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Operational Metamorphosis: Mumbai, ISI, LeT and al-Qaeda

[Update below.]

To understand how the Mumbai attack seems to have been an original small-scale ISI plan for Kashmir which was then 'hijacked' by al-Qaeda and turned into a three-day display of urban terrorism, read Syed Saleem Shahzad today in the Asia Times. After a superbly concise (and essential) background history of the al-Qaeda-India-Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) dynamic, Shahzad cuts to the chase.

India has never been a direct al-Qaeda target. This has been due in part to Delhi's traditionally impartial policy of strategic non-alignment and in part to al-Qaeda using India as a safe route from the Arabian Sea into Gujrat and then on to Mumbai and then either by air or overland to the United Arab Emirates. Al-Qaeda did not want to disrupt this arrangement by stirring up attacks in India.

Nevertheless, growing voices from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and from within India for the country to be a strategic partner of NATO and the US in Afghanistan compelled al-Qaeda, a year ago, to consider a plan to utilize Islamic militancy structures should this occur.

Several low-profile attacks were carried out in various parts of India as a rehearsal and Indian security agencies still have no idea who was behind them. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda was not yet prepared for any bigger moves, like the Mumbai attacks.

Under directives from Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kiani, who was then director general (DG) of the ISI, a low-profile plan was prepared to support Kashmiri militancy. That was normal, even in light of the peace process with India. Although Pakistan had closed down its major operations, it still provided some support to the militants so that the Kashmiri movement would not die down completely.

After Kiani was promoted to chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj was placed as DG of the ISI. The external section under him routinely executed the plan of Kiani and trained a few dozen LET militants near Mangla Dam (near the capital Islamabad). They were sent by sea to Gujrat, from where they had to travel to Kashmir to carry out operations.

Meanwhile, a major reshuffle in the ISI two months ago officially shelved this low-key plan as the country's whole focus had shifted towards Pakistan's tribal areas. The director of the external wing was also changed, placing the "game" in the hands of a low-level ISI forward section head (a major) and the LET's commander-in-chief, Zakiur Rahman.

Zakiur was in Karachi for two months to personally oversee the plan. However, the militant networks in India and Bangladesh comprising the Harkat, which were now in al-Qaeda's hands, tailored some changes. Instead of Kashmir, they planned to attack Mumbai, using their existent local networks, with Westerners and the Jewish community center as targets.

Zakiur and the ISI's forward section in Karachi, completely disconnected from the top brass, approved the plan under which more than 10 men took Mumbai hostage for nearly three days and successfully established a reign of terror.

The attack, started from ISI headquarters and fined-tuned by al-Qaeda, has obviously caused outrage across India. The next issue is whether it has the potential to change the course of India's regional strategy and deter it from participating in NATO plans in Afghanistan.

He goes on to explain what few have well: That the fighting in Karachi since the Mumbai attacks that has left 35 killed and over 200 injured is between the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement), "comprising people who migrated to Pakistan after the partition of British India in 1947," and the Pashtun sub-nationalist ANP (Awami National Party). This ethnic dynamic is critical to understanding the conflict in Karachi, and another indication of just how much a tinderbox Pakistan is.

A couple points on what Shahzad has written. If accurate (and Shahzad is normally uncannily so), then:
1. ISI fingerprints are on the genesis of the attack plan.

2. Upper echelons of ISI delegated seemingly unsupervised to a junior officer, who signed off on the LeT/al-Qaeda alterations from small Kashmir assault to large scale Mumbai killing spree.

3. Upper echelons of ISI & military perhaps unaware of alterations, but not with clean hands. Kashmir or Mumbai, they planned terror attacks.

4. That "major reshuffle in the ISI two months ago," recall, was when Lt. General Nadeem Taj, a relative of Musharraf, was forced out as Director General of the ISI. It was a Pakistani intelligence shake-up largely by American insistence.

5. While the US had hoped the 'double dealing' of Taj would have left with him, it has to be understood that General Kiyani - head of Pakistan's military and thus effectively its military intelligence (ISI) - while admirably stalwart against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the North West and tribal areas, has always been equally stalwart regarding the Pakistani conflict with India over disputed Kashmir.

General Kiyani may have intended a minor operation for Kashmir and was almost certainly in the dark about the metamorphosis of the operation into a Mumbai massacre, but the law of unintended consequences holds little acquittal when leaders play with the fire of terrorism.

Even while the ISI political wing was disbanded just days before the Mumbai attack, the shakeup atop the ISI is irrelevant without a trickle-down impact. And so long as 'mid-level' men such as Major Zakiur Rahman man posts and sign off on al-Qaeda affiliates' massacres, there is little hope for Pakistan's emergence from the tinderbox of terrorism without itself being consumed by the very fires it tolerates.

Westerners call it a 'come to Jesus' moment. Whatever the South Asian equivalent, Pakistan has yet to have its own. When it does, the fighting inside Pakistan, among Pakistanis (and assorted imported radical travelers) will be fierce and bloody. May the jihadiyun not be the only ones armed and willing to fight.

UPDATE: Also later included more at The Tank on National Review Online.

I have remarked before that America's natural ally in the War on Terror is India. Elements within the Pakistani military and intelligence sympathetic to al-Qaeda will do the terrorists' bidding and drive the final wedge. This probably isn't it. But "the final wedge" will look very similar unless Pakistani leaders truly have a "come to Jesus" moment, as we Westerners like to call it. I am quite sure Pakistani Muslims would prefer a different choice of words. I am also quite sure that many of us presume a "come to Jesus" moment for Pakistan would be a moment where terrorists are categorically rejected. Yet it may well be in quite the opposite direction.

Either way, it will be a moment of clarity. That much, at least, will be welcomed by many, if not the events that follow.

UPDATE II: A reader asked via Twitter earlier for some clarification that others may similarly wonder.

Is the ISI major and LeT's Rahman TWO different guys, or is it the SAME guy? Shazad wording confused me on that point.

I responded via Twitter the following.

Major Rahman is ISI and its 'liaise' to LeT. Commander from ISI's perspective, not necessarily LeT's. Make sense?

Further, as Syed explains: The level to which the ISI dog wags the LeT tail is very diminished. And vice-versa in this case, actually.