In March 2009, President Obama said that America’s “clear and focused goal” in the region was not simply to kill Osama bin Laden, but “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and prevent their return to either country in the future.” But what is al-Qaeda? This is a question that has been asked in one form or another since 9/11. But in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, when the media has promoted facile assurances that the terror organization was killed along with its visible public face, it has taken on a new urgency. Some, like Bruce Hoffman, have argued that bin Laden’s close circle continues to pose the main global threat, while “decentralization” theorists like Marc Sageman state that the main threat no longer comes from a cohesive organization but from local, “homegrown” groups.
In a sense, both are true. In his seminal work on suicide terrorism, Robert Pape writes that “Al Qaeda is less a transnational network of like-minded ideologues . . . than a cross-national military alliance of national liberation movements working together against what they see as a common imperial threat.”
In other words, al-Qaeda was the glue that binds local Islamist insurgent groups around the world to one another, giving each access to a global pool of ideas and resources. The ties between local movements—GSPC of Algeria (now known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Hizbul Shabaab of Somalia, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Taliban in Af/Pak, even “homegrown cells” in the West—give access to ideas, weapons, support, and power to each in their respective areas of operation; these links between the locals aggregate to produce what we think of as a “global” movement.
But after 2001, the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden and his “Afghan Arabs” lost its physical stronghold, Afghanistan-based infrastructure, and much of its operational strength. A year before Abbottabad, Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker that bin Laden and his deputy were “hunkered down . . . surrounded by only about two hundred hard-core followers. Their adherents in Yemen and Africa number no more than a few thousand . . . Relations with the Taliban seem brittle. Unlike Hezbollah, Al Qaeda provides no social services and thus has built no [concrete] political movement.” Computers recovered from bin Laden’s compound suggest that its members, far from spending their time planning major attacks, “have primarily been engaged in dodging drone strikes and complaining about how cash-strapped they are,” according to political scientist John Mueller. Even as bin Laden’s death is hailed as an important symbolic event, evidence suggests that al-Qaeda has lost most of its resources and connective capacity, leaving it as the mere figurehead of the militant “movement.”
What comes next? The history of the organization offers an answer. From 1984, the Maktab al-Khidamat—or “Office of Services,” the precursor to al-Qaeda—initially focused on Afghanistan and, after consolidating a substantial presence there, became al-Qaeda in 1988. Embracing a global vision, this self-defined “vanguard” of the Islamic movement used its Afghan (and for a time, Sudanese) base to train, connect, and equip fighters from Islamist nationalist groups around the world. Today, while American sensors focus on the Hindu Kush Mountains, there is a group to the south, in Pakistani Punjab, following a similar local-to-global pattern: the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
The group, whose name means “Army of the Pure,” was established in 1990 by Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, fighters in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. Saeed, LeT’s leader, was born in 1950 to a Punjabi family that had lost dozens of members on its journey to Pakistan in the wake of the 1947 partition. Carrying that deep grievance with him, Saeed was appointed to General Zia ul-Haq’s Council on Islamic Ideology and taught Islamic studies at Lahore’s University of Engineering and Technology in the early 1980s. He then went to Saudi Arabia for higher studies, where he met Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor, who encouraged Saeed to start the forerunner to LeT, the Markaz Dawa-wa’l-Irshad (the Center for Call and Guidance).
The group focused predominantly on one region, Kashmir, abetting and, by the late 1990s, commandeering the insurgency there. Since then, Saeed has expanded the group’s operations in scale and geographic reach to include attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir, logistics support to fighters in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, assisting assassination attempts on Pakistani officials, bombings in urban Pakistan and Afghanistan, and contracting its bombing campaign in mainland India to locals like the “Indian Mujahideen,” an extension of Dawood Ibrahim’s organized crime network. Lashkar-e-Taiba’s crowning achievement, of course, was the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, involving a dozen coordinated shooting and bombing attacks and the deaths of 164 people.
LeT has replaced Jamaat-e-Islami, the original “Vanguard of the Islamic Revoluton,” as the center of political Islamism in Pakistan; with its stated aim of liberating Kashmir from Indian rule, LeT has received the greatest support from the Pakistani military in recent years. Political leaders such as former President Pervez Musharraf have given mixed signals, sometimes banning the group, sometimes denying having done so. In fact, LeT is the only militant group in Pakistan to have unequivocally increased in strength and reach after 9/11.
Already funded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, and elements of the Pakistani Diaspora, LeT’s overground “charity,” the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), was able to raise enough money for relief from the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir to become financially independent of the Pakistani state.
Global scrutiny after the 11/26 Mumbai attacks pressured the ISI to make Lashkar put its violent activities on temporary hold. But JuD (which after 2009 went by the name Tehreek-e-Tahaffuz Qibla Awal) has used the intervening time to build up a vast social services infrastructure that has solidified a broader Islamist movement throughout much of Pakistan. This movement recruits not only impoverished youth but highly skilled professionals. According to the Strategic Foresight Group, as early as 2005 LeT’s assets included a 190-acre campus in Muridke, outside of Lahore, complete with “500 offices, 2200 training camps, 150 schools, 2 science colleges, 3 hospitals, 34 dispensaries, 11 ambulance services, a publishing empire, garment factory, iron foundry, and woodworks factories. It had more than 300,000 cadres at its disposal and paid salaries to their top-bracket functionaries that were 12-15 times greater than similar jobs in the civilian sector.”
Globally, Lashkar trainees have fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, and elsewhere in Central Asia, while fighters from Bosnia, the Philippines, Somalia, numerous Arab countries, and even the United States and Europe have trained in LeT camps. LeT itself has cells in countries around the world—including India, Spain, Bangladesh, and Australia—and liaises with groups from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Even “homegrown” threats in the West like David Headley, Faisal Shahzad, the Falls Church “Virginia jihad network,” and UK terror cells bore a Lashkar stamp.
Following the al-Qaeda example, LeT is a central hub in the vast network of militant groups that abound in Pakistan. It trains, assists, and facilitates communications between organizations like Hizbul-Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) in Kashmir, Harakat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami (HuJI) in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Included in LeT’s network are multinational organized crime syndicates like D-Company, the ISI and Pakistani Army, and of course, foreign militants like al-Qaeda itself.
Initially al-Qaeda and other groups simply used LeT’s operational infrastructure—training camps, recruitment mechanisms, and media platforms—while maintaining strategic independence. But LeT has developed a sophisticated central-planning structure that has allowed it to move out on its own. LeT’s global presence is expanding along with its ambitions. The 2008 Mumbai attacks were among the first in South Asia to target not only Westerners, but Israeli Jews, linking South Asian political Islamism to the global, anti-Zionist narrative. Counterinsurgency expert Andrew Exum argues that the world’s most dangerous organization is “the terrorist whose actions precipitate a war between India and Pakistan”—a profile that Lashkar could easily meet.
Operating freely, globally, and with a large infrastructure and support base, Lashkar-e-Taiba is in many ways becoming the new regional leader of the global Islamist movement created by al-Qaeda. In an age of globalization, the ability to connect micro-level activities to macro-level trends is a key source of power. It is this ability that gave al-Qaeda its strength in 2001, and it is this potential that is empowering Lashkar today.
Learning from the fate of the more hierarchical, bin Laden-commanded-and-controlled organization of ten years ago, groups such as Lashkar today have found that establishing networks of networks is the most efficient way to manage resources, carry out attacks, and remain resilient thereafter. Lashkar’s global contacts will enable it to direct confederations of militants in attacks throughout South Asia, Europe, or the United States, without compromising itself.
But despite Lashkar’s increasingly ominous profile, in its narrow search for al-Qaeda, the United States has long overlooked LeT, its local like-minded affiliates, and the Pakistani state agencies that have long supported it. Correcting this tunnel vision cannot involve the same sledgehammer approach the US used against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11. This would not be possible in Pakistan, given Lashkar-e-Taiba’s broader sociopolitical entrenchment there, or even desirable, given the likelihood that under such pressure the group would splinter into multiple, less manageable factions.
Instead, given that the aggregation of its global links is the root of the threat posed by Lashkar, a sound medium-term operational strategy would be disaggregation. As the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen writes, “disaggregation focuses on denying the ability of regional and global actors to link and exploit local actors . . . and interdicting flows of information, personnel, finance and technology between and within theatres,” much as the Sunni Awakening did in Iraq. To these ends, the US should extend its quiet, apolitical vigilance of the last five years, which have seen an integration of local criminal justice work, foreign intelligence, military action, public diplomacy, and civil society into the agile network that helped weaken al-Qaeda’s organization and message.
But to act on the goals Kilcullen believes are crucial—“denying sanctuary areas; isolating Islamists from local populations; disrupting personnel, money, and information flows [to and from Islamists across the region]; and ameliorating local conflicts that create the grievances on which jihadist systems prey”—Washington must think longer-term. It needs to understand that its security-centric engagement with Pakistan only bolsters the military economy that is a godsend to groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, and work to redefine the terms of engagement. The relationship should move from a fickle, transactional one based on short-term security needs to one that encourages genuine and sustainable growth, by economically reconnecting Pakistan to the rest of the region.
Neil Padukone is a strategic affairs analyst and author of Security in a Complex Era. He is currently writing a book on the future of conflict in South Asia.