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06/13/2013

Lashkar-e-Taiba contemplating next move after U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, expert says

Mumbai terror

Lashkar-e Taiba was blamed for terror attack in Mumbai in 2008, including this attack on the Taj Mahal hotel.  (David Guttenfelder/Associated press File photo)

Lashkar-e-Taiba's well-organized attacks in 2008 on Mumbai temporarily seemed to paralyze the Indian security forces, riveted the world's attention, and put the venerable militant group back on the map.

In the five years since LeT extremists stormed the streets of Mumbai, killing 166 and holding India's commercial capital hostage, LeT has been relatively quiet. But that doesn't mean it's disappeared, argues an expert on the group.

Stephen Tankel testified Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee, and explained LeT's operational capabilities and the prospects for an LeT attack in North America.

Tankel, a professor at American University, non-resident Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the 2011 book Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, told The Star in an interview that U.S. lawmakers are keeping tabs on LeT, which considered Mumbai an operational success, since it bolstered the group's recruiting and fundraising efforts and gave LeT a measure of prestige.

"This a group that is patient, that is calculated," Tankel said, adding it's likely based on open source evidence that LeT is continuing its recruitment efforts in North America.

In January, Pakistani-born Canadian Tahawwur Rana was sentenced to 14 years in prison for providing material support to overseas terrorism, including LeT. During the same month, American David Headley, who confessed to helping plan the  2008  attacks in Mumbai, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

"LeT leaders saw the value in having someone like David Headley and it's fair to surmise that they are even more keen now to have more like him," Tankel said.

He said Canada and the U.S. likely remain potential LeT targets.

"Ideologically both countries remain within LeT's target set," he said. "The U.S. more so than Canada. LeT sees itself as a pan-islamist organization that defends and avenges violence against Muslims. But "they're also worried about taking steps that would endanger their privileged status within Pakistan," Tankel said.

One of the questions being posed in security circles, Tankel said, is what LeT will do after the U.S. withdraws its troops from Afghanistan next year.

It's possible that the group has been directed not to be too active in Kashmir because Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan is chock-a-block with militant activity.

Pakistan's murky Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate established Lashkar-e-Taiba in 1989 to help attack Indian resources in the disputed Kashmir region. LeT head Hafiz Muhammad Saeed currently lives in the open in Lahore, even though the U.S. has placed a $10 million bounty on his head and the United Nations has placed him on a terrorist list.

When the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, LeT may enjoy a more free hand to target Indian officials in Kashmir. Tankel said it's widely believed that LeT is active in Kashmir on a small-scale directly and indirectly through a domestic militant group know as Hizbul Mujahidin.

But it's similarly possible that Pakistan's western border won't become more peaceful in 2014.

That’s because neither the insurgency Pakistan supports in Afghanistan, nor the one it is facing at home, are likely to end.

And so the beat goes on.

U.S. and Canadians should not become complacent, said Tankel, who has interviewed numerous LeT leaders.

While LeT has resisted attacking North American targets to this point out of strategic calculation, "they could determine that they could get away with it, even if that determination is wrong. They could think 'this won't be traced back to us.' Or they could think ‘Pakistan is too weak and the U.S. is not in a position to punish us.’

"They don't always weigh cost and benefits the way we do. While keeping the threat in perspective and not overreacting, we need to be aware of the fact that it's not their ideology that is stopping LeT from attacking here."

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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