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Lashkar-i-Taiba's roots in Lahore raise suspicions

Pakistani security analysts have narrowed their search for the perpetrators of the Lahore attacks to two domestic militant groups, Lashkar-i-Taiba and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistani security analysts have narrowed their search for the perpetrators of yesterday's Lahore terrorist attacks to two domestic militant groups, Lashkar-i-Taiba and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi - the former responsible for the Mumbai attacks in November, the latter linked to a plot to bomb a transatlantic aircraft in 2006. Analysts and officials in Lahore are convinced the evidence on the ground points to the Lashkar-i-Taiba.

"The appearance and tactics of the terrorists, and their selection of Lahore as the venue of the attack practically rules out everybody except them," said Amir Mir, a Lahore-based journalist and author of two books on militancy in Pakistan. That conclusion found support from Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, who said: "These were the same methods and same sort of people as hit Mumbai."

Video footage of the terrorist assault, shot from a Samaa TV studio overlooking the shootout, was poignantly similar to the Indian TV footage of Ajmal Qasab, the lone surviving Mumbai attacker. Mr Mir's rationale emphasises the deep roots that Lashkar-i-Taiba has in Lahore. The banned militant organisation and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, its charitable face, are headquartered at Muridke, about 30km away, and have two major offices in Lahore. The first is a mosque, Jamia Masjid al Qadsia, in the walled inner city of Lahore, where Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, chief of the Jamaat, delivered sermons to Friday congregational prayers. The second is an office in Model Town, an adjoining suburb to yesterday's attack venue. It was in Model Town that police made four arrests yesterday, as they pursued the 12 fleeing terrorists, and discovered a rickshaw full of automatic weapons, grenades and explosive devices. Government authorities had sealed Jamaat-ud-Dawa offices after the UN Security Council banned the organisation in December, but the Model Town office recently reopened as a shop selling Islamic literature.

Notably, Mr Saeed - initially as head of the Lashkar-i-Taiba, later of the Jamaat - had between 2000 and 2008 officially been granted exclusive rights for the conducting of the Eid al Fitr congregation prayers at Qadafi Stadium, where the Sri Lankan cricketers were playing. Police officials and witnesses confirmed that at least one of the dozen Lahore terrorists spoke in Pashto, the language of the insurgency-ridden north-west of the country, which is home to three different Taliban factions. Most of the terrorists looked like ethnic Punjabis and were overheard speaking in Urdu, the national language. This is among the reasons cited by security analysts in Islamabad, home to the Pakistan's vast intelligence community, to argue the attack was planned and executed by a trinity of terrorist groups based in South Waziristan, a tribal agency bordering Afghanistan. "We should look towards what is happening in the north, in particular at those launching terror attacks from Waziristan," said Najamuddin Sheikh, a former foreign secretary, speaking on Express 24/7 television. Baitullah Mehsud, the ruthless commander-in-chief of the Pakistani Taliban since Jan 2007, dominates South Waziristan. He has publicly admitted to harbouring al Qa'eda operatives, including the second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri, and is also host to Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, notorious as the sectarian terrorist organisation that introduced suicide bombing to Pakistan in the 1990s. The Lashkar-i-Jhangvi was added to the US State Department list of foreign terrorist organisations in 2003 after working with al Qa'eda to kill US targets in Pakistan, including Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi is reported to be under the operational command of Mati-ur-Rehman, a Pakistani bomb maker in his mid-thirties who holds dual charge as head of the al Qa'eda military committee, which is responsible for co-ordination with Pakistani militants.

Mr Rehman was identified in British and US press reports as being a primary suspect in the Aug 2006 plot to bomb transatlantic passenger jets taking off from London. However, Mr Mir, the author, highlighted the absence in Lahore of a suicide bomber, a signature Lashkar-i-Jhangvi tactic. Instead, he points to the impending trial in Pakistan of three members of the Lashkar-i-Taiba leadership, including Mr Saeed, who have been charged with planning and co-ordinating the Mumbai attacks. The terrorism charges carry the death sentence. That view assumes a radical change of objectives by Lashkar-i-Taiba. Since its formation in 1991, it has consistently focused upon waging guerrilla warfare against Indian security forces in Kashmir, and high-profile targets in mainland India. Speaking off the record, shortly after the Mumbai attacks, activists rigorously denied involvement, insisting they had not been able to conduct operations out of Pakistan since being banned by the government in 2001. The Lashkar-i-Taiba track record has convinced some security analysts that it did not carry out the Lahore attack. "Their agenda has, from day one, been: make India bleed in Kashmir. There is no denying the obvious similarities between Lahore and Mumbai, but the Lashkar-i-Taiba has always been pro-Pakistan. A domestic attack by them is almost unthinkable," said Zafar Malik, an independent analyst based in Islamabad. The conflicting deductions of analysts stand equal chance of vindication, according to intelligence sources who, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted Pakistani agencies had been blindsided by the Lahore attack. Police officials acknowledged the "very close semblance" with the Mumbai attacks, but are pursuing all leads. "We have not started working on who is responsible for the attack but we will soon find out. The attack was meticulously planned and not a spur of the moment thing," said Raja Khalid Farooq, inspector general of the Punjab police. thussain@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Isambard Wilkinson in Lahore

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