Hunting extremists, U.S. hits a wall
U.S. efforts to identify and thwart the growing threat posed by Pakistani extremists who enjoy easy access to the United States -- and already have a significant presence here -- are being undermined by the government of Pakistan, according to current and former U.S. and Western counter-terrorism officials.
After the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, in November, which killed more than 170 people, the FBI and other U.S. agencies went on high alert, searching without success for evidence of plotters in the United States. But they were essentially shut down in efforts to work the Pakistan side of the investigation, not only to find additional plotters but to learn more about the Al Qaeda-affiliated Pakistani militant group suspected of orchestrating the attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and its global network of cells, the officials said.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III flew to Islamabad last week, in part to press for better cooperation. But the FBI and other U.S. officials have been denied access to about 20 members of Lashkar, including about six senior officials also suspected of heading the group’s global operations and fundraising.
A senior Pakistani official said the government wanted to cooperate with U.S. authorities, but must do so slowly and investigate the militants independently or risk a backlash from the populace and the military, which view the militants as strategically important assets. On Sunday, the nation reached agreement with Interpol to share information about the Mumbai investigation.
“The big picture is that the civilian government in Pakistan is trying to set things right,” the Pakistani official said. “But there will always be some people who say, how far back do you want to reach” in terms of investigating the Pakistani militant groups and the Islamabad government’s long-standing ties to them? “Can we just say, ‘Come in, guys, and find anything you want on Lashkar-e-Taiba and shut it down’? It’s not going to happen.”
Bruce Riedel, a former South Asia specialist for the CIA and National Security Council, said in an interview after the Mumbai attacks that Pakistan had long protected the militant groups. He warned that a “global jihadist syndicate” of disaffected young Pakistanis was the most likely mechanism for launching an attack in the U.S., possibly with Al Qaeda.
Riedel, who now chairs the Obama administration’s Pakistan-Afghanistan strategy review, said Mumbai was only the latest of several attacks by such militants on soft targets frequented by Americans, including hotels in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Islamabad.
Juan Carlos Zarate, the deputy national security advisor for counter-terrorism in the Bush administration, said: “We are and should be concerned about the threat LT poses,” using a popular acronym for Lashkar. Its name means “Army of the Pure.”
Lashkar “doesn’t just reside in South Asia. It is an organization that has potential reach all over the world, including the U.S.,” he said, adding that there are “LT-tied individuals in the country that we need to be concerned about.”
U.S. and allied intelligence shows that potentially tens of thousands of Pakistanis have trained in Lashkar’s guerrilla camps in Pakistan, and many of those trainees have gone on to work with Al Qaeda. That includes a small number of U.S. residents, some of whom are believed to have returned to the United States. Nearly a dozen Americans, including many members of the so-called Virginia Jihad Network, have been convicted in U.S. courts of training at Lashkar camps.
Evidence confiscated from other, often computer-savvy, young militants shows a Lashkar interest in the Washington area, New York, California, Georgia and other locations, according to interviews and court testimony.
But authorities say their far greater concern is the thousands of disaffected Westerners and Pakistanis in Britain and other “visa waiver” countries in Europe who travel frequently to Pakistan. An unknown number of those have trained in Lashkar camps and, after being indoctrinated in its hatred of the West and returning home, are free to travel to the United States with only a cursory last-minute background check.
FBI Director Mueller highlighted that concern in a recent speech, saying U.S. authorities fear a Mumbai-style commando attack, and that such militants from “less well-known terrorist groups . . . are merely an e-ticket away from the United States.”
“Where you’re not subjected to the scrutiny of a visa or an interview and the like, then that is one less precaution or screening mechanism that is out there,” Mueller told a Council on Foreign Relations audience.
FBI intelligence chief Donald Van Duyn told Congress recently that the bureau was investigating “a limited number” of U.S. individuals with suspected links to Lashkar but that there was no evidence the group had an organized U.S. presence.
Still, he and his intelligence counterpart at the Department of Homeland Security, Charles Allen, testified that they were so worried about domestic Mumbai-style attacks that they had briefed state and local law enforcement agencies, and the managers of thousands of hotels, public transportation hubs and other locations on how to protect their facilities.
Last week’s commando-style attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Pakistan bore many similarities to Mumbai, prompting a warning by U.S. intelligence agencies about the possibility of domestic strikes against American sports events and teams. The assault in Lahore left eight people dead, six of them policemen.
According to Riedel and other current and former U.S. terrorism officials, Lashkar and other Pakistani militants are in many ways a bigger threat to U.S. interests around the world than Al Qaeda, whose leadership is on the run from numerous CIA airstrikes in the Pakistani tribal areas.
Many of Lashkar’s leaders have close operational ties to Al Qaeda, and the group has long embraced its concept of a global jihad, or holy war, against the West.
Lashkar has funded and trained fighters to attack U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, often in conjunction with its allies in the Taliban. Lashkar-affiliated militants also have been involved in several plots against U.S. and allied interests here and overseas -- including the 2005 London subway bombings that killed 52 people, the surveillance of Wall Street and other U.S. financial hubs, and a 2006 plan to blow up at least a half a dozen commercial jetliners as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean from London to the United States.
U.S. officials say that Pakistan cooperates in going after foreign Al Qaeda fighters within its boundaries, but that it often refuses to cooperate significantly in important counter-terrorism efforts focusing on Pakistani militant groups like Lashkar.
For 16 months, for instance, Pakistan dragged its heels in the global investigation into the 2006 airline plot despite Mueller’s personal appeals, denying U.S. officials access to suspected mastermind Rashid Rauf, senior FBI officials confirm. They say Rauf, a Pakistani Briton, was the key conduit between Al Qaeda’s leadership in the tribal areas, Lashkar and other militant groups and their cells in Britain and the West, and extremist sympathizers in Pakistan’s intelligence and military agencies.
Rauf ultimately escaped under suspicious circumstances and was killed last year in a U.S. airstrike.
U.S. officials also say they have been frustrated by Pakistan’s lack of full cooperation into other terrorism investigations focusing on Pakistani militants, including the 2002 kidnap-slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, a grenade attack near the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in 2002 that killed the wife and daughter of an embassy official, the 2006 slaying of another U.S. consulate employee in Karachi, and a 2008 attack at an Islamabad restaurant that injured four FBI agents.
Robert Burnham, the FBI’s former legal attache in Pakistan, said U.S. counter-terrorism officials stationed in Pakistan repeatedly pressed it for more cooperation, but even basic requests for financial records, criminal background checks and investigative assistance went unanswered.
“We would almost always do the right thing by making requests through” Pakistani authorities, Burnham said. “And these things would fall into a black hole.”
In response to heavy U.S. and Indian pressure after the Mumbai attacks, the Islamabad government said it raided some Lashkar training facilities, shut down several of its offices and detained some key members.
But one veteran Justice Department counter-terrorism official said Pakistan’s refusal to fully cooperate meant that U.S. authorities still knew little about Lashkar’s shadowy network in the United States. “I’m confident that there are people here who have gone to LT training camps,” the official said, “and that when LT asks for their help, they will give it to them.”
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