LAHORE, PAKISTAN — Although the war against Islamic militancy has focused on shadowy underground organizations such as Al Qaeda, counter-terrorism officials say there is a growing worldwide threat from an extremist group operating in plain sight in Pakistan.
The group, formerly known as Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Righteous, was formed in the late 1980s and, with the support of the Pakistani government, launched attacks against India in the dispute over the Kashmir region.
In recent years, the camps that Lashkar once used primarily to train Pakistanis to fight for Kashmir have increasingly become a training ground for other militant groups and extremists who come from around the world to learn guerrilla warfare, according to current and former U.S. and allied counter-terrorism officials.
And as its ranks have swelled along with anti-U.S. sentiment, they say, there is evidence that the group is working more closely with Al Qaeda and other extremist groups and may be getting more directly involved in militant activities against the West. Counter-terrorism officials cite evidence in recent years of fundraising or recruiting efforts in Canada, Britain, Australia and the United States. Inquiries are ongoing in Massachusetts and Lodi, Calif.
Lashkar-e-Taiba was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in December 2001 and was soon outlawed by Pakistan. It disbanded, but its founders created another group named Jamaat ud-Dawa, which functions openly in Pakistan as an officially recognized humanitarian organization.
U.S. authorities consider it one and the same as Lashkar-e-Taiba and say it has continued to operate camps that train militants. The Treasury Department designated Jamaat ud-Dawa as a terrorist organization in April 2006, saying, "LET renamed itself JUD in order to evade sanctions. The same leaders that form the core of LET remain in charge of JUD."
U.S. counter-terrorism officials say the group's status as a legal organization in Pakistan makes it difficult to target the group. It has thousands of loyal supporters and close ties to a government that has done little to rein it in, they say, a factor that has been a source of tension between the United States and Pakistan.
"The U.S. government . . . has voiced its concerns" about Jamaat ud-Dawa to the government in Islamabad, said Daniel Markey, who oversaw South Asia policy for the State Department until February. U.S. officials have expressed the view that "the Pakistan government cannot sit by while Islamic extremists continued to win converts and press their agenda," he said.
Pakistani officials said that Jamaat ud-Dawa is "under watch," but that the group is legal and separate from Lashkar-e-Taiba, which they insist has been shut down.
Representatives of Jamaat ud-Dawa say they are running a legitimate charity, citing the group's campaign to help Pakistanis recover from a massive earthquake in 2005 and its efforts to provide social services, food, water, medical care and education. Lashkar-e-Taiba, they say, no longer exists.
Jamaat ud-Dawa spokesman Abdullah Muntazir said the organization does not participate in any militant activities or run military training camps.
"No political party in Pakistan has as many offices as Jamaat-ud-Dawa," Muntazir said. "So how can the government of Pakistan ban a group that has such deep roots throughout Pakistan society?"
U.S. officials say that Pakistan has closed down some of the training camps, but that the camps pop up again elsewhere in secret locations along the borders with India and Afghanistan. They say leaders of the group have been detained at times by Pakistan, but only temporarily.
A major concern for U.S. officials now is that the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, contending with its own crises, does not have the ability to control the group.
"It has gradually grown and morphed over recent years from something that was directed and manipulated by the Pakistan military establishment into something more grass-roots, more independent and more dangerous -- and more closely tied to terrorist groups with global reach," Markey said.
Lashkar-e-Taiba was founded around 1989 by a college professor named Hafiz Mohammed Saeed to help fight the occupying Soviet army in Afghanistan. The Soviets soon pulled out, and Lashkar turned to fighting for Muslims in Kashmir against Pakistan's predominantly Hindu neighbor, India.
Over the years, Lashkar has claimed responsibility or been blamed for dozens of deadly attacks on Indian forces and civilians, including a 2001 strike on its Parliament that brought the two countries to the brink of war.
U.S. and European authorities believe that throughout the 1990s the group branched out and established close ties with more than a dozen Islamic militant groups in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and areas of the former Soviet Union.