ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: In an operation that appeared to be Pakistan’s first concrete response to demands by India and the United States that it take action against the militants suspected of orchestrating the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has raided a camp run by a “banned” militant group and arrested a number of suspects, according to a Pakistani official and an American military official.
The attack appeared to be on a camp run by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani militant group that long focused on the disputed territory of Kashmir and that has been accused by India of being in control of the attackers in Mumbai as they terrorized the city during a three-day siege last month in which 163 people were killed.
The U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials say Lashkar 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.
A spokesman for Lashkar said Monday that Pakistani security forces had started a crackdown on his group in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, but did not say anything specific about who or how many people had been detained. The Pakistan government has not provided details of the military raid.
U.S. officials said that there was no hard evidence to link the Pakistani 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 who they believe is a main liaison with the spy service and the mastermind of the attacks.
As a result of the assault on Mumbai, India’s financial center, U.S. counterterrorism and military officials said they were reassessing their view of Lashkar and believe it to be more capable and a greater threat than they had recognized.
“People are having to go back and re-look at all the connections,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official, who was among several officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still in progress.
Pakistani officials have denied any government connection to the attacks in late November.
While Al Qaeda has provided financing and other support to Lashkar in the past, the links between the two groups 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 Islamic Maghreb, U.S. officials said.
Unlike Osama bin Laden and his 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. They do so behind the public face of a popular charity, with the implicit support of official Pakistani patrons, U.S. officials said.
Indian and U.S. officials said they believed that one senior Lashkar commander in particular, Zarrar Shah, was one of the group’s primary liaisons to the ISI. Investigators in India also are examining whether Shah, a communications specialist, helped plan and carry out the attacks in Mumbai.
“He’s a central character in this plot,” one U.S. official said.
On Monday, in the first hours after news of the raid emerged on Pakistani television and in news agencies, a senior Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a man suspected of being the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks had been arrested. But the same official said later that even though about a dozen people had been arrested in the raid at the camp, the suspect, Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, had not been arrested.
Lakhvi has been accused by Indian officials of being in control of the attackers in Mumbai. Indian and Western investigators said he commanded the attack and then kept in communication with the gunmen by cell and satellite phone as they rounded up guests in two hotels, killing some of them. Lakhvi is an operational leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
For years, U.S. 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 that Al Qaeda experienced 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 closely followed Lashkar 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 implicated Lashkar operatives in a July 2006 attack on commuter trains in Mumbai and in a December 2001 attack against Parliament. But in recent years, Lashkar fighters have turned up on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting and killing Americans, senior U.S. military officials have said.
While European and Middle Eastern governments – as well as the United States – crack down on Al Qaeda’s finances, Lashkar still has a flourishing fund-raising organization in South Asia and the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, counterterrorism officials say. The group primarily uses its charity wing, 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 jihadi 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.
U.S. officials said investigators were looking closely at the likelihood that the attackers had some kind of local support in Mumbai.
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 the government of Pakistan officially banned Lashkar in 2002, U.S. officials say that the group has maintained close ties to the Pakistani intelligence service even since that date. U.S. 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 a U.S. 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 most recent attacks in Mumbai.
“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.”
A U.S. 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.
Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti reported from Washington, Jane Perlez and Salman Masood from Islamabad and Yusuf Jameel from Srinagar, Kashmir. Reporting was contributed by Waqar Gillani in Lahore and Margot Williams in New York.