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U.S. sharpens focus on Lashkar-e-Taiba

The group blamed in the Mumbai attacks may be broadening its aims, perhaps to even succeed Al Qaeda.

December 10, 2008|Greg Miller | Miller is a writer in our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — The terrorist attacks in Mumbai may mark a new focus on Western targets by the group widely thought responsible for the plot, prompting concern among U.S. intelligence officials that Lashkar-e-Taiba is emerging both as a more potent threat to American interests and as a potential successor to Al Qaeda.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials said the attacks had triggered a reexamination by CIA analysts of the Pakistani group's potential to follow the strikes last month in Mumbai with a long-term campaign against Western targets.

"We have seen a potential broadening" of Lashkar-e-Taiba's ambitions, said a senior U.S. intelligence official. "By taking a page out of Al Qaeda's playbook, it exalts itself as a movement."

The Indian government and Western intelligence officials have cast strong suspicion on Lashkar-e-Taiba and an affiliated group called Jamaat ud-Dawa, a self-described charitable and educational organization, in relation to the Mumbai violence.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, which translates roughly to "Army of the Pure," has long worked with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and sent operatives to fight alongside insurgents battling U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said.

"What you're looking at in Mumbai is something that they themselves did, beginning to end," a senior U.S. counter- terrorism official said. "And to me that's a very different thing."

U.S. intelligence and counter- terrorism officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the subject.

The choreographed assault on India's financial capital left more than 170 people dead, the vast majority of them Indian. But the gunmen also killed at least six U.S. citizens, and seemed particularly focused on Western targets.

The attackers opened fire on a cafe frequented by tourists and seized the headquarters of a Jewish outreach organization, where six Jews were killed during two days of terror.

The gunmen also swept into luxury hotels favored by foreigners, the Oberoi and the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, shooting diners and setting fires as they held off elite Indian troops. Several witnesses said that the gunmen checked the passports of trapped guests, separating American and British tourists from the others.

No specific warning

U.S. intelligence officials downplayed earlier reports that there were specific warnings shared with India before the attacks. Indeed, the CIA's deputy director of operations, Michael Sulick, was in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on the day of the strikes, a trip arranged not out of concern for a potential attack but as part of a Thanksgiving visit designed to boost morale among CIA case officers in the region.

Asked whether there had been serious warnings, the senior U.S. intelligence official said, "I certainly didn't go into the holidays thinking something was going to happen in Mumbai, that's for sure."

U.S. intelligence officials said the targeting of Westerners may have been designed to impress Al Qaeda or even show that Lashkar has ambitions of becoming its equal or even supplanting Al Qaeda if Osama bin Laden's network should falter.

"Lashkar's choice of targets, and the way they treated targets once they were inside -- it's the sort of thing that might increase the standing this group would have in the eyes of Al Qaeda," the U.S. counter- terrorism official said.

Lashkar was created in the late 1980s with the help of Pakistan's intelligence service, primarily as a proxy force for fighting India in the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir. But Lashkar has expressed animosity toward the West in its propaganda for nearly a decade.

As far back as 1999, Lashkar's website carried a logo with three flags -- those of India, the United States and Israel -- pierced by a sword dripping with blood.

In recent years, counter- terrorism officials have become increasingly concerned about Lashkar's efforts to recruit Westerners, including Britons and Americans. Operatives who attended its camps have been linked to a series of plots, including an alleged 2006 scheme disrupted by British authorities to blow up U.S. airliners over the Atlantic.

The group is known for functioning as something of a training ground for operatives who move on to other organizations and for carrying out internally planned attacks that demonstrate a high level of military sophistication.

The gunmen in Mumbai used automatic weapons and grenades to subdue targets and employed diversionary tactics to confuse Indian commandos. They carried GPS units and satellite phones, which investigators say they used to communicate with commanders in Pakistan.

Expecting to die

Though the attackers were not Al Qaeda-style suicide bombers, officials said, they went into the operation expecting to die. Indian authorities captured only one suspected gunman, a Pakistani who is said to have provided details on the assailants' Lashkar training.

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