Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), potentially one of the most dangerous militant groups in Pakistan and one which is suspected to be behind a number of attacks conducted outside the country, is being given free reign in Punjab province, analysts and intelligence sources say. While the United States and Pakistan's army have been concentrating on wiping out militants from the north-west of the country, in the Punjab, militant organisations such as LeT and Jaish-e-Muhammed have been busy growing their networks, they say.
LeT was banned in 2002, but continued to recruit, organise and train militants under its charitable wing, Jamaat-u-Dawa. After the attack on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008, in which 180 people were killed and 300 injured, the United Nations placed Jamaat-u-Dawa on its list of terrorist organisations. Pakistan responded by closing down several of the foundation's madrasa and detaining its leaders.
Yet in recent weeks, opposition politicians have accused the Punjab government, led by its chief minister, Shabaz Sharif, of either turning a blind eye to LeT's renewed activities, or even silently encouraging them. Earlier last month, Rana Sanaullah, the law minister in Punjab, visited the madrasa of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned militant group, and was later seen driving around town with its leader. When asked about the incident, Mr Sanaullah refused to discuss it as all mention of banned outfits is forbidden by the Pakistan government.
But the issue has raised concern both within Pakistan and abroad about the government's ability and willingness to truly restrict the activities of militants. Following the United Nations ban on Jamaat-u-Dawa, which operates more than 72 madrasas across the country, Pakistan closed several of the group's offices, and placed the LeT leader, Hafiz Saeed, under house arrest. But a High Court ruled there was no evidence Mr Saeed was involved in any wrongdoing, and a year later, he freely roams Lahore and every Friday delivers emotionally charged sermons at his mosque in the city.
In a recent sermon he elaborated on the need to help Muslims in Afghanistan and Kashmir. In one of his more radical sermons, he declared he would not rest until the flag of Islam was firmly planted in Tel Aviv, New Delhi and Washington. Sherry Rahman, a former information minister, has been at the forefront of protests against the Punjab government for not coming down strongly on the LeT and other banned groups. She says "the militants are being given a free reign in Punjab".
"We talk about rule of law in the country but my question is how can these terrorists be allowed to congregate in our cities? Who allows them to preach jihad? Who allows them to flout the law so openly?" Hassan Askari, a former professor of Pakistan studies at Columbia University. "There is no doubt that leaders of banned outfits are now moving around freely in the Punjab and only the names of organisations have changed, but the people and motives have remained the same," he said. "This is an open secret but no one seems much bothered about this."
Mr Askari also said that under the guise of doing charitable works, militant groups such as the LeT continue to gather funds, finance madrasas and plan operations. "Publicly, the government and the leaders of these groups will always deny any involvement with militant activities, but it's one of the things most people know about but no one admits," he said. A militant fighter who previously worked with the LeT in Kashmir told The National that the activities of the group were even stronger than before.
"We are active in Kashmir and we have strong ties with other organisations like the Taliban and we help them and they help us," he said. "Our workings have only become stronger after the ban not weaker." One of the reasons the LeT is able to operate seemingly with impunity is its links with the government and the intelligence agencies, which indirectly support its actions in the disputed Kashmir region.
One ISI source confirmed to The National that the Kashmir-related activities of the LeT are generally allowed to continue. However, he refused to clarify what the government's stance on the group's non-Kashmir activities was. While western intelligence sources say LeT is now turning its attention to the West, analysts here say that is unlikely. According to the Institute for Conflict Management, the LeT has for long had sleeper cells in the US and Australia and links with groups such as the Ikhwan-ul-Musalmeen of Egypt and other Arab outfits. In 2003 a LeT plan to launch an attack in Australia was disrupted by intelligence.
In March 2009, a British parliamentary committee revealed that an al Qa'eda member who helped plan the 2005 attacks on the London transport system was trained by LeT in Pakistan. And, according to a recent issue of Newsweek magazine, intelligence officials found plans for attacking more than 320 targets in India as well as Europe on the laptop of Zarrar Shah, the key planner of the Mumbai attacks, and an LeT militant. The magazine described the group as more of a threat than al Qa'eda, something many Pakistani analysts dismiss as hyperbole.
Rasool Baksh Raees, a political science professor at Lahore University, said it was unlikely LeT was planning any attacks on western targets. "That was never their mandate," he said. "The LeT was an outfit sponsored by the Pakistan government and their specific aim was to harm Indian interests in Kashmir. They have never been interested in Europe and so attacking European targets doesn't make much sense for them."
However, it is no exaggeration to say that in terms of technological expertise and public support, the LeT is miles ahead of other organisations such as Jaish-e-Muhammed, or even the Taliban, according to one ISI source. According to Asadullah Ghalib, a political analyst, the freedom the LeT enjoyed 15 to 20 years ago when the government was silently encouraging them in Kashmir, helped to develop grassroots support as well as a network for fund-raising.
Sources within the LeT and military even recount examples of former military officers training militants. All this led to the group developing a level of sophistication and technological expertise which became evident in the co-ordinated Mumbai attacks. It is hard to analyse to what extent LeT has transformed from a regional organisation to global one, but it is evident that despite the ban, LeT has continued to develop its capability and develop valuable alliances, including with al Qa'eda and other groups.
However, what is most worrying is that neither the Pakistani authorities nor the West seem to be in a hurry to address the monster LeT has become. * The National