The South Asia Channel

Lashkar-e-Taiba, Mumbai, and the ISI

Jury selection concluded this week in the trial of Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Pakistani-born Chicago resident accused of providing support to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, carried out by the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Below is an excerpt from Stephen Tankel’s recently published New America Foundation paper, "Lashkar-e-Taiba: Past Operations and Future Prospects." Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) ...


Jury selection concluded this week in the trial of Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Pakistani-born Chicago resident accused of providing support to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, carried out by the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Below is an excerpt from Stephen Tankel’s recently published New America Foundation paper, "Lashkar-e-Taiba: Past Operations and Future Prospects."

Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) had been gathering surveillance material for an attack against the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai since 2006. Initial plans called for one or two fidayeen to storm an annual software conference held there and then to flee the country. According to David Headley, the Pakistani-American operative originally named Daood Gilani who conducted surveillance for the 2008 attacks, the surging jihad in Afghanistan, and eruption of violence in the Tribal Areas led to fierce ideological debates among militant outfits regarding where to focus their violence. Headley described how the aggression and commitment of those fighting in Afghanistan influenced some fighters to leave Kashmir-centric groups like LeT, which he believed contributed to LeT’s decision to "consider a spectacular terrorist strike in India." Who initially floated the idea of upping the ante is uncertain, but between early 2008 and the summer of that year the planned one- or two-person operation expanded into a 10-person assault against multiple targets.  Several of those targets were added as late as the summer — a month before the attacks were originally scheduled to occur. One of them was the Chabad House, chosen because of the credibility that would come from killing Israeli and American Jews, the most common visitors.

According to Headley, every major LeT operative had an Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) handler and all of the group’s major operations were conducted in coordination with these officers. His hander was allegedly one Maj. Iqbal, who Headley said provided approximately $25,000 for surveillance trips to India and, Headley believes, additional funding for a boat that sank during an aborted attempt to strike Mumbai in September 2008. Headley told investigators that Iqbal was aware of the decision to pursue a maritime insertion, taken by the LeT leadership after the operation expanded to a 10-person assault, and contemplated using it as an opportunity to smuggle weapons into India as well. Headley also asserted that a man whom he understood to be from the Pakistani navy helped to plan the maritime insertion, instructing him to explore the position of naval vessels and possible landing sites during subsequent surveillance trips. Finally, he stated that his handler was aware of the targets chosen and of the LeT’s leadership need to keep their jihadist credibility in order to retain control over elements within the organization.

If Headley is to be believed and every major LeT member had an ISI handler, then it is reasonable to assume others in the ISI were also aware of the operational details given that a number of the group’s senior leaders were involved in planning the attacks. Security officials familiar with the case say they believe a small coterie of serving and retired officers played a role in or had knowledge of the attacks, though that knowledge may not have been uniform. Indeed, Headley told investigators that the director general of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, visited Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi in prison in the aftermath of Mumbai to understand how it evolved into a terrorist spectacular. Pasha had become director general in late September and this visit, as Headley describes it, suggests the new ISI leadership was out of the loop, at least with regard to the scope of the plot. Lashkar’s handlers may not have passed information all the way up the chain of command, or the change in command at ISI may have disrupted communications. In either case, LeT was allowed to operate openly, and its ability to execute the Mumbai attacks owed partly to the state support the group continued to receive. Moreover, despite the outcry following Mumbai, Pakistan took no significant steps to degrade LeT’s military capabilities.

The Evolving Threat

Headley claims to have met with Sajid Mir, the LeT commander responsible for transnational operatives, a month before Mumbai to discuss a terrorist attack in Denmark. According to Headley, his ISI handler, Maj. Iqbal was also present. The three discussed launching an attack against Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper responsible for printing cartoons in 2005 that depicted the Prophet Mohammed. The two met again in early November, at which point Sajid gave Headley a computer memory stick containing information about Denmark as well as pictures of the editor and cartoonist at Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten. Sajid instructed him to conduct surveillance on the newspaper’s offices in Copenhagen and Aarhus, and provided 3,000 euros to cover his travel and expenses. Headley claims to have met with Sajid again in December before making his first reconnaissance trip, at which time Sajid directed him to survey a synagogue in Denmark in addition to the newspaper’s offices. Headley traveled to Denmark for the first time in January 2009, after which he returned to Pakistan and provided surveillance footage to Sajid.

Unbeknownst to his LeT handlers, Headley also had discussed the plot with a former member of the group, Abdur Rehman Syed. Syed had quit LeT because he perceived the leadership as too conservative and beholden to the ISI. In 2008 he floated his own outfit under the command of Ilyas Kashmiri, a former HuJI commander who was close to al-Qaeda’s leadership. Upon his return to Pakistan, Headley provided surveillance footage to Syed as well. Syed then took him to North Waziristan to meet Kashmiri, who claimed that he could provide the manpower for the operation and that therefore LeT’s participation was unnecessary. Headley asserts he did not tell Sajid about his meeting with Kashmiri, suggesting this was not a case of sharing resources. Rather, it appears Kashmiri was attempting to poach LeT’s operative and its operation. This became much easier when LeT postponed the operation as a result of heavy pressure from the ISI to lay low following the Mumbai attacks. In response, Headley began working closely with Kashmiri and through him with al-Qaeda to launch the attack. To this end, he traveled to the United Kingdom to meet with members of Kashmiri’s network, several of whom were under surveillance by the British security services. "David the American," as Headley was known, was now on their radar. U.S. authorities arrested Headley several months later at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on a flight bound for Pakistan via Philadelphia. They also arrested an alleged accomplice of Headley’s who also was based in Chicago and stands accused of providing him with logistical support for surveillance in Mumbai and Denmark.

That LeT’s leadership contemplated an attack against Denmark is significant, but so too is the fact that it remained susceptible to ISI pressure. However, Headley was able to find operational support for the Danish plot elsewhere because of the interconnectedness of jihadi networks in Pakistan by 2008. Finally, it is also important to note that not long after Sajid advised Headley of the need to postpone the Danish plot, he also communicated to him that conditions enabled moving forward on target surveillance in India. This suggests both that the ISI continued to allow attack planning against India (while attempting to rein in operations against the West) and that the group’s leaders remained preoccupied with striking targets there.

Stephen Tankel is a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the forthcoming book Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba (Hurst & Co. and Columbia University Press 2011).