Friday, December 12, 2008

Terrorism: A look at Lashkar-e-Taiba - the charity linked to Mumbai storm of terror

By Abubakar Siddique - RFE/RL

To the children attending classes at Jamaat-ud-Dawa's central complex in the dusty Pakistani town of Muredke, their benefactor is everything it claims to be -- a charitable organization set on reinforcing their faith.

Its bulky and bespectacled leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, has carefully cultivated that image. Shy of cameras, the 55-year-old has actively campaigned for Islamic causes and his charity has been quick to act in times of need.

But Saeed, with a round face sporting a long thin beard dyed with henna, is also seen as one of the most prominent faces of 21st-century jihad in South Asia.

And with a UN Security Council ruling on December 10, Saeed and his group has now officially been added to the world body's terrorist watch list.

With the ruling, made following a request from India in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Saeed and three other leaders (Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, Haji Mohammad Ashraf, and Mahmoound Mohammad Ahmed Bahaziq) were associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba and will be subject to asset freezes and travel bans.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa itself will be under an arms embargo and has been listed as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India blames for the Mumbai attacks.

In Lahore on December 11, Saeed fiercely denied any connection to Lashkar-e-Taiba, saying Jamaat-ud-Dawa publicly disowned the group after it was banned in Pakistan in 2002. He also said the UN panel did not give Jamaat-ud-Dawa or its leaders the opportunity to respond to allegations and stressed that it is a legitimate organization that denounces terrorism.

"Now India and Pakistan are cooperating in investigating the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan has asked India for evidence. But so far no evidence has been provided but sanctions have been placed against Jamaat-ud-Dawa's in haste which shows their ill intentions and animosity toward Islam," Saeed said.


A practitioner of Da'wah -- missionary work intended to convince Muslims to follow "true Islam" and to attract converts from other religions -- the former university professor is used to public scrutiny.

His fiery Friday sermons attract thousands in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, located near the border with India and just 40 kilometers south of his charity organization's headquarters in Muredke.

Saudi-educated Saeed's view of Muslim victimization in the modern world motivated him and a colleague, Zafar Iqbal, to establish Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad (Center for Preaching and Guidance) in the mid 1980s.

Although the two, who were teaching Islamic studies at the Lahore-based University of Engineering and Technology, initially envisioned the organization serving a missionary role, in the late 1980s it took on a violent character with the formation of its own armed wing -- the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

With what many Pakistani observers say was active encouragement from the country's powerful military, which they say was keen on gaining support for its regional agendas, Lashkar-e-Taiba quickly expanded its presence.

It became active in the eastern Afghan province of Konar, and riding on its success there, it launched a jihad in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir in the 1990s under the banner of liberating Muslims in the Indian-administered region.

Kashmir Fight

With thousands of fighters, Lashkar-e-Taiba emerged as one of the three major militant groups fighting the Indian forces in Kashmir. It took credit for pioneering "Fedai" attacks in which bands of gunmen would overrun military facilities and fight to the death.

Lashkar-e-Taiba adheres to Wahabisim, a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that insists on literal interpretation of the Koran and is the official faith in Saudi Arabia.

Its strict discipline and sense of purpose proved popular among Pakistan's educated middle class, attracting not only youths educated in traditional madrasahs but urban professionals like doctors and engineers.

Capitalizing on such connections, Lashkar-e-Taiba is believed to have raised funds among diaspora Pakistani and Kashmiri communities in Europe. And with a wide web of connections in the Gulf Arab states, the organization declared a terrorist organization by the UN in 2005 has found financial backers there as well.

In response to mounting international pressure following the December 13, 2001, attack on the Indian parliament, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf took action by banning Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant groups.

Although concrete evidence of the group's involvement in the high-profile attack that left a dozen dead was never presented, the fallout led nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

But following the ban, critics complained that militant groups banned by Musharraf were merely transforming themselves, and were resuming their militant activities under new names.

Even before Musharraf's action and the attack on the Indian parliament, Saeed had taken steps to transform his preaching and guidance organization, replacing Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad with the charity organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa in 2001.

Pakistani observers maintain that following that move the charity and even Lashkar-e-Taiba were tolerated because their focus was on Kashmir and India, and neither of the groups were seen as openly involving themselves in domestic sectarian conflicts. Unlike other armed groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and its members were not connected to attacks on Pakistani forces or civilians.


But things began to change after a 2006 terrorism report by the U.S. State Department said that the March 2002 arrest of senior Al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah from a Lashkar-e-Taiba safe house in the eastern Pakistani city of Faisalabad suggested that the group was facilitating the movement of Al-Qaeda members within Pakistan.

More recent reports have linked the group to attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and, following the Mumbai attacks, India pointed the blame clearly at Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Responding to Indian pressure, Pakistan raided an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba camp located near Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Reports indicated that 12 members of the group, including some senior leaders, were arrested. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani confirmed that two key leaders detained in that raid were being questioned.

Amid the allegations, Jamaat-ud-Dawa invited media to a guided tour of its main center in Muredke, located in eastern Pakistan near the border with India.

Journalists were taken to classrooms to observe children being schooled in contemporary subjects and Islamic teachings intended to reinforce their faith.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa spokesman Abdullah Muntazir avoided discussion of jihad, emphasizing that the sprawling complex was used for educational and residential purposes only.

"The media and the Indian government are indulging in a propaganda that this Markaz-e Taiba Muredke is a center of terrorism. They say that some activities here endanger peace and security," Muntazir said.

"These are misconceptions and I would like to make clear that contrary to the beliefs of many people -- this place is not the headquarters of Jamaat-ud-Dawa or Lashkar-e-Taiba. It is just an educational and residential complex."

But with the ruling by the UN Security Council panel, it appears few inside Pakistan or internationally are ready to buy Jamaat-ud-Dawa's argument.

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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