Journalism in the Public Interest

Terror Group Recruits From Pakistan’s ‘Best and Brightest’

A new study of 917 fallen Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters documents the group’s extensive integration in Pakistani society and helps explain its impunity for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.


Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, addresses a rally in Quetta on April 26, 2012. A new study of 917 fallen Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters documents the group's extensive integration in Pakistani society and helps explain its impunity for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. (Banaras Khan/AFP/GettyImages)

Imagine a terrorist group that recruits tens of thousands of young men from the same neighborhoods and social networks as the Pakistani military. A group whose well-educated recruits defy the idea that poverty and ignorance breed extremism. A group whose fighters include relatives of a politician, a senior Army officer and a director of Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission.

That is the disconcerting reality of Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the world's most dangerous militant organizations, according to a study released today by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. The report helps explain why Pakistan has resisted international pressure to crack down on Lashkar after it killed 166 people in Mumbai — six U.S. citizens included — and came close to sparking conflict between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India.

The findings, which draw on 917 biographies of Lashkar fighters killed in combat, illuminate "Lashkar's integration into Pakistani society, how embedded they are," said co-author Don Rassler, the director of a research program at the center that studies primary source materials. "They have become an institution."

The three-day slaughter in 2008 drew global attention because it targeted Westerners as well as Indians and implicated Pakistan's spy agency. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) continues to protect the masterminds, according to Western and Indian counterterror officials. U.S. prosecutors indicted an ISI major in the deaths of the Americans: He allegedly provided funds, training and direction and served as the handler of David Coleman Headley, an U.S. reconnaissance operative now serving 35 years in a federal prison.

The 56-page West Point report is titled "The Fighters of Lashkar-e-Taiba: Recruitment, Training, Deployment and Death." Though it refrains from policy suggestions, there are implications for U.S. counterterror strategy. Lashkar's popularity and clout defy conventional approaches to fighting extremism, said co-author Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University.

"When you have an organization that enjoys such a degree of open support, there are no options for U.S. policy other than counterintelligence, law enforcement and counter-terrorism targeting," Fair said in an interview.

Lashkar was founded in 1989 by Hafiz Saeed, its spiritual chief today, and other ideologues. The ISI deployed Lashkar as a proxy force against India, especially in the disputed Kashmir region. Although banned by Pakistan in 2002, the group still functions unmolested, the ISI provides funds, military training and arms, and ISI officers serve as handlers for Lashkar chiefs, according to Western and Indian investigations. The U.S. officially declared Laskhar a terror group in 2001.

The West Point researchers said they used "massive amounts of material that the group produces about itself" to analyze the trajectories of Lashkar fighters who were killed between 1989 and 2008. The researchers translated from Urdu the 917 biographies that appeared in four extremist publications, including one written by mothers of fallen militants.

Recruits often become holy warriors with the help of their families, which admire Lashkar's military exploits in India and Afghanistan and its nationalism and social service activities at home, the study says. Unlike other terrorist groups, Lashkar does not attack the Pakistani state.

The group's vast training camps have churned out fighters at an alarming rate. The study gives an estimate of between 100,000 and 300,000 total trainees. By comparison, a U.S. counterterror official told ProPublica he has seen figures as high as 200,000, though he put the number in the tens of thousands.

Most recruits examined in the study joined at about age 17 and died at about 21, generally in India or Afghanistan. Their backgrounds contradict "a lingering belief in the policy community that Islamist terrorists are the product of low or no education or are produced in Pakistan's madrassas," the report says.

In fact, the fighters had higher levels of secular education compared to the generally low average for Pakistani men, the report says. Relatively few studied at religious schools known as madrasas. They joined Lashkar — which spews anti-Western, anti-Semitic and anti-Indian rhetoric — because they wanted more meaningful lives, admired its anticorruption image and felt an obligation to help fellow Muslims, the study says.

"These are some of Pakistan's best and brightest and they are not being used in the labor market, they are being deployed in the militant market," Fair said. "It's a myth that poverty and madrasas create terrorism, and that we can buy our way out of it with U.S. aid."

Lashkar's publications downplay its longtime links to the security forces, the authors said. But connections emerge nonetheless. Lashkar recruits aggressively in the districts of the Punjab region that produce the bulk of Pakistan's officer corps — "a dynamic that raises a number of questions about potentially overlapping social networks between the army and (Lashkar)," the report says.

"It looks like based on what we have as if there's a considerable degree of overlap," Fair said. "The military and Lashkar are competing for guys with the same skill set."

At least 18 fallen fighters had immediate family members who served in Pakistan's armed forces. Although most recruits were working or lower middle-class, some "had connections to elite Pakistani institutions and Pakistani religious leaders and politicians." The study cites Abdul Qasim Muhammad Asghar, son of the president of the Pakistan Muslim Leagueʹs labor wing in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Another case stands out: a fighter known by the nom de guerre of Abdul Razzaq Abu Abdullah. His 2003 obituary by his mother describes his maternal uncle as "a director of Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission."

Abdul, one of four brothers from the town of Chak Deenpur Sharif in Punjab province, showed interest in holy war as a teenager. His uncle tried to discourage him and found him a post in the military, the biography states. But the young man finally joined Lashkar and died in combat in Indian Kashmir at age 20, the report says.

The authors did not substantiate the account or identify the Pakistani official at the atomic energy commission. But the allusion evokes persistent fears that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is vulnerable to Islamic terrorists. Pakistani nuclear officials have had contacts with al Qaida in the past.

The CIA has had particular concerns about Lashkar in this regard, according to veteran counterterror officer Charles Faddis. Between 2006 and his retirement in 2008, Faddis led a CIA unit dedicated to preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Lashkar's influence with the Pakistani security establishment and its reach into the Pakistani diaspora were worrisome, Faddis said.

"They were the kind of group that concerned us," Faddis said. "They operated in Pakistan with a lot more ease than al Qaida. They had the ability to make connections with military officers, well-educated people abroad, scientists. The Pakistani government was extremely reluctant to confront them.

"All of this added up to a bad situation," he said.

Lashkar's impunity is reflected in the continued defiance and power of Saeed, the spiritual chief. Although India charged him for Mumbai and the State Department offered a $10 million reward for his arrest, Pakistani authorities have done nothing except to provide him police security, U.S. and Indian officials say.

Saeed denies involvement in Lashkar's military wing, a claim disputed by the study. In a "surprising number" of cases, Rassler said, trainees who were deployed on combat operations went to Saeed to seek his personal approval.

"In their own publications, they are saying he plays an operational role," Rassler said.

Lashkar has not carried out a major attack since Mumbai, devoting more energy instead to political activism. But the group continues to engage in terrorist activity outside Pakistan and has cranked up its anti-American rhetoric, Fair said.

Lashkar is among the militant groups that use the tribal areas of Pakistan as a base for attacks on U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan, according to U.S. counterterror officials. Nonetheless, Fair said U.S. forces have not targeted Lashkar fighters in Pakistan with missile strikes out of concern that this would anger Pakistan, whose help is needed in Afghanistan. Instead, there are discussions of taking more aggressive action against Lashkar in other countries.

“We are essentially being held hostage by the war in Afghanistan,” she said.

The U.S. military is the world’s most dangerous militant organization - and West Point is one of their elite training grounds. Is Propublica going to do an expose on them - or will they keep collaborating with them?

I think it would be much more accurate to describe Lashkar-e-Taiba as the covert ops militia of the Pakistani intelligence community; the group itself is a creation of theirs, with ongoing state support and protection.

This is a little like complaining that the CIA recruits ‘the best and the brightest’ of the US who then depose inconvenient Honduran presidents in order to protect US corporate interests, or inconvenient Iranian presidents in order to protect British corporate interests.

abinico warez

April 4, 2013, 4:12 p.m.

Articles like this really show you are nothing but a front for the Mossad and CIA. The slant of this article and blatant omissions make it nothing other than a propaganda insult to an educated person intelligence.

The real problem with Pakistan is that they think that they are the equal of India in every way and that history has cheated them of their rightful ‘place’ in the world, which is next to and equal to India. But they are not the equal of India, one tenth the population, one tenth the economy. they will always be less important to the world than India, because they are a smaller, less populous and economically ramshackle country (a trait they share with India).

There is nothing wrong with that, Canada is very happy next door to its larger neighbor the United States, with one tenth the population and one tenth the economy. Canada has been at peace with its neighbor since the War of 1812 ended, and their relationship with the US is one of their strongest national assets.

It is the perception of grievance that Pakistan nurses which is its problem. As long as it can only define itself in competition with India it will continue to pursue nuclear weapons and other ways to come closer to a perceived ‘equality’.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is an exercise in nationalism. Pakistan’s problem is that it works intentionally to instill an August 1914 nationalism into a population that lives in the current world. These morons happily play with fire thinking that they are leading their country somewhere positive. instead they are creating one of the most dangerous situations in the world.

Pakistan is a fake state that uses punjabi terrorism to supress and keep the other nationalities within this artificial ‘islamic” country. It is a punjabi fascist state using islam to rob the pashtun ,baluch and sindhis of their resources and identity. Pashtun,sindhis and Baluch want out of this fake punjabi hegemonistic state that keeps oppressing them via the pakistani army,ISI and the army proxies laskar taiba,laskkar e janghvi and taleban. america should help the Pashtun to establish an independent Pashtun state and the problem of terrorism in that place will be solved. Punjab is obsessed in destroying the Pashtun through its is proven the most deadly terrorist are the punjab based terrorist and now they are using the Pashtun tribal territories to attack the foreign forces in afghanistan and the fledgling state of Afganistan.

Reza, your apt description of Pakistan reminds me of Israel: a fake state that uses zionist terrorism to supress and keep other nationalities with this artificial “jewish” country. Hopefully the internet will help shift or eliminate borders as all nationalities, ethnicities etc come together against the common enemy of greed.

Muhammad Arif

April 5, 2013, 1:50 a.m.

This is what I had written some 7 years ago.

For ordinary masses it doesn’t matter that the militants are heretic or against the teaching of Islam as far as they win wars, destroy those whom they think are the cause of all their miseries and misfortunes. In Pakistan it is widely propagated that all the ills of the society are due to Americans because of their direct involvement in the affairs of their state. In Pakistan people are made to believe that no political party or dictator can come to power without the prior acceptance of America. The state run media brainwash the population by telecasting/broadcasting programs relating to anti-Americanism, Antisemitism and anti-Hinduism. The education institutions including the universities taught the students hatred against non-Muslims and the syllabus is filled with Jehadi literature. The Mullah is just one aspect of this organized bigotry. Every years, in Lahore hundreds of thousands missionaries gather and this practice is repeated in different parts of NWFP and Baluchistan, further creating other such lots and they are spread in the whole country. Thus a whole lot is prepared to feel themselves “superior instruments of God”, whose only purpose in this world is to subdue the infidels and rule the world. Thus totalitarian regimes are not only diverting people attention form the local issues to abroad but also blackmailing the West to support them as a lesser evil.

When America attacked Talibans, I remembered educated people and even professors believed that Ababeel (swallow) will come to help Taliban and American would be defeated like the Abraha. When they saw Taliban on the retreat, they started criticizing their teachings and way of life as against Islam and some even went to the extent of calling them agents of CIA. Only the true are helped by God.

surprise surprise..these authors found out just now.
here is another news for u guys,
Pakistan has lost some 45 thousand punjabis in kashmir, 3 divisions of their army as LeT

What about those hapless muslims who are being tortured , killed , raped enmass in indian occupied kashmir and have no provision to implicate them except joing the lashkar.

I agree with Bruce.  The article has the ring of truth except in suggesting that the group is a rogue force.  When you look at their actions, it’s pretty clear that they’re on a tight leash.

strangely nothing is hidden from US as well as Pak governments however convergence & divergence of interests compel them to adapt lukewarm rather indifferent approach…

@sgr same jihad recruitment catch-phrase used everywhere in the world, take a look at syria right now to pull in all sorts of jihadis from nigeria to pakistan.
And seriously did you expect these jihadis to be treated with kid-gloves ?

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Pakistan’s Terror Connections

The Mumbai terror attacks have revealed evidence of the extent of the ties of Pakistani intelligence to terrorist groups and the flaws in the U.S fight against Pakistan-based terror.

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