Examining Extremism: Lashkar-e-Taiba
October 28, 2021
By Michelle Macander, Former Military Fellow
Lashkar-e-Taiba (LT) achieved global notoriety in November 2008 after orchestrating a series of bold attacks in Mumbai and laying siege to the city for over 60 hours. The strike, which killed 166 and wounded more than 300 people, hit India’s financial district and intentionally targeted Westerners, a Jewish cultural center, and symbols of India’s growing international clout. While the Mumbai attack gained LT an international reputation, the Salafi-jihadist group was active in South Asia for decades prior, predominantly targeting India. This piece outlines the history, ideology, organizational structure, and targets and tactics of LT. It provides a threat assessment that LT will remain committed to Pakistan’s annexation of Kashmir and is likely to pose a continuing threat to India and the region following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
LT, also known as “Army of the Righteous” or “Army of the Pure,” is a Sunni Muslim militant insurgent group based in Pakistan, whose primary aim is the liberation of Jammu and Kashmir from Indian control. LT has cultivated a reputation as a highly disciplined Salafi-jihadist organization, and it is one of the largest and most dominant groups focused on the disputed region of Kashmir. The group maintains a complicated relationship with its host country—while Pakistan has banned the group and its parent organizations, there is ample evidence that the state has used the group as a proxy against India since the mid-1990s.
LT is an offshoot of Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad (MDI), a Pakistan-based missionary and social welfare organization founded in the late 1980s to oppose the Soviet Union’s presence in Afghanistan. Following the Soviet withdrawal, MDI’s militant wing, LT, focused on the annexation of Kashmir into Pakistan through violent means. Indo-Pakistani tensions regarding Kashmir date to partition in 1947, and India has subsequently prevailed over its neighbor in three wars concentrated in the region. This conventional overmatch led Pakistan to avoid direct confrontation with India and support the covert use of Salafi-jihadist organizations such as LT. In the early 1990s, a partnership began between the group and Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This relationship provided the group significant financial and military training assistance that enabled it to serve as an important proxy for Pakistan.
LT supported jihad in the 1990s in Tajikistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but from its inception the group’s main front was Kashmir. It began attacks within the region in 1993, at first only targeting the Indian military but eventually expanding its attacks on Hindu and Sikh civilians in the area. In 1999, LT introduced fidayeen (suicide attacks) to Kashmir, focusing on Indian police and military, which garnered LT a reputation as an effective militant insurgent organization. In December 2000, LT targeted the Red Fort in Delhi, India, the first such fidayeen attack against Indian forces outside of Kashmir. LT reportedly executed a terrorist attack on India’s parliament in December of 2001 alongside Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), causing intense international pressure on Pakistan to reign in militant insurgent groups within its borders. The pressure resulted in Pakistan banning LT and MDI and arresting their leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. Saeed was released several months later, however, and MDI was rebranded as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a legitimate front organization for LT.
Following the public government crackdown, LT, under the umbrella of JuD, continued its operations against India. JuD remained legal due to its front as a social welfare organization and loyalty to Pakistan, whereas many Salfafi-jihadist groups—such as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—felt the country abandoned the Taliban after 9/11. LT continued to focus operations against Indian security forces, but in 2006 and 2008 the group was implicated in deadly attacks against civilian targets in Mumbai. The attack in 2008 resulted in the capture and confession of one LT operative, who subsequently shed light on LT’s operational planning, and Saeed was again placed under arrest. Pakistan’s overt critique of LT but tacit support to JuD continued until at least 2019, when a deadly suicide bombing in Kashmir by JeM led to another crackdown of militant insurgent groups within Pakistan. JuD was subsequently banned, and in 2020 Saeed was tried and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Despite these efforts, JuD and LT still operate openly within Pakistan.
LT followers are proponents of Ahl-e-Hadith (AeH) Islam, a South Asian form of Salafism. The group differs from other Pakistan-based Salafi-jihadist organizations, most notably by publicly renouncing sectarian violence against other Islamic sects. LT leaders also prohibit members from waging jihad against Muslim-controlled Pakistan, arguing that jihadi efforts should be focused on non-Muslims. This diverges from many Deobandi-jihadist groups that support an insurgency within Pakistan, such as TTP. Such ideological alignment with the Pakistani government has been a major contributing factor to LT’s continued survival.
Followers of AeH consider violent jihad to be an obligation for all Muslims so long as Muslim holy lands remain under the control of non-believers. Dawa, or nonviolent outreach and proselytization, is another significant component of AeH. Hafiz Saeed explained that “both [dawa and jihad] are equally important and inseparable.” LT’s parent organizations, MDI and JuD, justify their causes by focusing on dawa while LT concentrates on jihad. Pakistani state support enabled the groups to build mosques, madrassas, and hospitals for missionary outreach, allowing the group to proselytize and expand AeH Islam within the country.
The current size of LT is estimated at several thousand active members, primarily Pakistanis. The group, as well as its umbrella organization, JuD, is officially banned within Pakistan but remains active. Both groups have a hierarchical structure and are led by Saeed, the founder and emir, though he denies any links between the two organizations. Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi is LT’s operational commander and coordinated the 2008 Mumbai attacks. He was arrested shortly after the terrorist incident but was released on bail in 2015. In 2021 he was convicted of orchestrating the Mumbai attack and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mumbai’s mastermind, Sajid Mir, is still at large and wanted by the FBI.
Despite international pressure and Pakistani designation as terrorist groups, LT and JuD maintain facilities in the country, including training camps, schools, and medical clinics. The charitable front organization provided humanitarian relief following the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and the 2010 floods in Pakistan. Such efforts ensure JuD is seen as a social welfare organization by many Pakistanis, rather than a militant insurgent organization.
Funding for the group comes from a variety of sources. Saudi Arabian organizations are significant sponsors, along with other Middle East Islamic charities, while Pakistanis can donate to numerous JuD offices within the country. LT also receives support from the Pakistani government, often funneled through JuD schools and hospitals. There is also historical evidence of recruitment and funding coming from Western nations such as the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia.
Tactics and Targets
Violent attacks using small arms, explosives, and grenades are the hallmark of LT. The group also introduced fidayeen suicide attacks, where small groups of armed jihadists attack targets that are symbolically important to the Salafi-jihadist playbook in Kashmir. Until the mid-1990s, LT focused its attacks exclusively on Indian military and police but changed targets to include non-Muslim civilians in 1996. Attacks inside India began in 2000, when militants targeted the Red Fort, a symbolic location of the last Muslim rulers within India. More high-profile attacks, such as to the Indian parliament in 2001 as well as the 2006 and 2008 Mumbai attacks, provided the group notoriety but also increased international pressure on its host country to curtail militant insurgent activities. The 2008 Mumbai attack was notable for focusing on Western and Jewish targets, more in line with global jihadist aims than LT’s traditional Indian-focused targets. LT conducts its attacks, including on Mumbai, with the consent and support of at least some members of the ISI.
LT likely supports militant Islamist organizations within India, such as the Indian Mujahideen (IM), with money, training, and weapons. The Indian government believes that LT assisted the IM with surveillance and planning preceding a 2010 bombing of a German bakery in Pune, India. The group also has overlapping goals with other terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS), and LT training camps have hosted other militant groups. Additionally, LT’s successful siege in Mumbai has inspired other extremist groups, such as al Shabaab, to undertake similar “Mumbai-style” attacks against soft targets. However, divergent ideologies and the insular nature of LT limit extensive collaboration between the group and other Salafi-jihadist groups.
While LT focuses recruitment on Pakistani nationals, it also recruits internationally. Pakistani-Americans David Headley and Jubair Ahmed were both arrested for and pled guilty to supporting LT. Furthermore, 11 LT terrorists were indicted in Virginia in 2003. LT’s plans to attack Australia in 2003 and Denmark in 2009 were thwarted by authorities but are evidence of an increasing international focus from the group.
Besides expertise in military subjects such as explosives and reconnaissance, LT has displayed impressive capabilities regarding propaganda. It maintains newspapers and radio programs and has an active internet presence. Such efforts assist with both recruitment and funding.
LT is likely to continue its focus on Kashmir and serve as a proxy for the Pakistani government’s conflict over disputed territory with India. Pakistan’s use of the organization tends to correlate with Indo-Pakistani tensions, with LT attacks increasing in frequency when tensions between the two nations are high. During periods of reduced tensions, LT has historically focused its efforts elsewhere, such as neighboring Afghanistan in opposition to Western presence. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces in August, this “release valve” for the well-trained militant insurgents will no longer be available. This development, combined with Pakistani efforts to be removed from the Financial Action Task Force grey list, which cracks down on Salafi-jihadist groups, may lead to further misalignment between the state and LT. This raises the possibility that LT will increase violence in Kashmir regardless of direction from Pakistan.
Pakistan’s potential loss of control over LT is concerning as previous terrorist events have provoked strong responses from India. The attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 led to a five-month military standoff between India and Pakistan, raising concerns internationally over the possibility of a nuclear war. The Indian response toward Pakistan was more restrained following the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, but it is unlikely such a muted response will be repeated after another major terror incident.
There is also the possibility that LT may turn to actions more in line with global jihad against Western targets, to include attacks against the United States. The perceived favoritism of the United States toward India over Pakistan makes it a viable jihadi target, but the group has never focused on global jihad as a primary objective. Nonetheless, the United States should track the evolution of LT, because although for over 30 years Saeed has maintained continuous and stringent oversight, it is possible that a group of well-trained Salafi-jihadists could splinter from LT and form another organization less subject to Pakistani control.
Michelle Macander is a military fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.