The South Asia Channel

Lashkar-e-Taiba’s American connections

Last Friday agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jubair Ahmad, a 24 year-old Pakistani immigrant living in Woodbridge, Virginia. He has been charged with "providing material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT]," specifically producing and uploading a propaganda video to YouTube, allegedly at the direction of Talha Saeed, son of the group’s founder Hafiz ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Jubair Ahmad, a 24 year-old Pakistani immigrant living in Woodbridge, Virginia. He has been charged with "providing material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT]," specifically producing and uploading a propaganda video to YouTube, allegedly at the direction of Talha Saeed, son of the group’s founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. According to an affidavit, Ahmed received "religious training" from LeT as a teenager, and later attended its "basic training camp" while living in Pakistan, before entering the U.S. in 2007 with other members of his family. The religious training to which the affidavit refers is likely the Daura-e-Suffa, a three-week program focused on teaching the principles of LeT’s interpretation of Ahl-e-Hadith Islam, converting those from other sects to this school of thought. Its basic or general training also lasts three weeks, and is known as the Daura-a-Amma. This latter program involves additional indoctrination, physical training and minimal instruction in the use of light weapons.

One of the questions that vexes U.S. policy makers and security practitioners with regards to LeT concerns what level of training constitutes "membership," as it pertains to real command-and-control. Others include how many more people living in America have trained with LeT at some level, and the type of a threat they pose. It is unclear at this stage whether Ahmad’s arrest will help to answer these questions – indeed, we do not even know if he is guilty of any crime, or what the nature of his relationship, if any, with the group was – but it is helpful to contextualize his arrest within the historical record of LeT’s involvement with citizens and residents of the United States.

The first Americans known to have trained with LeT were also from Virginia. Indeed, they were part of a coterie of would-be jihadists that ultimately became known as the Virginia Jihad Network, who gained notoriety because of their practice of preparing for jihad by playing paintball. Three men from this group trained with LeT prior to 9/11. Saifullah Chapman, the last of the three, was actually in the group’s camps on 9/11, where he reported there was much celebration following the attacks and which he immediately left to return to the United States.

By the time Chapman arrived back home, additional members of the Virginia Jihad Network had already decided to train with LeT in preparation for defending Afghanistan against the expected American invasion. Another five of them made the trip, but none ever reached the Afghan battleground. Nor did they train for very long with LeT, which appears to have had no intention of dispatching them to an open front. Instead, Sajid Mir, who was in charge of transnational operatives and who is believed to have overseen the planning and execution of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, arranged for several of them to serve with the group in a support capacity. Three of the Virginia trainees provided assistance to Mohammed Ajmal Khan, a British operative, who traveled to the U.S. on multiple occasions from 2002-2003 to procure military gear for the group.

Although the men from Virginia clearly were used in a support capacity, one concern about such networks is that their purpose can change over time. Indeed, Sajid Mir (known to the men as Abu Baraa) also asked two of the trainees to undertake missions involving information gathering as well as the dissemination of propaganda. One of them told the FBI in 2004 that he was asked specifically to perform surveillance on a chemical plant in Maryland. Precisely what LeT or elements within it planned to do with this information is unknown, though they clearly were interested in both surveillance and expanding its networks in the U.S.

LeT is believed to have trained other Americans since then, none more famous than Daood Gilani, who took the name David Coleman Headley in 2006 to help facilitate his reconnaissance trips in Mumbai and elsewhere for the group. Born to a Pakistani father and American mother, Headley grew up in Pakistan and moved to the U.S. when he was seventeen. During his visits back to Pakistan he sometimes visited the mosque at Jamiat al-Qadsia, LeT’s headquarters, to offer prayers. On one occasion he saw an LeT poster soliciting money for the jihad against India, and phoned a number given for the group’s office in Model Town, Lahore. Two people came to his home to collect money and asked him to attend a lecture Hafiz Saeed was giving. He agreed, and after attending another event in February 2002 decided to join LeT, participating in the Daura-e-Suffa that month. In August 2002 he went through the Daura-e-Aama and then in April 2003 the Daura-e-Khasa, LeT’s three-month guerrilla warfare training program. More specialized trainings followed, and in 2006 he began his most important assignment, reconnaissance in India that ultimately led to the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Both cases reveal important similarities and differences worth noting as the case against Jubair Ahmed unfolds. To begin with, this is the first instance in which Sajid Mir does not appear to have been the primary handler for a transnational operative, though it is possible his name could surface as the investigation continues. According to U.S. security officials, Mir has not been arrested in Pakistan as a result of his involvement in the Mumbai attacks, but the security services there have restricted his movements. Whether Talha has been tapped to assume some of Sajid Mir’s liaison responsibilities or he decided to do so unilaterally is unclear. Given the nature of the alleged task and the fact that Jubair grew up in Pakistan, it is possible that he and Talha had a personal relationship.

Secondly, although LeT undoubtedly has contributed to the jihad against America, including killing U.S. citizens in Mumbai in 2008 and deploying fighters to Afghanistan, it has not attempted to use its U.S.-based operatives to strike the homeland. Indeed, there is no evidence the group has ever attempted an attack against America, despite access to some of its citizens and residents. This likely owes to the fact that LeT’s leaders are still "tamed by the ISI," to quote one of the group’s former members, referring to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate – a relationship that limits their military adventurism. Indeed, Pakistan’s security services are believed to be putting pressure the group to refrain from striking Western interests abroad. Unless the Pakistani security establishment wants a showdown with the United States, this is unlikely to change. However, one concern is that factions within the group could attempt to use their personal connections to operatives abroad to abet an attack. Another is that LeT continues to be viewed as a gateway to other organizations, and the fear persists that those indoctrinated by it could migrate to other outfits like al-Qaeda.

The group’s leaders are concerned about this too. During an interview in Pakistan last month, several of its senior officials admitted to me that they are fighting a rear-guard battle to hold onto members who are being lured away by al-Qaeda. The main point of contention revolves around LeT’s close relationship with the Pakistani security establishment, and its unwillingness to wage jihad against the Pakistani state. However, they claim the group’s commitment to the global jihad has also been questioned. Thus, it is notable that many of the videos LeT has posted to YouTube, including the one Ahmad allegedly worked on, contained content explicitly focused on jihad against America.

Like the Pakistani security establishment, LeT has played its own double game since 9/11. One the one hand, the group contributes to the jihad against the U.S. and its allies, as well as rhetorically promoting that cause. On the other, LeT leaders continue to prioritize India, remain influenced by the security establishment, and appear unwilling to use all the tools at their disposal to strike America. This is a sophisticated balancing act, but one that can create confusion or tensions within the organization. Hence when considering the threat from LeT’s transnational networks, security officials and practitioners alike must be aware of the group’s current nuanced approach, as well as the fact that this approach could shift or lead to widening fissures within the group.

Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of the recently published book, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Stephen Tankel is an associate professor at American University, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a former senior advisor at the U.S. Defense Department. @StephenTankel

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