Last week marked the thirteenth anniversary of the Islamist assault on Mumbai, one of the largest terrorist attacks in recent memory, which killed more than 160 people and wounded over 300.
A team of ten attackers from Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) initiated their attack on Mumbai on 26 November 2008, at about 21:30. A series of bomb and shooting attacks took place against the Leopold Café, a pair of taxis, the Taj Mahal Palace and Oberoi Trident hotels, and Nariman House, a Jewish worship and community centre. By the morning of 27 November, Indian security forces had managed to secure all locations except the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which remained under siege until 29 November.
Nine of the LeT operatives were killed during the attack, as they were intended to be—this was a suicide mission. But one of them was not: Muhammad Ajmal Kasab was captured, giving India for the first time a detainee with high interrogation value. It had long been understood that LeT was an instrument of Pakistan’s “deep state”, the military-intelligence establishment that runs the country, and now India had access to detailed information about how its neighbour used its terrorist instruments. Among other things, the terrorists had been given various forms of sophisticated training by Pakistan’s secret police, detectable beginning with their amphibious landing in India, which had involved departing from Karachi and hijacking of an Indian fishing vessel, all practiced “under the guise of ‘humanitarian relief operations’ … on a lake at its vast headquarters campus, outside Lahore”.
Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency is possibly the largest, and certainly the most powerful, institution in the country, employing—in one way or another—half-a-million people, covering everything from members of parliament to television news anchors. Theoretically, the ISI is divided into several divisions, notably the C-Wing, which liaises with foreign spy services, and S-Wing, which oversees the terrorist menagerie the ISI has cultivated over many decades. In practice, the C-Wing generally serves to provide diplomatic and political cover for the activities of S-Wing.
The other unique element to the attack, apart from the capture of Kasab, was that LeT targeted foreign nationals alongside Indian civilians. Twenty-five of those murdered and about forty of those injured were from Western and other countries, notably the United States, Israel, Germany, and Australia. A particular effort was made by the terrorists to target Jews, who were singled out to be savagely tortured before they were murdered.
The international dimension to the attack meant foreign law-enforcement agencies were involved in the subsequent investigation. India gave the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) access to Kasab, who confirmed that he and all the other attackers were Pakistani citizens. A key finding was that the terrorist assault team had been guided at every stage by a controlled based in Lahore—that is, within Pakistan. The U.S. had intercepted this call traffic, as Steve Coll explains in Directorate S (p. 343-44):
An international team of intelligence leaders specializing in South Asia, including the acting CIA station chief in Islamabad, arranged a meeting at ISI and drove to the Pakistani service’s headquarters carrying maps and link charts depicting the calls between the attackers and phone numbers in Pakistan. The charts included some numbers associated with known ISI officers. They met the major general who ran I.S.I.’s analysis directorate.
The exchange unfolded along familiar lines. The ISI general opened with denial and defensive accusations that India was inventing lies about the Mumbai evidence to besmirch Pakistan. … Then the visitors laid out their evidence. The general backed up to a secondary defense: “We will both have to investigate this.” …
[T]he evidence made it all but certain that Lashkar had been responsible, and Lashkar was effectively a paramilitary arm of the Pakistani state.
The ISI did not create LeT, but co-opted it from very early, as Christine Fair describes in detail in her book, In Their Own Words. Pakistan officially banned LeT in 2002, but the group simply rebranded to Jama’at-ud-Da’wah (JuD) and its founder, Hafiz Saeed, remains quite free to organise demonstrations and to fundraise within Pakistan. As Dr. Fair documents, to call LeT/JuD a “proxy” of the ISI somewhat misses its nature: the group is a wing of the Pakistani state.
LeT operates on a clerical-theological program called Ahl-e Hadith—which is quite distinct from Deobandism, the tradition followed by other ISI groups like the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and Sipah-e-Sahaba—that makes it ideal as a militant formation: no matter its differences with Pakistani leaders, it is unalterably opposed to violence on Pakistani territory. LeT has been deployed in Indian-administered Kashmir, more recently in Afghanistan as part of the ISI’s jihadi coalition that includes the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Al-Qaeda, and there are indications LeT is trying to get involved with the Rohingya in Burma. LeT has fundraising centres around the world, notably in Britain and Saudi Arabia.
LeT is, in effect, a highly capable division of the Pakistan Army, with the added political benefit of being “deniable” and economic benefit of being very cheap, not least because their purpose is to be killed in combat, so there are no pension costs, which eat up a large part of all military budgets around the world. Fair emphasises, however, that militancy is only part of the story with LeT, which also fulfils numerous domestic purposes for Pakistan.
A nagging question about the Mumbai attacks was: Why? Pakistan had staged numerous “spectacular” attacks using LeT in Kashmir, but that was an old dispute and on the border. Mumbai was physically more than 1,000 miles inside India and the attack itself was a “Hollywood-inspired terrorist extravaganza that would delegitimize Pakistan abroad and risked igniting a nuclear war”, as Coll puts it (p. 345). The answer was suggested a year later, when David Headley, a Pakistani-American born Daood Gilani, was arrested in the U.S. and later prosecuted, a first for a Pakistani spy. Headley had been involved in the Mumbai atrocities, which he testified were coordinated and financed by Sajid Majeed (or Sajid Mir), the deputy head of LeT’s external operations.
In explaining the reasons for the attack, Headley said they were interlocking, serving the interests of Pakistan writ large and LeT specifically: in addition to tarnishing image as a rising country by portraying it as a fragile and dangerous one, the operation—precisely by being so far inside India—was, firstly, more deniable by Pakistan, or would have been if Kasab had died as he was supposed to. (The later arrest of Zabiuddin Ansari disclosed plans to have the attackers call local Indian media and use Mumbai-specific Hindi to further the impression this was a homegrown attack.) Secondly, it boosted LeT’s status as a jihadist organization, showing it did not solely participate in the “ISI jihad” in Kashmir; it was engaged in “the real jihad” against the West and its allies, hence the effort to target foreign tourists in Mumbai. In doing so, LeT quieted the internal dissent that threatened to fragment the group and by extension boosted the ISI’s credibility in the eyes of jihadists, too, enabling them to better manage the militant portfolio.
In the aftermath of Mumbai, Pakistan, though denying any official complicity, undertook to assist in suppressing the terrorists threat emanating from its territory. As a recent EER report showed, this has not happened. To the contrary, the ISI has expanded its terrorist capabilities and used them to seize control of Afghanistan earlier this year, creating a situation of famine and disorder within Afghanistan, and a security threat to the world beyond.
Pakistan has had at various times civilian governments that have shown an inclination towards setting aside the use of terrorism as state policy and normalizing relations with India and Afghanistan; all have come to nothing since the ISI continues to dominate the state. Pakistan’s former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, lamented after the Mumbai attacks, “You can’t run a country if you have two or three parallel governments. This has to stop.” So it does. But with the ISI riding high after their victory in Afghanistan, it seems unlikely the Pakistani threat to global peace and security will end in the foreseeable future.