PAKISTAN was bracing last night for a retaliatory airstrike by India against the sprawling headquarters of the al-Qa’ida-linked Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist organisation near Lahore.
As Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari warned the LET militants “had the power to precipitate war in the region”, India demanded that Islamabad hand over a list of about 20 people, including India’s most-wanted man Dawood Ibrahim.
India’s military chiefs were exerting strong pressure on the country’s political leaders to give permission to attack the headquarters, an 80ha site at Muridke, close to the Punjab capital of Lahore, just across the border from India.
The reports came as the Indian Government summoned the Pakistani high commissioner in New Delhi yesterday to demand “strong action” against the Pakistani militants who it says were responsible for last week’s attacks on Mumbai.
New Delhi warned Shahid Malik that India expected Islamabad to take “swift action” to deal with the evidence of involvement by LET operating from bases inside Pakistan.
India demanded that Islamabad extradite Ibrahim, a fugitive Mumbai mafia don who it believes has links to LET, the terrorist group long allied to Pakistan’s ISI spy agency.
India also asked for Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the LET founder, and Maulana Masood Azhar, the head of militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, who was freed in exchange for passengers on a hijacked Indian Airlines flight in 1999.
Ibrahim, Mumbai’s most notorious underworld don, is the head of D-Company, a feared crime syndicate, and one of the world’s five most wanted men. He is widely believed to have worked closely with al-Qa’ida. He is also thought to have masterminded the 1993 Mumbai bombings, a series of 13 explosions that claimed 250 lives.
New Delhi issued its demands after US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Pakistan to co-operate with India as she prepared to visit New Delhi to mediate between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
The heavily guarded LET complex near Lahore, known as the Markaz-e-Taiba (Holy Centre), includes mosques and madrassas with more than 3000 students. Theoretically it is the headquarters of the Jamaat-ul-Dawah Muslim welfare organisation that is closely identified with LET.
Saeed, the LET founder and spiritual leader, lives in the complex.
Reports yesterday said that if India attacked the complex — possibly to kill Saeed — an attempt would be made to justify the action by pointing to the way in which the US was launching pre-emptive strikes inside Pakistani territory using unmanned drones to kill al-Qa’ida and Taliban targets.
Indian sources have confirmed that investigators have established strong links between the group of terrorists who attacked Mumbai and the LET leadership inside Pakistan.
Intercepts of calls made on a satellite telephone used by the group before they disembarked from the “mother ship” that brought them from Karachi shows a series of calls made to Muridke.
Indian officials said that all the militants were from Pakistan and that the only one captured alive had admitted to being part of LET.
Yesterday, the surviving terrorist, Ajmal Amin Kamal, in a new interrogation by Indian investigators, again linked the Mumbai attack to LET, saying he had joined the organisation at the behest of his father to raise money for his family.
He named an LET commander who, he said, paid his father for his services.
Pakistan reluctantly announced a formal ban on LET in 2002 after coming under strong international pressure to clamp down on the organisation. This followed a spectacular attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, launched by LET together with the Kashmir-based JEM.
Although still technically outlawed in Pakistan, LET has managed to expand its membership and activities and has also established itself in other countries.
To get around the formal ban on its activities, LET renamed itself Jamaat-ud-Dawah, which gained considerable influence across Pakistan as a result of the “welfare” work it did after the devastating 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. The US Government has also classified Jamaat-ud-Dawah as a terrorist organisation and said it is no more than an “alias” of LET.
Indian investigators are convinced there is no doubt of LET’s involvement in the Mumbai outrage.
Mr Zardari insisted the militants who attacked Mumbai were “non-state actors” with no links to any government.
Reports yesterday said India received warnings in October from US intelligence of a possible terrorist attack “from the sea” on targets in Mumbai.
Unnamed American intelligence officials told US television news service ABC that they had warned their Indian counterparts in mid-October of a potential attack “from the sea against hotels and business centres in Mumbai”.
One intelligence official even mentioned specific targets, including the Taj Mahal hotel, ABC said.