caves and occasionally transmit messages to one another using donkey couriers.
In a public statement in May, Stuart Levey, the under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, called Lashkar a “dangerous Al Qaeda affiliate that has demonstrated its willingness to murder innocent civilians.”
But other terrorism analysts offer a more nuanced view of the group’s Qaeda ties.
On the one hand, Al Qaeda and Lashkar share many positions: a belief in a strict interpretation of the Koran, a desire to establish a government based on strict Islamic laws and a priority to evict United States troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Lashkar has helped Qaeda fighters move in and out of Afghanistan. In March 2002, a Qaeda lieutenant, Abu Zubaydah, was captured in a Lashkar safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, according to a State Department terrorism report. Eleven detainees currently at the American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are suspected of having some kind of connections to Lashkar.
But Lashkar and Al Qaeda do not always see eye to eye, terrorism analysts said. While Lashkar strives for the creation of a pan-Islamic state across South Asia, Al Qaeda aims to create an even larger entity. Al Qaeda is wary of Lashkar’s relationship with the ISI, an American official said. A spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Lashkar’s charity wing, denied last week that the group or its founder, Haffiz Muhammad Saeed, had any connection to the Mumbai attacks. The surviving gunman in Mumbai has claimed to have met Mr. Saeed at a training camp in Pakistan.
On Friday, Mr. Saeed gave his regular sermon at his mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, where thousands listened to him denounce Hinduism, praise Islam and criticize Ms. Rice for visiting the region. Surrounded by security guards, Mr. Saeed, 63, a stocky man with a huge, untrimmed beard, spoke for 50 minutes to a rapt congregation that sat on the wide lawns of the Qadisiyyah Center in central Lahore.
“Now Condoleezza Rice has rushed to India and Pakistan because infidels are united,” he said. “If infidels do not stop their anti-Muslim activities, the Muslims are second to none in taking revenge.”
Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti reported from Washington, and Jane Perlez from Islamabad, Pakistan. Waqar Gillani contributed reporting from Lahore, Pakistan, and Margot Williams from New York.