Review Essay: Stephen Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba

Stephen Tankel, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba. (London: C. Hurst and Co., 2011).

There are a dozen or more militant groups operating today along the Af-Pak frontier.  Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) remained relatively unknown outside of the region and a few intelligence circles until it launched a murderous attack in Mumbai in December 2008. That brought closer attention to it and to the relationship between similar groups and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Since then, attention to this relationship has only intensified as Osama bin Laden was found ensconced near a Pakistani military facility, ISI has blocked negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul, and a noted Pakistani journalist was murdered after reporting on al Qaeda ties with the Pakistani army.  Tankel’s book, then, is quite timely.  It is also one of the finest studies of a jihadist organization we have.

LeT’s social origins lie in Pakistan’s fusion of nationalism and Islam in the service of maintaining national unity and opposing India.  Indeed, Pakistani nationalism and hostility toward India have been intertwined since the 1947 partition of British India.  Schools, mosques, and government agencies alike instill abiding hostility toward India, especially in regard to the occupation of Kashmir.  They also sought to weaken separatist sentiment in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal agencies (FATA), where many Pashtuns saw themselves as unjustly taken from their natural homeland of Afghanistan in 1947.

Institutionally, LeT emerged out of Pakistanis who fought the Soviet Union in Eastern Afghanistan and who after the war coalesced into a group of military, political, and social service organizations geared toward promoting their austere form of Islam (Ahl-e-Hadith) and fighting the Indian presence in Kashmir.  Significantly, LeT retained its training camps in Eastern Afghanistan after the war.

Demographically, LeT’s rank and file are drawn from the lower middle classes and are above average in education.  (In this respect they are similar to the mujahadin and al Qaeda volunteers we know of.)  They come chiefly from the Punjab and NWFP, though LeT also recruits from the diaspora of Pakistanis and Indian Muslims in the Gulf and Great Britain.  Recruits are paid the equivalent of 100-200 euros a month and given separation pay of 3000-5000 euros for each year of service – enviable sums in many parts of the world and princely sums to most Pakistanis.  LeT draws its money from indigenous private benefactors, private Wahabbi donors, and of course from the large and munificent coffers of ISI.

Like Hizbullah and Hamas in Lebanon and Palestine, respectively, LeT and its related entities operate an array of social services, including education, mosque construction, and medical treatment.  Its less humanitarian elements conduct attacks and bombings in Indian-administered Kashmir and inside India itself, but it has also sent fighters into Bosnia, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, where it works with the Haqqani Network to attack US and Indian targets.  International in aspirations, it has established ties with like-minded groups throughout the Subcontinent and Central Asia.  All in all, LeT proved to be one of ISI’s more dependable proxies. To a significant extent, it still is.

Pakistan’s connections to LeT and the dozen or more kindred groups along the Af-Pak frontier – including the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda – became a source of embarrassment if not dismay once al Qaeda struck the US in September 2001.  If the US sided with India to fight Pakistan’s client groups and their army supporters, Pakistan’s security would be jeopardized as never before.  Pakistan – Tankel often avoids pointing specifically to the army or ISI – opted for a duplicitous policy of short-lived breaks with its client groups or merely limiting the number and severity of their attacks, while purporting to be the US’s partner against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Reining in LeT and its like, though not eliminating them, allowed Pakistan to keep forces-in-being for its longterm efforts in Kashmir.  This had adverse consequences, though perhaps not unforeseeable ones.  Many client groups saw Pakistan’s cooperation with the US as a betrayal and diverted their violent practices against their former benefactors.  And so the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) came into existence.

By and large, however, LeT remained loyal to its benefactors, but it risked desertions should it become too inactive.  Some fighters shifted to fighting the US in Afghanistan and Iraq as well and may also have played supporting roles in the 2005 London train bombings.  Others became persuaded of the TTP view that the Pakistani government was now an ally of the US.  LeT may have been involved in attempts to assassinate General Musharraf.

LeT’s activities in India declined sharply a year or so after the 2001 al Qaeda attacks in the US and the attack on the Indian parliament a few months later, in which LeT took part.  Several years later, however, LeT began to plan and train for what would become the 2008 Mumbai attack, which killed 166 people and wreaked havoc on a landmark hotel, western tourist spots, and a Jewish community center, signaling a greater movement away from a Kashmir-centric agenda and toward a global-jihadist one.

Making use of Indian intelligence, interrogations of two LeT captives, and other open sources, Tankel details the Mumbai operation and ISI’s involvement with planning and training for it.  Why did ISI break from its post-9/11 position of limiting the number and scale of operations against India?  Tankel interprets ISI’s involvement in the Mumbai as stemming from ISI’s concerns that a large-scale operation was needed to keep LeT intact and indisposed to joining TTP attacks on the Pakistani army and state. A lack of control within ISI might not have been adequately considered, nonetheless ISI complicity, from the top or from independent parts, is clear.

Tankel concludes that, despite Mumbai and similar terrorist acts, LeT is reasonably secure inside Pakistan and does not presently risk facing a showdown with security forces.  LeT remains a useful lever at the disposal of the army in the conflict with India; its social service network is popular with the public; and thus far it has eschewed generally siding with the TTP against the army and state.  LeT has been primarily engaged against India, but after the attacks in London and Mumbai, LeT’s aspirations of becoming a global-jihadist force have become both more apparent and more ominous.

Implications of this welcome book are that al Qaeda is not the only militant group along the Af-Pak line with the will and ability to strike outside the immediate region.  Destroying the al Qaeda leadership and organization, then, would lead to former al Qaeda fighters, bomb makers, and financial supporters dedicating their efforts to LeT and its like, thereby making the fight against global terrorism all the more difficult.

Further, ISI’s control over LeT is problematic – for ISI, Pakistan, and many parts of the world.  ISI must labor to direct LeT onto foreign targets lest its client group see Pakistan as unfaithful and a worthy target of LeT’s attention.  The crux of the problem lies less in the al Qaeda or LeT forces encamped along Af-Pak; it lies more with the Pakistani army and its declining ability to control the militant groups it has created and supported over the decades.


©2011 Brian M Downing