Dec 01, 2008


Commentary: How U.S. should respond to Mumbai attacks

  • Story Highlights
  • Peter Bergen: Investigators are focusing on a Pakistani terror group
  • He says Lashkar-e-Tayyiba draws on wider support than many terrorist groups
  • Bergen: Aim of Obama administration should be resolving Kashmir dispute
  • He says Hillary Clinton has mulled idea of sending special envoy to region

By Peter Bergen CNN National Security Analyst

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington and at New York University's Center on Law and Security. His most recent book is "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader."

(CNN)-- A captured suspect in the Mumbai attacks has told police that he is Pakistani, Indian officials say. CNN's sister station, CNN-IBN, reports that the alleged terrorist said he was trained by Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a Pakistan-based terror group that opposes India over the disputed Kashmir region.Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, known by its initials LeT in the counter-terrorism community, should be the leading suspect in the attacks, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official who closely follows South Asia. "My money is on LeT. They've been getting lots of operational experience in Afghanistan and the younger LeT guys are trigger-happy. The countries they aim to destroy: India, U.S. and Israel. Looks like they hit all three in Mumbai," the official says. Lashkar-e-Tayyiba has conducted high-profile attacks in India, including an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, which brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war the following year. The Indian Parliament attack displayed a modus operandi similar to the recent Mumbai attacks. It involved several attackers armed with automatic weapons, willing to die in an operation that, while it was not a conventional suicide attack, was suicidal in intent. Only one of the 11 gunmen identified so far in the Mumbai attacks has survived. Lashkar-e-Tayyiba derives strength from the fact that, like the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, it draws on a much wider base of support than many terrorist organizations.

Until January of 2002, when it was officially banned following the attack on the Indian Parliament, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba maintained 2,200 offices around the country and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to its annual gatherings. Its charitable arm also runs schools and medical clinics and played an important role in earthquake relief efforts in Kashmir in 2005.

Technically Lashkar no longer exists, but it has continued to operate under different names and its leader, Hafiz Saeed, has continued to address rallies in Pakistan. A spokesman for the group has denied any role in the Mumbai attacks.

Besides conducting numerous terrorist operations in India, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba has international reach. Two American Muslims who traveled to Lashkar training camps in Pakistan have been convicted of terrorism-related charges in the past several years. According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Lashkar members have been arrested in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

And the terror group has ties to al Qaeda. Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, for instance, was arrested at the home of a Lashkar-e-Tayyiba leader in Pakistan in 2002.

According to the U.S. counterterrorism official, the total Mumbai attack force likely involved at least 40 "operatives" and "facilitators" and showed an "impressive" level of internal security given "robust" Indian counterterrorism efforts.

The official also said one of the aims of the attacks was to "sour" the foreign commercial presence and investment atmosphere for fast-growing India.

Another U.S. counterterrorism official pointed out that there are similarities between the recent attacks in Mumbai and those masterminded by Dawood Ibrahim, an Indian gangster, in March 1993, when 13 bombs went off in Mumbai targeting the Mumbai Stock Exchange, hotels and shopping districts -- attacks that killed some 250 people.

In 2003, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Dawood Ibrahim as a "specially designated global terrorist." When Ibrahim was designated, Treasury described him as an Indian crime lord linked to al Qaeda and known to have financed the activities of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.

The U.S. government has already designated LeT as a terrorist group, but the larger aim of the incoming Barack Obama administration should be to put additional effort into bringing a peaceful resolution to the Kashmir dispute that underlies the tensions between India and Pakistan.

That is something that South Asia specialist Bruce Riedel has been forcefully advocating in recent months. Riedel, a former CIA officer and National Security Council official and now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has been advising Obama. And Hillary Clinton, nominated Monday by Obama for secretary of state, has long been thinking about the idea of sending a special envoy to the region who would be responsible for helping to settle all the various disputes between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

My candidate for the job: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who brought peace to the Balkans in the mid-1990s with the masterful Dayton accords that he oversaw and managed.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen.