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Pakistani militants build web of Western recruits

Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed in the Mumbai attacks, has lured U.S.- and British-born youth for terrorist training.

December 08, 2008|Sebastian Rotella | Rotella is a Times staff writer.

LONDON — The Pakistani extremist group suspected in the Mumbai rampage remains a distant shadow for most Americans. But the threat is much nearer than it seems.

For years, Lashkar-e-Taiba has actively recruited Westerners, especially Britons and Americans, serving as a kind of farm team for Islamic militants who have gone on to execute attacks for Al Qaeda, a close ally. The Pakistani network makes its training camps accessible to English speakers, providing crucial skills to an increasingly young and Western-born generation of extremists.

Briton Aabid Khan was one of them. When British police arrested him at Manchester International Airport on his return from Pakistan in June 2006, they found a trove of terrorist propaganda and manuals on his laptop that the trial judge later described as "amongst the largest and most extensive ever discovered." The haul included maps and videos of potential targets in New York City and Washington.

One video, shot deep in Pakistani extremist turf, shows the then-21-year-old Khan with a grinning young man who says he's from Los Angeles -- a mysterious figure in a case that apparently illustrates Lashkar's dangerous reach.

In August, a court here sentenced Khan to 12 years in prison on charges of possession of articles for use in an act of terrorism and making records useful for terrorism.

As a hub of a cyber-constellation of extremist cells, the Briton organized training expeditions to Pakistan for his confederates, computer-obsessed youths who, whatever their mother tongue, communicated in the fractured English slang of the Internet and hatched plots against their homelands in the West, according to his trial and related prosecutions.

"These camps are ideal for people who speak English," said Evan Kohlmann, an independent U.S. investigator who was a paid consultant for the prosecution team in the Khan case and was integral to building the case against him.

"Newbie militants can make real contacts. They perceive that Lashkar-e-Taiba . . . are below the radar. They are less likely to attract negative attention. It's an easier ladder rung to reach. Lashkar is seen as a rung to get to Al Qaeda."

Lashkar's Western-oriented propaganda attracts converts such as David Hicks, an Australian whom the group trained, then provided with a letter of introduction to Al Qaeda in 2000. Hicks ended up meeting Osama bin Laden at an Afghan camp; he complained to Bin Laden about the lack of English-language terrorist manuals and translated such materials before his capture in late 2001, according to his admission in court.

Hicks was released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last year after pleading guilty to providing material support for terrorism.

Other Al Qaeda figures who "graduated" from Lashkar camps: the leader of the suicide bombers who killed 52 people in attacks on the London transport system in 2005, and a group convicted of preparing a 2004 truck bomb plot in London.


Early disaffection

Khan grew up in the large Pakistani immigrant community of the industrial city of Bradford. At age 12, he was already immersed in the rage and gore of extremist websites, according to trial evidence.

Khan helped form a global crew of several dozen young men who met on radical Islamic forums on the Internet. Most have since been arrested. They include two American college students in Atlanta now charged with terrorism, a Toronto man on trial on charges of plotting to attack the Canadian Parliament, and a Moroccan Al Qaeda computer expert convicted last year of ties to bomb plots in London, Copenhagen and Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. A defendant convicted along with Khan was 15 when they first met.

"Aabid Khan was very much the 'Mr Fix-it' of the group," said Karen Jones, a supervising prosecutor of the Crown Prosecution Service Counter Terrorism Division, in a news release after the August verdict. "He preyed on vulnerable young people and turned them into recruits to his cause, using Internet chat to lure them in, then incite them to fight. He arranged their passage to Pakistan for terrorism training, and talked about a 'worldwide battle.' "

The group spent untold hours spewing hate. "You dont know how much fury i have towards these american dogs," Khan wrote in an online chat, according to court records.

In 2005, Khan began organizing travel to training camps run by Lashkar-e-Taiba and an allied group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, near the border of the disputed territory of Kashmir. It was easier and safer to connect with the Pakistani groups than the secretive compounds of Al Qaeda's Arabic-speaking operatives.

Although Lashkar was officially banned in 2002, Khan's crew was convinced that Pakistani authorities tolerated its anti-India guerrilla campaign and permitted its camps, schools and offices to function, according to trial evidence.

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