The Mumbai Attacks and Jihadist Organizations
AEI Newsletter

Hassan Mneimneh
Hassan Mneimneh

The terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, in which Islamist militants killed almost two hundred people, underscore the vulnerability of democratic countries around the world to these sorts of assaults. The work of AEI scholars shows that the Mumbai attacks are yet another front in the global war on terrorism.

The organization widely suspected to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), has a narrower field of operation than the global al Qaeda network--it is a Pakistan-based Islamist group focused primarily on asserting Muslim control over Kashmir and the rest of South Asia--but it is no less a threat to international security. "LeT has both direct and indirect connections with al Qaeda," AEI visiting fellow Hassan Mneimneh says. "Both are part of the 'jihadist international,' providing mutual aid and support. LeT operatives navigate freely in and out of al Qaeda, and vice-versa."

Al Qaeda and LeT also share jihadist tactics. Mneimneh notes that both organizations "strive to inflict the largest number of casualties, irrespective of the status of the victims, and by using minimum assets." And regardless of where the jihadist attacks take place, most of them are aimed at "Westerners" and those considered to be associated with them. Even though India was the site of the terrorist attacks, the United States may also be an LeT target, Mneimneh says.

Mneimneh's work at AEI is part of a new project launched last fall on al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. In order to illuminate important aspects of jihadist strategy, Mneimneh and AEI research fellow Jeffrey Azarva are researching jihadists' online presence and public discussions.

The Mumbai attacks heightened tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi. Although the president of Pakistan has denied supporting LeT, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has close links with the jihadist organization. "Pakistan is not a state sponsor [of terrorism] in the strictest sense, but they skirt the edge of U.S. law and violate its spirit," says Danielle Pletka, AEI's vice president for foreign and defense policy studies. "Elements of Pakistan's government have long supported terror groups."

Pakistan must take urgent action against its homegrown jihadists, Pletka says: "Pakistan needs to rein in the terror groups operating on its soil (al Qaeda and a variety of affiliated movements), purge Islamist extremist supporters from the ranks of intelligence and the military, retool school curricula to emphasize education over ideology, and begin to act on a plan that extends the central government's authority throughout the nation." This consolidation of government will make it more difficult for the ISI and other free agents within the Pakistani government to support terrorists and subvert Islamabad's relationships with foreign countries.

The Mumbai attacks revealed crucial weaknesses in India's response to terrorism. Some commentators have called the attacks "India's 9/11," but, as AEI researchers Apoorva Shah and Tim Sullivan write, "India has seen four similar acts of terrorism in its large cities in the last six months." They argue that India needs to reform its security forces, improve intelligence sharing, and resolve the political rivalries that inhibit an effective response to terrorism. India is the world's largest democracy, and it has become freer and more prosperous in recent years. Its relationship with the United States has blossomed, a partnership assessed at several AEI conferences in the past two years.

That partnership is at stake in the Mumbai attacks. "India was the venue for these attacks," Pletka says. "But the United States, Europe, Israel, secular Western institutions, and moderate Muslims are all the intended victims. We have an interest in working with the Indians to find the perpetrators, bring them to justice, and persuade or compel the terrorists and their sponsors and supporters to stand down or be eliminated."

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