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01.27.10

The Scariest Terror Plot

Forget the Christmas bomber. The gravest threat to U.S. security may come from the militant Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Bruce Riedel and Aysha Chowdhry on how to defuse the threat.

The last few months have seen a dizzying array of terror plots at home and abroad, from the Fort Hood massacre to the attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. Lost in the noise about these dangerous operations was a foiled plot in Dhaka, Bangladesh, late last year. The Bengali plot never came to fruition, but it may be one of the most dangerous near-misses of the last few months and should spark a rapid and global crackdown on the group involved: Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

What is alarming about the Dhaka attack plan is that Lashkar-e-Taiba has now crossed the threshold of directly targeting American interests.

In November and December 2009, Bangladeshi authorities made a series of arrests of LeT operatives in Dhaka. According to the Bangladeshis, this cell was planning to attack the American, British, and Indian embassies in the capital. They had begun surveillance of the embassies and were probably planning suicide car bombings. The cell had been given instructions from the LeT leadership in Pakistan to carry out the attacks. The mastermind of the cell was a veteran of the Afghan mujahideen war against the Soviets in the 1980s, like Osama bin Laden and so many other members of the global Islamic jihad. There is much we still do not know about this plot, but the implications of it are very serious.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is most famous today for the attack carried out on Mumbai, India, in November 2008, in which more than 160 were killed and hundreds wounded. It also has an American connection. In Chicago last October, the FBI arrested a Pakistani American, David Headley, and accused him of working for LeT, conducting the pre-attack reconnaissance of the targets in Mumbai in 2007 and 2008, and scouting for new terror attacks in 2009 in India and Denmark. According to the FBI’s charge sheet, he was also in close contact with a senior al Qaeda operative named Ilyas Kashmiri, a man trained in terror by the Pakistani intelligence service in the 1990s but who joined al Qaeda in 2006. (Headley has pleaded not guilty.)

What is alarming about the Dhaka attack plan is that LeT has now crossed the threshold of directly targeting American interests. In Mumbai, the group went after hotels and restaurants that catered to American visitors. In Dhaka, they planned to go after an American diplomatic facility. In short, we are now at war with Lashkar-e-Taiba. Moreover, the Dhaka plot sought to provoke a wider conflict in the subcontinent by attacking the Indians as well as the U.S. and U.K.

The group’s base is in Pakistan, where it still enjoys at least passive support from the Pakistani army, if not active support. After a year of pressure from Washington and other capitals, Pakistan has done very little if anything to curb the group’s activities inside Pakistan. There are now almost daily warnings in India of new LeT plots to attack Indian targets at home and abroad. We can assume the threat to American facilities is also ongoing.

These threats formed the backdrop to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ visit last week to India and Pakistan. In India, he said the “syndicate” of terror groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan—al Qaeda, LeT, and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban—want to “destabilize not just Afghanistan, not just Pakistan, but the whole region by provoking a conflict between India and Pakistan through some provocative act.” Gates is right—the syndicate’s target is to provoke a cataclysmic war in South Asia that would set the stage for the creation of a new Islamic caliphate across the region.

We can not afford to let this threat continue to mature. We should put more pressure on Pakistan. However, in the absence of Pakistani action, we should take our own steps and with our allies like the British initiate a global takedown of LeT cells around the world.

Lashkar-e-Taiba has long-established cells in the Pakistani diaspora in the U.K., Western Europe, and in the Persian Gulf, as well as in Bangladesh and Nepal. It has supporters and fundraisers in the U.S. and Canada. Before the organization can partner with al Qaeda to strike the U.S. or Indian targets, we should encourage all of our partners in the counterterror world to break up these cells and use any intelligence gained to undermine and weaken this threat. This is a good counterterrorism policy, a good policy for keeping India assured that we take their concerns seriously in the war on terror, and a good way to put pressure on Islamabad to finally take on Lashkar-e-Taiba at home.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He was a negotiator at several Arab-Israeli summits and is the author of The Search for al Qaeda.

Aysha Chowdhry is a research analyst with the Brookings Project on U.S. relations with the Islamic World.