A Jihad for all Seasons

For ten years, the spectacular attack on 9/11 meant that al Qaida represented the face of the Islamist global insurgency in the popular imagination. Occasional videotapes of Osama bin Laden and judicious franchising of the al Qaeda brand to enterprising psychopaths like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, allowed al Qaeda to continue overshadowing larger and far better organized terrorist groups long after the ability of al Qaeda’s leaders to wreck havoc faded. On November 26, 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a group little known in the West but all too familiar to India, demonstrated with bombings and bloody gun battles in the streets of Mumbai that al Qaeda was not alone in waging global jihad. LeT, “the Army of the Righteous”, showed in Mumbai that they too would bring war to the “Hindus, Jews and Crusaders”.

Carnegie and RAND scholar Stephen Tankel has endeavored to demystify and deconstruct LeT in his meticulously researched book, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba and bring into the light the complex relationships that entwine LeT with the Pakistani state and the subterranean universe of radical jihadi politics. Conducting extensive interviews with Islamist militants, Western and Indian intelligence officials, Pakistani politicians and ISI officers and buttressing his narrative with sixty-three pages of end-notes, Tankel has produced a portrait of Lashkar-e-Taiba that is accessible to the layman while remaining a methodical work of scholarship.

Using a predominantly chronological approach to narrative, Tankel traces the evolution of Lashkar-e-Taiba from an obscure Salafist offshoot of the minority sect Ahl-e-Hadith group, Markaz ud Dawa-wal-Irshad (MDI) that grew to become the favorite strategic proxy of Pakistan’s dreaded ISI for waging irregular warfare against India in Kashmir. In the process, LeT grew into a wealthy and powerful Islamist network providing panoply of social and humanitarian services and a military reach that made the LeT a transnational player with which to be reckoned.

Tankel excels at detailing the organisational and political nuances of LeT, including the complicated relationships of leading figures like Zafar Iqbal, Hafiz Saeed, Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi and the bewildering array of LeT’s front groups, Deobandi rivals and jihadi quasi-allies, including al Qaeda. The endemic interplay of ideology with internecine duplicity and coercion is emphasised by Tankel as he illustrated how LeT leaders walked a tightrope between preserving their nationalistic special relationship with the Pakistani state and the militant pan-Islamism of other jihadist groups and young, rank-and-file LeT hotheads.

It was pressure from the ISI and the military regime of President Pervez Musharraf on Lashkar-e-Taiba to “toe the line”on lowering tensions with India over Kashmir in the mid-2000s that set in motion the LeT’s road to Mumbai. Nominally pan-Islamic and Salafist, the LeT nevertheless was organised and generously patronised by the ISI to be Pakistan’s most effective operator in the “Kashmiri Jihad”, to the point where LeT recruiters lured zealous young men with offers to go to Iraq only to gently redirect them to wage jihad on the other side of the Line of Control.

With Islamabad’s reasons of state firmly minimising Kashmir as an outlet for LeT jihadist rage, LeT leaders faced the prospect of either facilitating jihad on other fronts, notably Afghanistan, or risk losing followers to more radical organisations. For example, Tankel places LeT fighters at the battle of Wanat, a high casualty, small unit engagement that sparked much soul-searching in the American Army regarding the quality of leadership in the chain of command and the viability of the pop-centric COIN strategy in Afghanistan, and credits them for the unusually good performance of the Taliban attackers in that battle.

Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Mumbai operation in Tankel’s view was an effort in “amalgamated jihad”; an act of terrorism that reconciled the difference in priorities between an India-centric LeT leadership and a membership that, like the wider jihadist community, was eager to strike at America and “the Jews”. This can be seen, Tankel argues, in the targeting of Chabad House, where killing Jews would be worth “fifty lives” elsewhere and the Taj Mahal Hotel patronised by Westerners. Tankel leans heavily on the testimony of ISI agent and convicted Lashkar terrorist David Headly –a.k.a. Daood Gilani – who comes off in Storming the World Stage as a far more dangerous and sinister figure than he did in American media coverage of his Chicago trial. Source notwithstanding, Tankel is getting at the heart of LeT strategic calculation here in linking LeT’s internal group dynamics to the largest objectives of the Islamist radicals and the national interests of Pakistan.

Stephen Tankel does not attempt to cover all dimensions of Lashkar-e-Taiba, being predominantly interested in political, organisational and strategic aspects of that terrorist organisation’s history. The theological drivers behind LeT and the increasing radicalisation of its’ younger generation are given short shrift. For example, we understand from Tankel that there is ideological – i.e. theological – friction between LeT militants and their Deobandi counterparts, on occasion to the point of violence, but not why. Avoiding a close examination of religious motivation is a common omission in American academic analysis of Islamist terrorism, which puts Tankel in the mainstream of researchers, but represents a missing facet that would have enriched the reader’s understanding.

Another element of LeT that might have been given more attention or taken to a granular level of detail by Tankel are Lashkar’s military and intelligence capacities as irregulars and their strategic implications. Tankel informs us that LeT fighters are qualitatively among the best among the region’s jihadis and LeT expertise in bombmaking and IED design are much sought after, but little else. An organization that, like Hezbollah, is state-sponsored but not controlled, Lashkar-e-Taiba is suited for waging what military analyst Frank Hoffman terms “Hybrid War”, but how LeT would play that role in an Indo-Pakistani War is left to the reader’s inference.

LeT also demonstrated in Mumbai a fluid tactical excellence in its use of off-the-shelf technology, small arms and mobility to reap an enormous return-on-investment by attacking soft targets, much along the asymmetric lines advocated by warfare theorist John Robb. Tactics that are a critical threat to any open society by forcing it to take preventive measures which are ruinously expensive and contraindicated to keeping society free and democratic. This is another topic that might have received greater analytical exploration.

Storming the World Stage is a solidly researched book by Stephen Tankel that is apt to become the mandatory reference on Lashkar-e-Taiba and a useful resource on the general subject of Pakistan’s historical resort to proxy warfare. With his examination of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tankel has made a worthy contribution to our understanding of terrorism and jihad in South Asia.