Behind the walls of Lashkar's rumoured breeding ground

 

India's media says the go-ahead for the Mumbai attacks came from a 200-acre compound in Punjab, writes Mary Fitzgerald, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

THERE WAS a time when collection boxes bearing the name of Lashkar-i-Taiba, the group accused of carrying out last week's attacks in Mumbai, were a common sight in the bazaars of Pakistan's cities and towns.

The organisation, whose name means Army of the Pure, was widely known to Pakistanis as one of the most formidable outfits fighting Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Lashkar campaigned openly for funds and recruits, and hailed its dead fighters as "martyrs" at mass rallies.

But that was before 9/11, and before the US leaned heavily on Pakistan's then president Pervez Musharraf to rein in jihadist groups like Lashkar which had, until that point, enjoyed the patronage of the country's intelligence services, the ISI.

The US state department declared Lashkar a terrorist group in December 2001, days after it was accused of orchestrating an audacious attack on the Indian parliament that brought Delhi and Islamabad to the brink of all-out war.

Pakistan followed suit, arresting scores of Lashkar leaders and closing its recruiting centres.

Lashkar's leaders decided a reinvention was in order and the group re-emerged under the guise of a charitable organisation named Jamaat-ud-Dawa. It gained prominence due to the role it played in relief efforts following the 2005 earthquake that devastated large parts of Kashmir.

The US government designated Jamaat-ud-Dawa as a terrorist organisation in 2006, calling it an "alias" of Lashkar.

The group continues to operate in Pakistan, however, raising money and running religious seminaries and social service programmes.

Lashkar grew out of a hardline religious organisation based around the Markaz Dawa ul Irshad (Centre for Preaching and Guidance), which was established in Muridke in rural Punjab in the late 1980s.

The centre became known for the austere interpretation of Islam it espoused. Some of its annual congregations, during which followers were urged to take up the cause of jihad, drew as many as 100,000 people to Muridke.

Its founder, Hafiz Muhammad Sayeed, a former engineering professor with a henna-tipped beard, continues to preside over the centre which is still considered by many to be the headquarters of Lashkar-i-Toiba.

Two years ago, I was granted a rare visit to the Muridke site, a sprawling compound that takes up almost 200 acres of land some 40km from Lahore.

When we approached the entrance gate where dozens of bearded men toting Kalashnikovs stood guard, my guide, an affiliate of the centre, fretted that media were not allowed inside and warned I was not to get out of the car, speak to anyone, take photographs or identify myself as a journalist during my visit.

As we drove around the compound, past many dozens of young men with long beards and women in full face veils, my guide pointed out the main mosque, several schools and seminaries, an iron foundry, a carpentry workshop and residential centres that he said housed students and the widows and families of men who had died fighting in Kashmir.

He batted away my questions about reports that Osama bin Laden had financed the construction of some buildings, including a guesthouse the al-Qaeda leader is rumoured to have used in the 1990s.

He also dismissed allegations that one of the London bombers had spent time in Muridke.

The compound is believed to have been used as a hideout by al-Qaeda operatives, including Ramzi Yousef, one of the planners of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.

Lashkar-i-Taiba is also accused of giving sanctuary to senior al-Qaeda figure Abu Zubayda, who was reportedly captured in one of the group's safe houses in 2002.

One of Lashkar's recruits was Rashid Rauf, the Briton linked with the 2006 plot to blow up transatlantic airliners and who was recently reported to have been killed in an American air strike in North Waziristan.

Lashkar spokesman Abdullah Ghaznavi has denied it played any role in the Mumbai attacks but Indian authorities say the only gunman captured has confessed that the group, of which he claims to be a member, was behind the plot.

According to Indian police, the suspect told interrogators he had received training at a Lashkar camp in Pakistan.

Indian media outlets have reported that the go-ahead for the strike on Mumbai came after a conference in Muridke the weekend before the attacks.

During it, Sayeed is said to have railed against India, arguing that the country ought to be punished for what he claimed were its nefarious activities in Afghanistan.

Many believe the ISI cut all support for Lashkar after the group's operatives were linked to a number of assassination attempts on Musharraf in 2004.

But in India, where Lashkar has long been viewed as an ISI puppet created to assist in Pakistan's clandestine war in Kashmir, suspicions remain as to who was pulling the strings last week.