Pakistan: the epicentre of Islamist terror
In the lush, green valleys of the Punjab, young men are being schooled in the principles of mass murder.
By Sean Rayment, Security Correspondent
12 Apr 2009
Some 70 miles north of Lahore, in a 200-acre camp that also houses a large mosque, swimming pool and fish farm, volunteers are taught how to assemble bombs, fire weapons, create terrorist networks and communicate covertly using the internet and mobile phones.
They are also instructed in resistance to interrogation techniques and how to create cover stories in the event of being captured.
This is the headquarters of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) – which in Urdu translates as “army of the pure” – the organisation widely believed to be responsible for the Mumbai massacre in November which left 172 people dead.
LeT, which professes to be a peaceful organisation, is known to have close links with al-Qaeda and is understood to train around 40,000 young men every year at its madrassas (religious schools) and military bases.
Some of the trainees at its base in the Punjab are British.
Many of those who graduate from the camps are sent to the front line in Kashmir to wage war against the Indian army, others venture north to Afghanistan to fight against Nato forces, while many of the British return to the UK and begin plotting.
Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer are both thought to have visited the camp several times before carrying out the 7/7 suicides attacks on the London Tube network.
Mohammed Ajmal Khan, who was sentenced to nine years in March 2006 for fundraising for terrorist groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan, also admitted visiting one of the organisation’s camps.
Virtually all of the al-Qaeda terrorists convicted in Britain since 2001, including the 7/7 bombers and Dhiren Barot – the so-called “Dirty Bomber” – received training in Pakistan.
Gordon Brown recently stated that three quarters of all British terror plots originate from within the state.
However, monitoring everyone visiting or returning from Pakistan is an impossible task for Britain’s police and MI5.
Up to 400,000 British Pakistanis visit the country every year, the vast majority for completely legitimate reasons. Up to 10,000 young Pakistanis enter the UK every year on student visas.
It is also believed that some of the 12 terrorist suspects arrested in Wednesday’s Operation Pathway may have been trained to form a covert cell in Pakistan before entering Britain.
LeT is a hardcore terrorist organisation committed to using extreme violence to achieve its aim of forcing India to leave the disputed area of Kashmir.
But in the 18 years since its creation, the movement has forged links with other terror groups, most notably al-Qaeda, and has become a major threat to many western countries.
After the Mumbai attacks, it emerged that the group had compiled a worldwide hit list of 320 targets. Yet despite being banned by most western countries, the Pakistani authorities stand accused of effectively having turned a blind eye to its operations.
And the organisation is not alone. Another militant group, Lashkar-e-Janghvi is believed to have been behind the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore last month, also operates openly, while other groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen are understood to be expanding their influence in Punjab, an area with strong British connections.
In one area of Kashmir roughly the size of the West Midlands, 25 militant groups are known to operate with impunity.
Many of their volunteers sign up here for jihad – or ‘holy war’ – before taking the next step of joining other organisations committed to attacking the West.
It is against this backdrop that Pakistan has now acquired the dubious distinction of being epicentre for Islamist terrorism in the world.
At the same time, MI5 and the CIA are becoming increasingly worried by the country’s inability to clamp down on militants.
Pakistan is now a very dangerous country for Westerners to live and work. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office only allows its diplomats to work in the country unaccompanied, meaning partners, wives and children must remain behind in the UK.
As far as the FCO is concerned, Pakistan is as dangerous as Afghanistan, which is currently in the grips of a full-blown insurgency.
The rise of militant Islamist groups in Pakistan began in the early 1980s under the country’s then leader General Muhammad Zia-ul-Huq, largely in response to the growth of Shia fundamentalism in Iran and in a bid to support the Mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Over the last 30 years, the country’s leaders have been content for various Islamist groups to train and recruit in Pakistan, and to wage a proxy war with India over the disputed Kashmir region. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Inter-Services Agency (ISI), the intelligence wing of the Pakistan army, funded the Mujahideen and, later, the Taliban in the mid-Nineties.
Although Pakistan is fighting its own counter-insurgency war against militants, the ISI is believed to have firm links with groups like the Taliban and even al-Qaeda, much to the consternation of Britain and the US.
MI5 treats any intelligence passed to it by the ISI with caution, given that much of it is politicised, although the relationship between the two organisations remains strong.
But the US, which over the last few years has funded the Pakistan military and therefore the ISI to the tune of £7 billion, is said to be increasingly frustrated with rogue, Islamist-supporting elements within the ISI.
Washington wants the Pakistani government to clamp down on the militant groups operating within the country and to cleanse the ISI of Taliban and Islamist sympathisers.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the US Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs and America’s most senior officer, recently called for the ISI to make “fundamental” changes in its relationship with militants.
But despite the frustrations, there have been some major advances.
The bilateral agreement between Pakistan and Washington, which had been a secret until recently and allowed America’s heavily armed unmanned aircraft, known as Reapers, to attack al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan, have produced enormous dividends.
Security sources said the various strikes over the past 12 months have severely disrupted al-Qaeda operations in Pakistan and their lines of communication back to the UK.
MI5 are convinced that the current lack of so-called “late-stage plots” – in which “cells” of terrorists are close to launching attacks – is partly down to the Reaper strikes in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border regions.
Pakistan, however, remains a country on the brink of catastrophe.
The ‘Talibanisation’ of the Swat Valley in the tribal areas of the northwest frontier province serves to illustrate how the central government is beginning to lose control in certain areas.
It is in this region that more than 75,000 soldiers of its Frontier Corps are waging a bitter counter-insurgency war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The war has reached a stalemate and is causing deep divides within the Pakistani Army. While the officer class support the war, the rank and file see little honour in killing fellow Muslims. The potential for revolt within the Army is very real.
The economy is also in freefall, with some estimates suggesting that Pakistan will be bankrupt within six months, a position which will play further into the hands of the militants, who already recruit the majority of their foot soldiers from the poorest areas.
Pakistan is a country of 150 million people, many of whom are trapped in poverty. It is in desperate need of help, probably more so than neighbouring Afghanistan.
If the economy implodes, the Army revolts and the Islamists gain power – a sequence of events that is entirely possible – the problems for the West will dwarf anything seen in Iraq or Afghanistan and will take international terrorism to a new infinitely more dangerous level.
For the first time since the Cold War, the West would have an enemy with a nuclear capability.