Why is Pakistan reluctant to bring Lashkar-e-Taiba to justice?

Ten years on, the group suspected to be behind the deadly Mumbai attacks is still operating freely in Pakistan.

Mumbai attacks
Smoke rises from the Taj Hotel in Mumbai November 27, 2008 after gunmen launched a series of attacks in India's financial capital Mumbai [Reuters/Arko Datta]

Ten years ago today, India’s financial capital Mumbai was rocked by gunfire and explosions. The attack lasted four days and left over 160 people dead. In the subsequent investigations, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi and Hafiz Saeed, two leaders of Pakistan-based armed group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), were named as the suspected masterminds of the attack.

In December 2008, the Pakistani authorities arrested Lakhvi and kept him behind bars until 2015, when a local court released him on bail due to “insufficient evidence” provided against him.

Saeed was put under house arrest following the Mumbai attacks but was set free in 2009. In 2012, the United States announced a $10m reward for any information that leads to his capture. 

Over the past decade and a half, LeT has gone through various transformations as it came under international and domestic pressure. Organisations affiliated with LeT include Jamat-ud-Dawa, Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation and Tehreek-e-Azadi Jammu and Kashmir – all led by Saeed.

Despite all these name changes, the core of the LeT is very much alive and its activities extend across the country. So 10 years after the Mumbai attacks, why is Pakistan still unable to contain the movement?

Secret ties

Many believe the secret relationship between the Pakistani intelligence and the LeT – which was exposed during the subsequent investigations in India and the US – is the main reason behind Pakistan’s reluctance to stamp out the movement. It is alleged that because of the support of the security apparatus for the group, no solid action has been taken against LeT. And there is very little the civilian authorities can do, even if they want to take action against the group.

The former head of the Federal Investigation Authority of Pakistan, Tariq Khosa, wrote in 2015 that even though his agency had uncovered enough evidence to prove the LeT was behind the Mumbai attacks, the courts had failed to convict anyone for the crime.

Politicians who have tried to push for the organisation to be held accountable have gotten in trouble. After Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif implied that the LeT was behind the Mumbai attacks in an interview with local newspaper Dawn earlier this year, a Pakistani court initiated a treason case against him and the journalist who published the interview for defaming national institutions.

While those who question the group’s actions and ability to operate with impunity are being harassed, the LeT continues to expand its footprint in the country under different guises, using charity organisations as fronts. 

One such front, Jamat-ud-Dawa recently launched a political party called Milli Muslim League, allegedly as part of a military plan to push such groups into mainstream politics

The party has not secured official registration with the Election Commission of Pakistan, but it openly backed candidates that contested the July general elections and performed much better than traditional political parties in some areas of the country – such as in Lahore where Sheikh Muhammad Yaqoub secured more votes than the Pakistan People’s Party candidate Zubair Kardar. So how did the LeT manage to gain the trust of so many Pakistani citizens?

LeT recruitment among Pakistan’s poor

The tacit support LeT receives from the powerful military, which in many ways runs a “parallel government” in Pakistan, allows the organisation to operate freely in all corners of the country. The group focuses its efforts on areas where vulnerable Pakistanis are looking for help with subsistence. 

I have followed the group closely during my reporting missions in the country, and have seen how they run an expansive network of charity organisations. While this is a front that they use to justify their continued presence, it is also a way to win hearts and minds of Pakistanis, who they recruit for their political causes.

I saw this happening multiple times, especially in the aftermath of natural disasters. The Pakistani state lacks the infrastructure to help its population in the aftermath of such disasters and it appears to have outsourced this role to such “charity” groups. 

During a reporting trip to south of Punjab province following a flood in 2014, I witnessed members of the  Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation helping out the affected population by bringing them food and providing them with shelter. When I asked one of them about their motives, he told me that their primary aim was “to find new recruits for their movement”. 

It is unlikely that the Pakistani authorities, and particularly the military, are unaware of LeT’s recruitment activities among the poor. But the group is perceived to be focused on “external enemies” – i.e. to be practising its militancy elsewhere – and hence to pose no immediate threat to Pakistan.

This is why the LeT is allowed to operate freely to this day. And this is why we are yet to see any concrete action taken against those who are known to be masterminds of the Mumbai attack.

But this policy of allowing “outward-looking” militancy to continue to exist might soon backfire. In recent times, many former LeT operatives have joined other armed groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that consider Pakistan an enemy and carry out attacks on Pakistani soil against the Pakistani population.

Furthermore, we cannot possibly expect that instability and militancy in neighbouring countries will not eventually cross back into our territory and affect us as well.

A decade after the Mumbai attacks, it really is time for Pakistan to change its policies and stop allowing hate groups to prosper within its borders. If it fails to take action, the likes of the LeT will continue to radicalise the Pakistani youth, push them towards violence and eventually harm the Pakistani society itself. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.