The Laskhar-e-Taiba in Afghanistan

The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has become more visible after a hiatus – this time in Afghanistan both in support of the Taliban and in a takeover of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK).

The LeT was, originally, set up by the ISI in Kunar, Afghanistan in the late 1980’s to provide a platform for Pakistanis to join the ‘jehad against the Soviets’. The training that the LeT received was similar to that which the Afghan Mujahideen received from the ISI.

The LeT’s ideological roots are the Ahl-e-Hadith sect of Islam, a Salafist group, which draws inspiration and financial support from the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia. The Ahl-e-Hadith constitute only 4-5 per cent of Pakistani Sunnis and the use of a Salafist sect was to access Wahabi funding which, at that point in time, was available in plenty for the Afghan jehad. Another reason is that the Ahl-e-Hadith definition of jehad is somewhat similar to that of the Wahabi.

LeT’s parent is the Lahore-based Jamaat ud Dawah (JuD). The JuD’s first and hitherto only chief is 70-year old Hafiz Saeed.

Hafiz Saeed’s father-in-law, Hafiz Abdullah Bahawalpuri, was a well-known Ahl-e-Hadith theologian. Saeed first came to the attention of Pakistan’s dictator Gen Zia-ul Haq and was appointed to the Council of Islamic Ideology and served as an Islamic Studies teacher at a Pakistani university. The University sent him to Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s for his Masters in Islamic Studies at the King Saud University in Riyadh. This gave him the opportunity to build ties with those supporting the Afghan mujahideen.

In 1987, Hafiz Saeed returned to Pakistan and, with ISI patronage, founded the Markaz Dawa Wal Irshad (MDI) (the earlier name for the JuD) and its militant wing, the LeT. The family plays a big role in the JuD/LeT – Bahawalpuri’s son, Abdul Rehman Makki, is the second in command of JuD and Saeed’s son, Talha Saeed, controls the LeT’s funds as its second in command.

Operations in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s ouster

After the Soviet withdrawal, the LeT remained relatively inactive inside Afghanistan but resurfaced some years after the fall of the Taliban in a more open relationship with the ISI. Initially, they were used to counter anti-Pak forces who had taken refuge in Afghanistan – the Mullah Fazlullah (Mullah Radio) faction of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTK) which was opposed to the Pakistan army and had issues with the Taliban over its links with the ISI.

Pakistan suspected that Fazlullah had been given sanctuary by Afghanistan and that the US had turned a blind eye to their activities. It used the LeT, operating from ISI controlled border posts on the Pakistan side of the border, as a special forces unit against Fazlullah. In late 2011, an ISI directed LeT operation against the TTP led to a skirmish with US troops at a border post close to Salala (Mohmand Agency, FATA). Two ISI officers directing the LeT were reported to have been killed in the incident along with 28 others.

The LeT and the Islamic State of Khorasan

The Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) came into existence in Pakistan in 2014 as a consequence of operation Zarb-e-Arb launched by Gen Raheel Sharif to cleanse Waziristan of foreign terrorists and anti-Pak militants, mainly those from the TTP. What the operation achieved was driving the militants into Afghanistan and creating thousands of internally displaced refugees.  This operation and the accompanying human rights violations sowed the seeds of what was eventually to become the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a Pashtun nationalist movement which is popular on both sides of the border.

In 2015, six prominent TTP leaders along with their followers switched sides and pledged allegiance to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They nominated Hafiz Saeed Khan of the TTP as their leader and former Afghan Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Aliza as deputy leader. The ISK’s cadres were largely Pakistani. In August 2015, they were joined by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and other assorted Central Asian Islamist groups who had also been driven out of Waziristan. There were even some Uighurs who joined them. Later, defectors from groups like the Al Tawhid Brigade, Ansar ul-Khilafat Wal-Jihad, dissidents from the Taliban, others from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jundullah (itself a splinter of the TTP), etc joined hands as they were attracted to the ISK’s religious-political goals.

The adversaries of all these groups remained the Pakistan army and the Taliban.

Though the group swore loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, any links between this group and the Islamic State in the Middle East were, in fact, tenuous. The ISK began aggressively driving the Taliban out of parts of Nangarhar and expanding into Farah and Helmand.

The appearance of this new force, in what was already a potent mix, was a cause for concern. Afghan Special Forces and US Rangers combined to mount operations and drove the ISK out of Nangarhar. In April 2017, the US tried, unsuccessfully, to clear ISK fighters from a cave complex in Nangarhar using the so-called mother of all bombs (MOAB).

In 2017, the then ISK head, Abu Said Bajauri (Mawlawi Abdul Rahman Ghaleb) was killed in Kunar in a drone strike two months after he took over. In his place Mawlawi Zia ul-Haq (aka Abu Omar Al-Khorasani) was appointed the emir.

In mid-2018, Mullah Fazlullah was killed in a US drone strike and the TTP remnants loyal to him also joined the ISK but the ISK continued to lose ground in Nangarhar. The Taliban also inflicted heavy casualties leading to the death of 40 ISK fighters in a counterattack in Jauzjan in August 2018. In another operation, this time in Darzab district against the Afghan Army, 128 cadres were captured and a large number surrendered. Seeking to stem the reverses, the ISK leadership council felt that a change of leadership would revive their fortunes. Having lost ground in Nangarhar, they also needed to look for sanctuaries to operate from.

It was at this point that the LeT which had been engaged militarily in countering Fazlullah in Kunar mounted an operation to take over the ISK. The shift appears to have been partly due to the concern in the Pakistan Army over the immense popularity of the PTM in the Pashtun belt and the possibility of the ISK exploiting this.

In April 2019 (though others put the date as sometime in 2018), an embattled ISK, in exchange for safe havens, gave in to pressure from the ISI and appointed Mawlawi (or Sheikh) Aslam Farooqi, an LeT alumnus, as its Emir. Also known as Abdullah Orakzai, he is a 43-year old Afridi Pathan from Pakistan who joined the LeT in 2004. This appointment proved contentious with the Central Asian group opposing Farooqi as they suspected that he was a ISI stooge. They were supported by some Afghan commanders who instead proposed Muawiya Khorasani, said to be a former IMU commander.

Aslam Farooqi has had many associations – he is tied to the ISI and has deep connections with the terror world. In 2014, he went to Syria to fight alongside the ISIS. Accompanying him were a batch of 167 LeT cadres and others from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the TTP. He returned to Pakistan in 2016 as head of the ISK’s military wing in Peshawar before he was redeployed to Nangarhar.

Dr Antonio Giustozzi, the leading expert on Afghanistan, holds that Farooqi’s appointment was part of a trade-off with the ISI. In exchange for safe havens in Pakistan, the ISK agreed to appoint Farooqi and not undertake military operations inside Pakistan. For the ISI, a Pashtun, formerly with the LeT, as the head of ISK was an optimal arrangement. But this was a patchy agreement as those from the original TTP/ISK opposed to the Pakistan army/ISI resented a former LeT cadre (seen as ‘a representative of the Pakistan government’) leading them. Obviously, his appointment led to improved relations with the Pakistani authorities and they were reported to have even received funding from the ISI.

However, the Central Asians, particularly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), who held Pakistan accountable for the attacks against them when they were based in Waziristan resisted Farooqi’s appointment. For the original construct too, Pakistan was an adversary along with the US and the ‘puppet’ Afghan government in Kabul. So was the Taliban, which the ISK held was not fighting a pure jihad. Those who joined the ISK from the LeT were, therefore, treated with deep suspicion.

The ISK (Moawiya)

Consequently, the ISK split into two – one led by Farooqi comprising mainly Pashtuns from Afghanistan/Pakistan and another led by Moawiya (variously referred to as Moawiya Khorasani or Uzbekistani). Giustozzi claims that Farooqi’s group had 8,000 members while Moawiya’s group had about half that but this was probably in their heyday.  There have been attritions thereafter due to US air strikes, Afghan Army operations, defections and the actual figures today would be in the region of 10-20%. However, the fear is that ISIS fighters returning from Syria could beef up these groups, particularly the Moawiya group which, with its sanctuaries along the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and Russian language expertise, will prove to be a draw.

Moawiya is said to be in his early 30’s. One credible report holds that he is actually from Tajikistan and grew up in Dushanbe before going to Pakistan in 2011 or 2012. He studied there for two years in a madrassa where he was radicalised. He left Tajikistan for the second time in 2014, again ostensibly to study in a madrassa. His real name is Sayvaly Shafiev and his principal focus, with the ISK, is to gain a sanctuary from where he can mount an Islamic challenge to the government in Dushanbe.

Moawiya’s group comprises many nationalities – mostly fighters from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It also has a few Baloch, some of whom are dissidents from the Jundullah group (opposed to Iran) and also Uyghurs. There are reports of IS veterans from Sudan and others from the Russian speaking world (Chechens, Dagestanis, etc) joining Moawiya. This group is reported to be active mainly in Badakshan and Jauzjan in northern Afghanistan.

In Badakhshan, there are said to be a large number (anything upto 400 according to one account) from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – Uighurs) and the Harkat-i-Islami Uzbekistan. They operate mainly in the Khastak valley of Juram district, adjacent to Pakistan. Moawiya’s faction has connections to Central Asian drug trafficking, racketeering networks and assorted links to various individuals and groups.

The ISK (Farooqi)

The Farooqi group has been beefed up by some new pro-Pak cadres and it no longer resembles the original grouping. The Afghans refer to it as having been taken over by ‘Punjabis’ – a euphemism for the LeT. Farooqi’s lot has access to Pakistani facilities and sources of funding.

It was Farooqi’s group which claimed responsibility for the attack on Gurudwara Gur Har Rai in Kabul. The ISK had also claimed responsibility for an earlier attack (March 05) on a mostly Shia gathering which was attended by politicians including Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. (These were two of the three major operations in Kabul after the US-Taliban peace accord)

On April 04, a few days after the gurudwara attack, the Farooqi-led ISK suffered a setback when Farooqi and 19 of his associates were arrested in Kandahar. There are reports suggesting that a tip-off may have come from a member of the ‘original ISK’. However, the fact that Farooqi and 19 others were arrested without an exchange of fire, in an area where they do not operate and which is relatively free of either ISK or Taliban activity, points towards a surrender of sorts.

There are also reports that he was on the run from the Taliban. One version is that the Pakistanis did not authorise him to enter via Torkham and directed him to Chaman. This is difficult to fathom – the Afridis are spread on both sides of the Durand Line and Farooqi, an Afridi from Orakzai, should have had no difficulty in crossing over. There are suggestions that the Pakistanis have lost interest in ISK and are looking to push the grouping towards new projects. Subsequent to this development was a report that the entire Quetta shura was killed in a bombing. Though the ISK claimed responsibility, this report was not confirmed but it does suggest that differences have arisen between the ISK and the Taliban.

Pakistan has now asked (April 09) Afghanistan to hand over Aslam Farooqi to them as he was ‘involved in anti-Pakistan activities in Afghanistan’. There is no record or complaint earlier of his anti-Pak activities.

Another incident which underscores the crosscurrents at play is the attack on the maternity ward of an MSF run hospital in Dasht-e-Barchi, Kabul on May 12, 2020. The Afghan government blamed the Taliban which counter alleged that it was the ISK supported by Afghan intelligence. However, the attack, though it was in a Shia locality and where the casualties were Shia, does not appear to fit within the ISK’s operational profile. For one, it was in Kabul, somewhat out of their area of operations and demonstrated a fair deal of sophistication in terms of terrain knowledge and access to logistics – something which the foreign-dominated ISK has not hitherto shown. It also came at a time when much of the ISK’s senior leadership is in custody. The ISK also did not claim responsibility.

The US appeared to go along with the Taliban and claimed that it was the ISK that had conducted the attack. The only other possibility is the Haqqani Network (HN) but the US would be reluctant to admit that the HN, which they had identified as an ‘arm of the ISI’, continues to operate independent of the Taliban. A HN hand in the attack would, by inference, implicate Pakistan which is not something that the US would want at this stage in their plans to exit the region.

Pakistan’s attempts to prop up the ISK or to create a new entity which is essentially influenced by the LeT fits in with the long-held expectation that Pakistan will create a pressure group to (a) keep the Taliban in line with their interests if the peace deal works, (b) give the LeT an element of deniability in future operations which cannot be attributed to the Taliban or the HN, (c) counter the militias equipped and funded by the CIA, and (d) provide military assistance to the Taliban. It is also to safeguard against the PTM becoming a militant movement and possibly give deniability to the ISI if they venture into training foreign (Indian) insurgents on Afghan soil.

New developments

At another level, the LeT as an entity is acting more aggressively inside Afghanistan in support of the Taliban. There have been persistent reports of several hundred LeT militants being spotted in Kunduz and in Kunar.

Earlier, in October 2015, the Taliban in its offensive in Kunduz was joined by not only Afghans but also Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uighurs, Chechens, Dagestanis, a few from the al Qaeda and some Pakistanis. Initially, the outsiders fought under ISIS’s black flag but, following adverse reactions, the black flag gave way to the predominantly white Taliban flag. There was speculation at that time that the Pakistani elements were from the LeT.

More recently, there were reports of the use of the Taliban’s elite Red Unit in the attacks in Kunduz (May 2020). This unit which has various names (Red Group, Blood Unit, Danger Group) is said to be a Special Forces Unit of about 300, mostly recruited from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, indoctrinated in madrassas and trained at camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border, one of which is in the mountains of Paktika province (an area where the HN operate). They do not have any tribal affinity and do not identify with villages.

The German Mujahid mercenary Abdul Wadood, originally from Frankfurt, who was captured by Afghan security forces in early 2018 is said to have been a military advisor to the commander of a Red Unit in Helmand. Wadood who is in his 40’s spent four years in Quetta, a year in Paktia and another year with the Red Unit.

The Red Unit is equipped with ‘advanced weaponry’ including night vision devices, heavy machine guns and M4 carbines and move on motorcycles. Their uniform – camouflage shalwar kameez’s and sports shoes, not something normally available off the shelf (as is the attire of the Taliban) suggests some form of external support. This also precludes the possibility of these militants merging locally. They would need to retreat to secure bases where they can store their motorcycles and weapons away from prying eyes. There is, therefore, speculation of a Pakistani involvement and that the cadres are associated with the LeT.

The American war-on-terror was a setback to Pakistan, but it clawed back into contention after Musharraf’s U-turn and this is something they would like to preserve. There has always been a lurking fear in Pakistani minds that the Taliban could turn against its erstwhile benefactor. If this were to happen it could fuel Pashtun nationalism, a source of considerable concern to Pakistan. This is where the LeT, or a rebranded variant, will be a possible strategic option to exert pressure on the Taliban if in case it takes the peace deal ‘too seriously’; or decides to bolt; or needs military assistance.

To go back a bit, in July 2019, Pakistan put out signals that it had begun distancing itself from its reliance on jehad as an instrument of foreign policy. They formally proscribed the Jamaat ud Dawah (JuD) and its front organisations and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The year 2020 also saw the charade of JuD chief Hafiz Saeed being convicted and JeM leader Masood Azhar ‘disappearing’ but all of this was likely aimed at avoiding being ‘blacklisted’ by the FATF. Prior to this there had been an attempt to mainstream the JuD. It contested the 2018 general elections but failed to make any headway as none of its 265 candidates won. Actually, it was the Americans who, after 26/11, pushed for mainstreaming as a way to separate the JuD from its military wing.

It has always been smoke and mirrors when it came to the LeT.  The ISI has been loath to give up what it considered its key ‘strategic asset’. If the Haqqani Network (HN) is the ‘veritable arm of the ISI,’ as the Americans referred to it, it is the LeT which is the ‘sword arm’ of the ISI. The LeT’s value to the Pakistani deep state is immense – it is highly trained with special forces capabilities. The LeT does not militarily operate inside Pakistan and is largely free from the indiscipline that plagues the JeM and which has taken on the Pakistani state on home soil.

Future dangers

The Pakistani Army has considerably outsourced its work. While it rules Pakistan, it has two well trained irregular forces serving Pakistani interests – the LeT and the HN. While the latter’s area of operations is limited to Afghanistan, the former serves as an expeditionary force.

The LeT has demonstrated its capability in the attack in Mumbai (26/11) where they performed as a well-trained unit, with special forces capabilities – virtually a marine commando unit – crossing the seas in fishing trawlers and landing at their destination with pin-point accuracy to wage a Fedayeen-style attack. They can operate in larger formations as was evident during their forays into Afghanistan to engage with Mullah Fazlullah and now in support of the Taliban. They are, for all practical purposes, a clandestine special forces unit of the ISI.