By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
NEW DELHI — The sole surviving gunman in last year’s Mumbai terror attacks may have sealed his fate with a dramatic courtroom confession Monday, but Pakistan’s determination and ability to dismantle the group that plotted the assault remains an open question.
Pakistan, after initially denying that any of its citizens took part in the assault that left more than 170 people dead, has in the past six months sought to convince India and the U.S. that it is doing everything in its power to shut down the group thought to be responsible, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
“The Pakistani nation and its government fully understand the enormity of the challenge,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a spokeswoman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. “This nation has paid in blood for its commitment against terrorism.”
Five of the alleged plotters arrested in Pakistan weeks after the attack are to go on trial in the coming days. Pakistani officials say Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani earlier this month gave his Indian counterpart a dossier detailing what Islamabad knows about Lashkar’s involvement in the attack.
But U.S. and Indian officials still see worrying signs of business as usual. Lashkar’s co-founder, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, was released last month from house arrest by a Pakistani court, which cited a lack of evidence to hold him. The group’s infrastructure is still largely intact, even if its leadership is in disarray, say U.S. and Pakistani officials.
“Lashkar has a pretty deep bench, and so from an operational perspective it can keep going,” said Stephen Tankel, an expert at King’s College London who is writing a book on Lashkar.
Lashkar is believed to have a few thousand active members and many more in reserve. The group, if left intact, could remain an obstacle to better relations between India and Pakistan. That would likely hamper the fight against the Taliban by keeping the bulk of Pakistan’s large military focused on the border with India, not the militants.
Yet Lashkar’s long ties to Pakistan’s powerful security establishment — and deep roots it has put down in rural villages through its charity arm — leave the government with a difficult challenge. The army and the Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency insist they no longer support Lashkar, but the relationship remains ambiguous. An ISI official acknowledged in an interview that the spy agency still maintains informal contacts with Lashkar but insisted colleagues were purely monitoring the group, not aiding it. “We don’t operate in a safe part of the world,” the officer said. “It’s our job to know what they are doing.”
U.S. and other Western officials say they believe that some weapons and money still flow to the group but that the aid is limited and not provided on orders from top commanders. Intelligence field officers and Lashkar operatives “have definitely been growing apart,” said a U.S. official. “But the relationship is still there on some level.”
Lashkar was one of a number of Islamist groups once nurtured by the ISI and used as a proxy against Indian forces in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir and Afghanistan. Many of those groups have now turned on Pakistan, launching suicide attacks in cities and fighting alongside the Taliban in the northwest.
Lashkar has remained focused on India, India’s part of Kashmir and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, say U.S. and Pakistani officials. With Pakistan’s resources stretched thin by the Taliban and its militant allies, “it is hard for us to devote what we need to devote to winding up an organization like Lashkar,” said a senior Pakistani official.
But, the official pointed out, Pakistan is taking action against those it can link directly to the Mumbai attack.
On Monday, the lone survivor of the attackers, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani being tried in an Indian court, detailed how he had been recruited and trained by Lashkar. The case was adjourned Tuesday while the judge decides whether to accept his guilty plea and confession.
Mr. Kasab described how he and a friend were directed to a Lashkar office when they sought training as bandits in Rawalpindi, a city near Islamabad that is dominated by the military.
Those offices still operate, just in a more low-key way. A former Lashkar member who later went to work for the group’s alleged charity arm, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, said in an interview last month that he was still working with “the same people.”
Jamaat was shut down in December after the United Nations declared it a front for terror. Officials say it has since re-emerged under the guise of Falah-i-Insaniat, which helped provide aid to people who fled fighting between the army and Taliban in the Swat Valley.
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