WASHINGTON — The commando-style siege in Mumbai last month, blamed on Lashkar-e-Taiba, is raising new concerns in the U.S. intelligence community, both about the tactics used and the unsettling possibility the operation was conducted independent of al-Qaida.
That could mean there is a new global terrorist organization to combat, requiring the resources and attention now focused on combatting Osama bin Laden's organization.
"People are looking closely at whether (Lashkar) is trying deliberately to raise its profile vis-a-vis other terrorist organizations and/or its geographic footprint," a U.S. counterterrorism official said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss this intelligence on the record.
Lashkar-e-Taiba is a militant Islamic group — based in Kashmir and banned in Pakistan — that has been blamed by India and U.S. National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell as the likely perpetrator of the Mumbai attack.
While the assessments aren't finished, U.S. counterterrorism officials assume the Mumbai attack heralds a change in Lashkar-e-Taiba's agenda, expanding its targets from Kashmir and India to include American, Israeli and Western interests.
It is still unclear whether al-Qaida played a role in planning, supplying or timing the attack, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The groups are loosely allied. Lashkar signed on to bin Laden's Islamic Front for Jihad against America and Israel in 1998. Since the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Lashkar fighters have been detected among militants in combat against American forces.
Senior intelligence officials discount the theory that the Mumbai attack was meant to shift Pakistan's attention back to Kashmir and away from its military campaign against al-Qaida and Taliban targets in the tribal areas. The Mumbai attack was planned for more than a year, they say, but Pakistan's offensive began just months ago.
If al-Qaida did not play a direct role, it is possible Lashkar was trying to impress al-Qaida, auditioning to become an official franchise of the organization. That would raise Lashkar's global profile; the benefit to al-Qaida would be the spread of its jihadist brand.
A third possibility is Lashkar acted on the same extremist philosophy that guides al-Qaida, but carried out its attack independently. That would mean Western intelligence agencies now have to be concerned with two groups capable of spectacular international terrorist attacks, said Bilal Saab, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Counterinsurgency expert Anit Mukherjee said al-Qaida's involvement would force the United States to broaden operations in Pakistan to target Lashkar and Jaysh-e-Muhammed, another Kashmiri extremist group that he said conducted an attack with Lashkar on the Indian parliament in December 2001. "American officials didn't want to take on (those) terrorist organizations," Mukherjee, a former Indian army officer, told The Associated Press.
Traditionally limited to Kashmir, Lashkar's operations in the last seven years have included spectacular attacks in India, including the 2006 Mumbai train attack that killed around 200, according to Indian and U.S. intelligence officials. It popped onto American screens after the Afghan invasion because of its close relationship with the Taliban. It was put on the U.S. terrorist organization list in December 2001. Pakistan formally banned it in 2002.
However, Lashkar maintains some 2,200 offices across Pakistan for recruitment, fundraising and social services, according to a U.S. intelligence report obtained by The Associated Press. It is estimated to have up to several thousand members, almost exclusively Pakistanis from outside Kashmir.
If al-Qaida is not directly implicated, the United States could continue to view Lashkar as a regional threat to be dealt with by India and Pakistan, Mukherjee said.
"If officials make that distinction, it is shortsighted," he said. "Lashkar and al-Qaida share the same ideology."
A U.S. intelligence official said the focus on determining al-Qaida's role, if any, distracts from the central problem: armed groups with extremist ideologies who have safe havens from which to launch attacks. The intelligence official spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
No matter who planned it, Saab, the Brookings analyst, believes the commando tactics used by the 10 gunmen in Mumbai were meant to make an international splash.
The attackers carried at least 60 pounds of weapons each, including 20 grenades, six loaded magazines and AK-47s, according to retired Indian Vice Admiral Premvir Das, who spoke in Washington on Tuesday. They approached Mumbai in a small rubber dinghy in high seas, navigating five miles in the dark. The attack lasted three days.
Das said that suggests intensive coaching by either former or current Pakistani intelligence or military trainers.
Suicide bombings could have killed as many people, but Saab believes the attackers were aiming for a lengthy operation that would draw the eyes of the world. U.S. counterterrorism officials agree.
"The classical objective of terrorism is to make everyone watch," Saab said.
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