In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba

Posted: August 1, 2020 in RUSI Journal
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Very belatedly a review for RUSI Journal of Christine Fair’s recent book on Lashkar-e-Toiba. Well worth a read for those interested in the group.

Also taking this opportunity to catch up on media appearances as it has been a while. On the terrorism side of the equation spoke to the Independent about extreme right wing proscriptions in the UK, NBC about the growing right wing problem in Europe, and Matt Feldman cited some of my earlier work in this very interesting piece on the radical right and lone actors. On the China and the world side of the equation spoke to CNN about UK-China relations, to the Austrian Der Kurier about 5G, China and Europe, the Daily Express picked up an earlier piece for the Sunday Times about China/Russia geopolitics, Asia Times quoted some earlier work on China and Central Asia, while spoke to RFE/RL at some length for this bigger piece about China-Central Asia.

In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba

Fair-NEW-WEB-REVISED

C Christine Fair Hurst, 2019

Considered by some to be one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) emerged from the ‘fag end’ (p. 57) of the Afghan Civil War that more famously produced Al-Qa’ida. Responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, arguably the most audacious terrorist attacks since 9/11 and likely one of the key inspirations for the November 2015 attacks by the Islamic State on Paris, LeT is in fact one of the most sophisticated terrorist groups around. As C Christine Fair points out in In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, an impressive and detailed history of the group, the organisation has long since moved from being a simple terrorist organisation to becoming a political party, charity and branch of the Pakistani deep state (Pakistan’s solid and consistent ruling structures formed mostly from its security structures) that continues to be a factor in regional politics. Given the centrality to local and international security affairs of its host country, Pakistan, this gives the group an outsized relevance on the international stage. Being a potential spark between two nuclear powers that have long been at each other’s throats gives weight to LeT’s actions.

The group’s link to the UK has always been complex. Back in the 1990s, its senior leadership would openly visit the UK to raise money for its cause from the large Kashmiri diaspora. Its narrative of being at the forefront of the fight to liberate Kashmir appealed to much of the UK’s Kashmiri-Pakistani community. Some British citizens went to fight alongside the group, leading to the first trial against a Muslim imam in the UK in 1997, when then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sought to deport an Oldham-based Ahl-e-Hadith (the sect which provides LeT’s ideological basis) preacher who was assessed by MI5 as raising money, recruiting and facilitating travel of young Britons to fight alongside LeT in Kashmir. The path to liberate Kashmir that the preacher was accused of fostering was the same one along which the 7 July 2005 London bombers started their journey to infamy. Written from an American perspective, Fair’s book tends to see the Mumbai attacks as the moment when US officialdom really started to focus attention on the ground – the UK was already deeply concerned about the group long before this. Fair also shows the importance of the UK, partition and post-colonialism in the group’s mythology (p. 21). A heavily Punjabi organisation, LeT recruits in the part of Pakistan which was most badly impacted following partition (p. 115).

Fair is a well-established scholar of LeT and Pakistan, and an author of numerous books and academic texts on the country and the terrorist groups within it. Her mastery of the languages, and social and political dynamics of the region, is on clear display in this book, which uses LeT’s own texts to explain the group. Through this, she opens up a number of interesting new aspects.

One particular phenomenon she highlights using these texts is the role of women within LeT, and their importance in the group’s dynamic. This stands in contrast to other Kashmiri-focused jihadi groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (p. 135) and is what helps strengthen the organisation as a national institution. ‘LeT is the only jihadiorganization in Pakistan that has an active women’s wing that issues its own publications’ (p. 135). This is significant given the large number of jihadi organisations in the country. In the various LeT texts Fair cites, she quotes stories about women’s support for the group, their pride in their sons or husbands fighting and dying for the group – calling on their menfolk’s ‘brothers’ to not ‘let his Kalashnikov fall’ (p. 144). She also identifies how the group goes out of its way to permit and encourage female support at its events, including creating a separate section where they can gather at public events. The fact the group does this at some monetary cost reflects the importance it assigns to women’s participation. Most recruitment Fair identifies takes place among family and friends (p. 125). While she does not explicitly identify any countermeasures that might deal with the role of women as radicalisers for the group, she does propose the idea of women being a vector for future countering violent extremism engagements. Fair is clearly interested in the role of women in the group, and sees some value in looking in the future into understanding how they might be used to help deradicalise cadres.

The book is also persuasive in illustrating the importance of Kashmir to the overall Pakistani national mythology and its centrality to the Pakistani security state. She quotes Chief of Army Staff (often referred to as the most important figure in the country given the dominance of the army in national affairs) Raheel Sharif who during his Martyr’s Day speech in 2014 ‘explained that Kashmir is Pakistan’s sheh rag, or jugular vein … Kashmir is “nothing less than a struggle for [the] very existence of Pakistan as a viable nation-state”’ (p. 36). Within this context, LeT, one of the key foot soldiers in the struggle for Kashmir, is characterised as a central institution of Pakistan’s deep state. The emergence of a political branch (the Milli Muslim League, MML), its emphasis on charity and support in disaster-stricken areas (in particular during the 2005 earthquake, though Fair points out how the Pakistani state has sought to exaggerate its role (p.190)), as well as its well-funded and effective security apparatus, make it a very useful and deniable proxy in the ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India.

In contrast to the many other proxies that the Pakistani state is accused of supporting, in the book LeT is shown to be one that the state supports both practically and ideologically in many different ways. For example, it refrains from launching attacks within the country, it has refused to stir up the sectarianism that is popular within Pakistan against the Ahmadiyya community (a minority Muslim sect that is believed by many to be apostate) and it tells its followers that they are not permitted to overthrow Muslim leaders. This is something the group finds itself talking about a lot as followers ask why the organisation is so fixated on fighting enemies of Islam abroad when the government in Pakistan is hurting Muslims through its corrupt behaviour. The group’s line is that such leaders do not deserve to be overthrown, but rather to be persuaded through active proselytisation. In her book, Fair cites a number of LeT thinkers who say ‘violence is never a legitimate response with which to contend with an illegitimate Muslim leader no matter how dissolute he may be’ (p. 172). As with many things, the LeT thinkers see ‘any argument for jihad in Pakistan as a conspiracy, fostered by India or other enemies of Pakistan’ (p. 172).

A detailed and academic text, Fair’s book is written in the form of chapters which can each stand alone. While this might impede narrative flow across the book as a whole, it does make for a rich text which draws on an impressive array of primary texts including a number of LeT’s own magazines, books and reports to paint a detailed picture of the group. Given LeT’s continuing importance, such insightful work is to be welcomed and shows the complex and diverse array of extremist groups that the world continues to face.

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