A little less than a decade after the brazen terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008, the terrorist group responsible for the mayhem and death of about 170 people, Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT), continues to thrive in Pakistan, with the active patronage of the establishment, specially Pakistan Army. With the ISIS on rapid decline and on the run, and al Qaeda merely a faint shadow of its past, LeT is undoubtedly the most dangerous terrorist group in the world.
Although there has been no shortage of pledges, promises and even some talk of sanctions, the fact that LeT and all its top leaders continue to thrive in Pakistan tells a story of a colossal failure on the part of the international community, despite a continuing `war on terror` in many countries and regions around the world. The terrorist group’s head, Hafiz Saeed, should either have been part of history or incarcerated in some deep dungeon of a prison. But he remains a free man today. Not only that, he enjoys state security, state funding and runs a political party which has all the chances of becoming a key player in the forthcoming elections in Pakistan.
There seems to be a collective amnesia about LeT and Hafiz Saeed, and Pakistan, in the world capitals. While the US is preoccupied between Iran and North Korea, and other western countries caught in divisive politics, terrorist groups like LeT have flourished unaffected. Their leaders have found the world’s preoccupation with new distractions a good way to build their organisation, deepen their involvement in the society and broader their influence. The possibility of Hafiz Saeed becoming the head of state is not an impossibility today.
Reams have been written about the terrorist group, its dangerous agenda, its capability and the patronage it enjoys from the state. Experts have also devised, at least on paper, plans to dismantle and destroy the group and its leadership. But the fact that none of these has happened even nine years after the Mumbai attack tell a story of abject failure. Not that the world could not have dismantled the terrorist outfit and destroyed its leadership. Far more bigger, organised outfits like LTTE have been destroyed by much smaller countries like Sri Lanka.
The problem in the case of LeT is different from that of LTTE. It is the LeT’s pernicious roots in the state. LeT and its cadre are like armed thugs for the state, a highly mobile but deniable army of trained cadres. Over the years, since the Afghan Jihad, LeT has become a anonymous Division of Pakistan Army, deployable on the borders as first line of offence against the adversary India or used within the country to suppress dissent and rebellion.
Despite knowing this incestuous relationship, the international community, in its war on terror, has treated LeT separate from the state, in particular the Pakistan Army. This has been the singular flaw in the plan to eliminate LeT. This is also the reason why LeT has remained intact while all other terrorist groups in the world have suffered heavy attrition since the September 2001 attack. While every single terrorist group, which posed varying degrees of danger to the world, has lost its moorings, LeT has, on the other hand, deepened its hold and expanded its infrastructure and influence in its host country, Pakistan.
Needless to say, Pakistan has never viewed LeT as a terrorist country but has been forced to acknowledge, that too rarely and grudgingly, that it could be one. Hence, every time there is a pressure on Pakistan to `do something` about Hafiz Saeed and his group, Pakistan finds it convenient to create some excuse to save Saeed and his men. This is done by creating a weak case against the terrorist leader, browbeat judges or find malleable ones to set Saeed free even when a case comes up for hearing in the courts. This has been going on for decades now that there is no expectation of a trial or prosecution whenever there is a talk of filing a case against Saeed or his terrorist group.
As a result, while countries like the US have often proscribed the group, its affiliates and associated groups, along with their leaders, Pakistan has always managed to hoodwink the world through its double talk and lame excuses. At the most, Pakistan has grudgingly admitted to putting LeT on `watch`, which means nothing in legal terms. Even after the international anti-terrorist financing body, FATF, has put Pakistan on watch list and has asked it to comply with its promises, which includes cutting of the financial pipeline of LeT, Pakistan is currently busy finding excuses to dodge any possible sanction or threat of a sanction at the June meeting.
Even if Pakistan were to be put on a `gray list`, as experts believe, there would be no visible impact on Hafiz Saeed or his terrorist group. It would find willing allies like China, and even the US, to come to its rescue on some flimsy pretext.
The most effective way to deal with LeT would be to treat both the terrorist group and its patron, the state of Pakistan, as one entity. Or at least a connected entity. So if LeT has to be dismantled, and Hafiz Saeed sent to the gallows, there is no point in simply proscribing the group or its leader, Pakistan must be punished, visibly and severely, for not following international directives and its own promises to the UN and other international bodies. For example, Pakistan is capable of, if not willing, shutting the financial pipeline of terrorist groups like LeT. It needs to told firmly that the deadline for doing so is long over, and failure would attract heavy penalty.
The alternative scenario otherwise is highly destabilising, and dangerous. Going by some of the recent accounts of the terrorist group’s activities, LeT is actively recruiting and training newer cadres for future terrorist attacks, it has expanded its social media presence and is now capable of creating its own messengers and chat rooms and malicious codes. The shadow of LeT’s threat is only looming larger, and the world must renew its effort to put an end to the world’s most dangerous terrorist group.