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Deconstructing the Pakistani Response to the Mumbai Attack

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Pakistan’s responses after terror attacks in India have always been quite predictable, with ritualistic denials of any connection and a bid to increase the degrees of separation between itself and the perpetrators. The November 2008 Mumbai attack followed the same approach. But this attack was different from other recent terrorist attacks on Indian metropolitan cities (Jaipur, Delhi, and Hyderabad). In those attacks the lead perpetrators were India-based terrorist networks, such as the Indian Mujahideen, with some links to cross-border groups. In the case of Mumbai, the direct connection with the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba has been established quite conclusively through the surviving terrorist’s confessions, communication intercepts and other intelligence. The attack starkly highlighted the inadequacies of the Indian security decision-making structure. But on a more fundamental level, given that the conspiracy and planning behind the attack took place in Pakistan, it is important to ask how Islamabad has responded to the subsequent international pressure to implement credible and comprehensive counter-terrorism policies?

Non-state actors?

First, the novel aspect of Pakistan’s response concerns terminology. Taking the lead from President Asif Zardari, official government spokespersons, newspapers, media analysts, and other experts in Pakistan have insisted that the Mumbai attacks were carried out by “non-state actors.” This obsession with the term “non-state actors” betrays a hope that through linguistic contortion, Islamabad can extricate itself from any responsibility. (Somebody in the corridors of power in Islamabad seems to be walking around with a thesaurus. Beware! A Weapon of Mass Abstraction.)

Never before has Islamabad pointed so intensely in this direction. Their implication is that the “non-state” characteristic of the perpetrators means there is no link to the state, i.e., the Pakistan government and security agencies. This argument is a bit disingenuous. Non-state actors do not operate in a vacuum; they base themselves within some territory and, to a large extent, are dependent on the attitude of the state in de jure control of that area.

Moreover, groups such as Lashkar were created by the Pakistani political and military establishment, which is an important qualifier to their “non-state” status. Pakistan’s response would have been more credible if Lashkar had planned and trained for the attack in the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of the northwest part of the country, where the government’s writ is shaky at best. But as we now know, the attack was planned not in northwest Pakistan, but in Punjab and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, before the selected militants set off by sea from Karachi. Islamabad’s authority has not been questioned in these areas, in the manner that it has in the northwest. It is not difficult to conclude that Islamabad has the option of exerting control over such networks but it chooses not to do so, because that would be contradictory to its broader strategy of deploying militant groups such as Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammad against India.

Involvement of Indian entities

Second, the consensus view from Pakistan has been that an attack of such magnitude would not have been possible without internal assistance. That is, Indian individuals were probably involved, and that’s where New Delhi should look, rather than point fingers elsewhere. For all we know, individuals within India might have provided logistical support. But the main issue is the overall conception, planning, and execution of the attack, rather than the support elements. As evidence has demonstrated, the Lashkar leadership was involved in the exercise. But Islamabad has already rejected all evidence that has been disclosed in the media, such as information on the surviving attacker’s Pakistani identity as well as Lashkar involvement. (Precisely the same thing happened after the July 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, in which the involvement of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Taliban was revealed through U.S. sources.)

Islamabad glossed over the fact that the Dawn newspaper and Geo Television channel (both are Pakistani media outlets) located the sole surviving terrorist’s family in the country. Evidence of Kasab’s Pakistan provenance was also gathered by the Guardian. The point is that these pieces of evidence were put forward by non-Indian sources, and most importantly, by Pakistani media outlets. So what other evidence is needed? The willingness to concede that such attacks are planned by groups based in Pakistan is a necessary step toward a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, one that Islamabad is reluctant to take.

Post-UNSC resolution response

Third, after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in December banning Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Lashkar’s front organization, Pakistan belatedly decided to take some action against the outfit’s offices and leadership. However, as media reports have disclosed, the group was given ample time to transfer its funds to unknown bank accounts. Moreover, not all of Jamaat’s offices and facilities are being shut down. Apart from Lashkar, the other group at the forefront of attacks in India is Jaish-e-Mohammad; but no steps have been taken to roll back its networks, and Islamabad has also refused to take any action against its chief, Masood Azhar, one of the militants released from an Indian prison in exchange for the hostages of Indian Airlines flight 814 in December 1999. Despite all the evidence linking militant leaders in Pakistan to attacks in India, there is also a complete refusal to consider extraditing the suspects to New Delhi. Handing over terrorist leaders and planners is really the main route through which Islamabad can demonstrate that it is serious about combating terrorism.

Islamabad’s attitude comes as no surprise. Given what happened after the December 2001 Parliament attack, there is little credibility in Islamabad’s actions. After that attack and subsequent Indian and U.S. pressure, President Pervez Musharraf did resolve to eliminate terrorist networks. But that was a cosmetic exercise which allowed banned groups like Lashkar to continue operating under different names (such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa) and the few leaders who were arrested were quickly released after the international pressure wore off. Going by past track record and Pakistan’s attitudes toward militant groups, there is little hope that it will take any meaningful steps since the Mumbai attack either.

Admittedly, there are important domestic political issues that the fragile civilian government in Islamabad has to take into account even if it wishes to take firm steps to rollback terror networks. Pressure from religious organizations as well as opposition parties would be significant, apart from the likely opposition from military circles. But after two decades of state-sponsorship and links with terrorist groups, this reasoning cannot be used indefinitely to prolong inaction.

Joint campaign against terrorism

Fourth, a key theme of Islamabad’s response has been to stress that both India and Pakistan are victims of terrorism and should fight this menace cooperatively. This is obviously a commendable objective, especially since Pakistan also has been struck by terrorist violence and a Taliban-linked insurgency. But Islamabad’s assertion would have some credibility if there was any evidence that it was willing to dismantle terrorist networks permanently and verifiably.

As already mentioned, the Musharraf regime had committed itself to shutting down all India-focused terrorist networks in Pakistan after the Parliament attack. If that round of counter-terrorism clampdowns had been meaningful and effective, the likelihood of the Mumbai attack would have been much less. Just like after 2001, the assumption this time is that any arrests of militant leaders would be a ‘catch-and-release’ process, under which they are arrested to satisfy the international community, and then quietly released later. Islamabad’s current measures to proscribe the groups are the same as those undertaken the last time, when they were able to continue their fundraising and recruiting activities and maintain training camps. There is plenty of Pakistani media reporting in recent years that testifies to the half-hearted nature of the earlier steps.

Even if we take seriously Pakistan’s contention that the two countries face a joint threat, there is an important difference in the way Islamabad views terrorism. For Pakistan, the terrorist threat remains confined to the Pakistani Taliban, led by Baitullah Mehsud, and groups affiliated with it. These groups have attacked civilian targets within Pakistan and are at the forefront of a severe insurgency in the northwest part of the country. Islamabad has essentially differentiated between the Pakistani Taliban and India-focused outfits like Lashkar. Lashkar has no substantial record of hitting Pakistani targets, whether civilian or military, and are treated as, according to one Indian analyst has put it, “sarkari mujahideen” (government mujahideen). This, and Lashkar’s close connections to the ISI, ensure that the group does not fit into Islamabad’s definition of terror.

Therefore, unless entities such as Lashkar and Jaish-e-Mohammad are treated as terrorist groups, Islamabad’s joint-fight-against-terrorism argument rings quite hollow. Moreover, if Islamabad did take action against Jamaat-ud-Dawa after the December UN resolution, why wasn’t this action taken in the last seven years since the Parliament attack? Surely, if Jamaat was terrorist-affiliated enough for Islamabad to comply with UN resolutions, its suspect activities must have been obvious to Pakistani authorities long before.

Evidence from each round of cosmetic crackdowns by Islamabad demonstrates that action has been taken against groups such as Lashkar only after sustained international pressure, rather than as a consequence of any internal epiphany over the malignant nature of these groups. This is hardly any indication of a belief in the Pakistani political and military establishment that there is a joint threat to both countries. If that were the case, Islamabad would not need the international community to repeatedly pressurize it into taking some steps.


Pakistan’s responses to the Mumbai attack have deeper implications than the impasse over investigations into the episode. It shows an unwillingness to acknowledge the threat posed by such groups, not just to India, but Pakistan itself. Pakistani decision-makers still believe that some terrorist groups are good while others are bad. They calculate that the risks of violent blowback from sponsorship and support to terror outfits is outweighed by any strategic benefits that accrue with respect to Pakistan’s India policy.

Islamabad’s overall strategy seeks to ‘manage’ militancy rather than combat it, and only when such groups target Pakistan does the government act forcefully. Thus, the operations against the Pakistani Taliban began only after they launched an insurgency and a series of attacks within the country. Indeed, the Red Mosque episode from July 2008 was a stark example of this (mis)management strategy. The then Musharraf regime allowed hundreds of militants of various hues to aggregate in the Red Mosque compound in Islamabad and only decided to take action when their presence became untenable and an international embarrassment. The question in the aftermath of the storming of the Red Mosque was – why were the militant groups allowed to go ahead with their activities in the first place? Precisely the same question that arose after the Mumbai attack – one that highlights the joint nature of the threat posed to both India and Pakistan, and which the occupants of Islamabad’s corridors of power are reluctant to answer.