ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Created by Pakistan to wage a proxy war against India, the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group has moved its jihad onto the global stage and could match al-Qaida in strength and organization, according to officials, experts and group members.
Blamed for the 2008 Mumbai massacre, Lashkar-e-Taiba has developed its own distinct networks worldwide, found global funding sources and established links with groups that refused to hook up with al-Qaida, fearing Osama bin Laden's group would hijack their causes, say analysts who have followed the organization.
According to interviews with analysts, intelligence officials and anti-terrorism investigators on three continents, the group also known as LeT could be poised to expand its reach beyond South Asia.
U.S. court documents and an internal Indian government dossier on the Mumbai massacre acquired by The Associated Press show that Lashkar-e-Taiba (pronounced LAHSH-kar eh TAY-eh-ba) operatives have turned up in Australia, Europe, East Asia and the United States.
They have plotted to blow up sites in Australia, recruited from existing terrorist groups in European capitals and have become the greatest source of inspiration for radicalized Muslims living in the West, say intelligence officials in the United Kingdom and France.
Juan Carlos Zarate, a top counterterrorism official in the administration of President George W. Bush, said his "fundamental concern is that LeT could not (only) serve as the flashpoint for a broader South Asia conflagration but could also evolve into an alternate international jihadi platform for global terrorism."
Lashkar-e-Taiba, which means Army of the Pure, belongs to the Salafist movement, an ultra-conservative branch of Islam similar to the Wahabi sect, the main Islamic branch in Saudi Arabia from which al-Qaida partly emerged. The organizations operate separately but have been known to help each other when their paths intersect.
Former and current members interviewed by the AP denied the organization has ambitions beyond India and fighting to reunite the disputed territory of Kashmir.
If LeT does have aspirations of becoming a global terrorism force, whether it acts upon them may depend on whether it is willing to strain its relationship with Pakistan. Despite being officially banned, it operates with relative freedom there — even doing charity work using government money.
Last month its leader, Hafiz Saeed, addressed a rally of thousands demanding the hanging of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who had been arrested for killing two Pakistanis. Davis was released after blood money was paid to the family in accordance with Pakistani law.
Details of how several LeT members plotted mayhem and murder from nondescript locations in the United States and their hideouts in Pakistan were outlined in a 35-page plea agreement struck by David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani American who aided in the Mumbai assault.
In those meetings they gave detailed instructions on how to deliver, place and detonate explosives, according to the Illinois District U.S. court document obtained by the AP. They plotted the Mumbai attack that killed 166 people and discussed blowing up the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to protest publication of offensive cartoons depicting Islam's Prophet Muhammad, the document said.
Headley is awaiting sentencing, having exchanged his cooperation for a sentence other than the death penalty.
Analysts and terrorism experts agree that Pakistan's intelligence agency, known as the ISI, is still able to control LeT, though ISI denies it. Fears have spiked that pressure has been building within LeT to break free, become even more ferocious and attack targets outside India — possibly in the United States.
"Its literature has always been about attacking the West. It is building the network that allows them to attack," said Christine Fair, assistant professor at the Center for Peace and Strategic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. "The fact that they haven't struck out against the West proves to me in itself that they are still being controlled by the ISI."
Jean Louis Bruguiere, a former French magistrate who has spent more than two decades investigating terrorists and is credited with hundreds of arrests and convictions, has been tracking LeT operatives across the globe. He described LeT as one of the world's greatest security threats.
Bruguiere said in a series of email exchanges with the AP that the group had succeeded in recruiting followers from the Algerian Safalafist Group for Preaching and Terror, or GSPC, which later morphed into al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb, and that it now has "operational connections in Central Asia and in Europe."
Bruguiere said he also has found evidence of LeT's network in East Asia, Australia, the United States and Europe.
"I can just confirm that the LeT had — and still has — a global jihad agenda which is expanding beyond India and the conflict between the two countries," said Bruguiere, who was instrumental in the arrest of the Cold War-era terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal and is now the European Union's representative at the U.S. Treasury Department to investigate terrorist funding.
Bruguiere was the investigating magistrate in the 2007 case of Frenchman Willie Brigitte, who was found guilty of plotting a terrorist attack in Australia. Sentenced to nine years' imprisonment in France, Brigitte told Bruguiere that he spent time in militant camps in Yemen and with LeT in Pakistan.
Brigitte was alleged to have been part of a Sydney-based terror cell that was looking for targets for a terror attack and had considered a nuclear reactor on the city's southern edge or a military base near the town of Alice Springs. A Pakistani LeT operative, Sajjid Mir, was found guilty in absentia in France at the same time as Brigitte.
Despite the threat, LeT still operates a headquarters in Muridke, outside of the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore.
Now operating under the name Jamaat-ud-Dawwa, which is also banned by the Pakistani government, it carries out charitable works in scores of villages — partially funded by the Punjab provincial government. It has used national disasters, such as last year's devastating floods, as recruitment and fundraising opportunities, Fair said.
Pakistan's tolerance of LeT has its roots in its fear of neighboring India, with which it has fought three wars in 64 years. Pakistan has tolerated groups that were originally formed with the aim of carrying out low-intensity warfare in places like Kashmir, a Himalayan territory claimed by both Pakistan and India.
When Pakistan tried to control some of the groups following its alliance with the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it lost control of some who turned against their former patrons, and found itself also dealing with homegrown extremists. LeT has so far refused to turn against the government and attack inside Pakistan.
Hundreds of Pakistanis have died in scores of suicide bombings throughout the country, in mosques and at shrines. More than 3,000 Pakistani soldiers — more than the U.S. and all the NATO countries in Afghanistan combined — have died in a six-year-old war in the tribal regions against another militant group, the Tehrik-e-Taliban.
A former Pakistani government official with close ties to the military and ISI said LeT appeared to be fracturing on the issue of expanding its activities. He said some LeT commanders want to carry out more international and daring attacks, but the senior leadership believes the time is not right and that a broader campaign would hurt Pakistan. He spoke on condition of anonymity because it would compromise his relationships.
Fair said the U.S. has shied away from taking on LeT and risking its relationship with Pakistan. Since 2004 the CIA has quietly ignored LeT's activities in Afghanistan, Fair said in a telephone interview. "Even though they are killing us there, the CIA is ignoring it," she said.
A U.S. official in Washington, however, told the AP it regularly complains about LeT to the Pakistani authorities. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the official said the United States has asked Pakistan to move against the group.
Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this report.