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Lashkar training in US, Canada, UK, Australia

By Ajit Jain in Toronto
Last updated on: December 12, 2008 20:30 IST
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Mumbai's 26/11 is proof of Lashkar-e-Tayiba's evolution from an anti-India agenda to anti-Western world agenda feels terrorism expert Stewart Bell, a journalist with Canada's National Post newspaper, who visited the terrorist group's camps in Pakistan in 2006.

On his return from Pakistan, Bell, the author of Cold Terror: How Canada Nurtures and Exports Terrorism round the World, wrote a series of reports in which he said that Lashkar 'is now overtaking Al Qaeda in the danger it poses'.

Bell spoke to rediff India Abroad's Ajit Jain in Toronto.

You visited Pakistan two years ago. What did you learn about Lashkar?

I learnt Lashkar runs training camps in Kashmir near the India-Pakistan border and its followers have been accused of planning attacks in Britain, Australia, the United States and Canada.

I guess what happened in Mumbai is not surprising to me given what we have known from Lashkar's activities during the last couple of years. It is kind of expanding its agenda.

Lashkar initially was confined to Afghanistan and Kashmir. But if you read their literature -- I picked up some when I was there and you can also go to their Web site -- and you will see their push is for increasing anti-Western global jihad, mostly because statements from their leader, Hafiz Saeed, and recently their postings on the Web site are very much in line with global jihad.

It is not surprising for me that they have adopted Al Qaeda practice and they plotted the terrorist attacks inside India because their agenda is quite open. They say they want to dismantle India and make it part of Pakistan. That's their part in the grand scheme of things.

Does Lashkar get financial support from Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence?

That I don't know. There have been reports about that, including their connections with the ISI. When I was in Pakistan, Hafiz Saeed had been arrested, released and arrested and released again. Lashkar was banned in 2002.

I don't know exactly what its connections with the ISI are. But it is very well known that this group has an agenda similar to that of the ISI in regard to Kashmir and India. So, it is likely that they cooperate. And given the public sentiments in Pakistan, there's not a lot that the Pakistani government can do because if they move against these groups all of a sudden, you will see thousands of people in the streets protesting. Kashmir is still a very emotional issue in Pakistan.

Does Lashkar work closely with Al Qaeda?

I don't think that's the case. If you go back to its origin, you will see that Lashkar is the armed wing of Jamaat-ud Dawa, the Islamic centre at Muridke, 75 km from Lahore. That centre was apparently set up partly with financing from Osama bin Laden. According to intelligence reports, bin Laden is the financier of terrorist activities in Kashmir. Those are connections but there are no indications of ongoing connections. There are different Al Qaeda organisations, there are Al Qaeda-inspired groups, Al Qaeda associates.

India says the Mumbai attacks have a direct Lashkar connection.

I can't say that myself. What we have seen from reports coming out of India and Ajmal Ameer Qasab -- who the Indian police have in detention -- was trained by Lashkar. And police in India say they have found telephone connections, both satellite telephones on the ship they (the terrorists) travelled to Mumbai, as well as the telephone calls they were making during the siege back to Lashkar.

If it is all connected, yes, it may have been a joint operation between Lashkar and Indian extremists. I don't know. Even if it was a Lashkar operation, that doesn't necessarily mean that Pakistani government officials were aware of it and involved in it.

So, we have to be careful in those kind of things. Pakistan's ISI has been supporting the group, but may not be aware of this particular operation.

What do you think was the motive of the terrorist attack on India's financial capital?

Such operations are always timed strategically when there is an opportunity. I think these groups wouldn't be happy with the kind of rapprochement we are seeing between India and Pakistan. These groups may see this as a threat.

Could it also have some bearing on United States President-elect Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda in Afghanistan and India?

Possibly. It is no secret that these groups feel threatened by the close ties between India and the United States. Again, I think these groups have larger agenda. They tend to attack when there's an opportunity. We can't read too much in the timing.

Why did they target Britons, Americans and Jews?

That speaks to Lashkar's evolving anti-Western policies. It is also a way of attracting more international attention. They have to keep increasing the level of each attack -- it has to be more spectacular than the last.

So, (by) going after the Jewish and Westerners, they get more international attention and probably it is a reflective of Lashkar's evolving ideology from anti-Indian to a more global anti-Western ideology during the last couple of years.

Lashkar is now training Muslims in the US, Britain, Australia and Canada to carry out attacks in those countries.

The Mumbai attacks must been planned over a long period of time.

That is very clear from what happened. There was a lot of training and lot of planning in what the world witnessed on November 26 and subsequently. The terrorists knew what they were doing. They were not a bunch of guys who just got together. The people involved in planning knew what they were doing.

Lashkar has experience in these types of attacks and obviously planned it well.

Even though this may have been a well planned attack it doesn't mean it was perfect. We are talking about an organisation which is officially banned in Pakistan. There has be some element of risk in what they did, they were doing. /P>

What is the size of the Lashkar force?

I don't know its size. But certainly Lashkar is one of the largest powerful organisations in Pakistan now mainly because they have the support of the broader organisation Jammat-ud Dawa, which is a legitimate humanitarian organisation. They receive fair amount of international financial assistance. Hafiz Saeed is trained in Saudi Arabia and there have been reports his finances come from Saudi Arabia.

Lashkar is now seen as a threat to the West as well. It has gone beyond its regional issues. They have an international procurement and funding network around the world.

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Ajit Jain in Toronto