The Re-Orientation of Kashmiri Extremism: A Threat to Regional and International Security

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 22

Since the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the activities of foreign jihadists in Pakistan have been a major source of concern for both Washington and Islamabad. However, an equally if not more serious problem that has emerged over the last four years has been the progressive reorientation of Kashmiri Islamist tanzeems (organizations) toward an increasingly explicit anti-Musharraf agenda. These developments not only directly threaten the stability of a key U.S. ally in South Asia, but also appear to raise serious concerns about wider regional and even global security.

Catalysts for Kashmiri Reorientation

Historically, jihadist tanzeems operating in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) have fallen into two categories: (a) those that are comprised of primarily Kashmiri cadres, for example Al Badr and Hizbol Mujahadeen (HM); and (b) those that are predominantly non-Kashmiri in composition, including, the Ahle-e-Hadith tanzeem Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the prominent Deobandi groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Mujahadeen (HuM), and Harakat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HUJI). While most of the indigenous groups have retained their focus on Indian-administered Kashmir, many of the Deobandi outfits are now targeting Musharraf and other elements of the Pakistani state. This recent reorientation of prominent jihadist tanzeems constitutes a serious threat to Islamabad and is a phenomenon that stems from two main factors.

First was the Government of Pakistan (GOP)’s decision to ally itself with the United States in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). JeM was one of the earliest Kashmiri outfits to bridle at this relationship and, in fact, specific elements within the group wanted to immediately attack American interests in Pakistan after the launch of OEF in Afghanistan. This internal demand was initially denied by Jaish’s then-chief Masood Azhar, who favored compliance with the GOP’s new policy direction as politically expedient. Other group leaders such as Maulana Abdul Jabbar (alias Umar Farooq) vociferously disagreed, however, and have since managed to seize the reins of power within the organization. These militants are currently at the forefront of many of the anti-government attacks [1].

Second is what Pakistan-based analysts describe as the GOP’s adoption of a “moderated jihad” strategy, which has involved the imposition of tighter limits upon Islamists seeking to operate in J&K and the Indian hinterland. In large part, pursuit of this calibrated approach stems from external compulsions that became increasingly prominent in the wake of the JeM- (and possibly LeT-) backed assault on the Indian National Parliament (Lok Sabba) in December 2001. Prompting a yearlong standoff with Delhi, this attack brought Pakistan’s policy of proxy warfare under renewed scrutiny, not least because it raised the potential to spark a full nuclear exchange in South Asia. Reflecting western concerns, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage went to Islamabad in June 2002, during which he managed to extract a promise from the GOP to both abandon its reliance on Kashmiri militants and cease their infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC).

According to commentators in Islamabad, the strategy of a moderated jihad approach has acted as a double-edged sword for Pakistan. On the positive side, it has significantly reduced international pressure on the GOP as well as allowed Musharraf to continue the peace process with Delhi while simultaneously giving him the option of resuming militant activities should negotiations collapse or fail to produce tangible results. On the negative side, however, moves to limit jihadist attacks have clearly been interpreted by groups such as JeM and HuJI as a sell-out of the Kashmiri cause and confirmation that Islamabad, under the present government, is no more than a puppet of Washington. Certain analysts also believe that the strategy has prompted renegade factions within the armed forces and intelligence services—whose raison d’etre for most of their existence has been wresting control of J&K from India—to side with and actively support organizations seeking to redirect their ideological fervor against the Pakistani state.

Target Musharraf

The reorientation of Kashmiri groups toward an internal agenda has been particularly apparent with JeM and HuJI. As noted, Jaish was one of the first tanzeems to advocate the targeting of American interests in Pakistan and over the last four years has systematically moved to expand this focus to an explicit anti-GOP footing. This evolutionary tract has been mirrored by HuJI, which now routinely defines its operational priorities in terms of overthrowing the incumbent Musharraf regime. Both organizations have been directly implicated in high-level attacks on institutional pillars of the Pakistani establishment, including assassination attempts against the President (December 14 and December 25, 2003), Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and the Karachi Corps Commander General Ahsan Hayat [2].

Somewhat more worrying are indications that JeM and HuJI are acting in concert with enlisted cadres as well as junior and non-commissioned officers in the armed forces. The December 2003 attack on Musharraf, for instance, is widely thought to have involved lower ranking members of the military in addition to at least one commando drawn from the Special Services Group (SSG). Moreover, one of the key persons who infiltrated the army and trained the hit-men for the earlier attempt on the President’s life was Amjad Hussain Farooqui, a former member of JeM who is known to have sheltered Khalid Sheikh Mohammad until his capture in March 2003 [3].

A Globalized LeT?

Besides JeM and HuJI, U.S. officials have further suggested the possibility that “globalized” elements within LeT have taken on explicit non-Kashmiri designs and are moving to extend their operations beyond this theater and India proper. If confirmed, this would represent an especially dangerous development given that Lashkar has traditionally been one of the strongest and disciplined groups operating in J&K.

American concerns are predicated upon, inter alia, recent Pakistani reports of the group’s annual three-day ijtimah (convention), during which speakers are described as making virulently anti-Western proclamations as well as the “internationalist” content of LeT web-based materials. U.S. commentators fear these rhetorical signposts may be indicative of Lashkar leaning toward a more explicit global jihadist outlook, which, at least certain analysts assert, has been reflected in the establishment of residual logistical contacts with al-Qaeda, facilitation with Islamic recruitment drives for the Iraqi insurgency and readiness to provide military training for foreigners wishing to carry out attacks well beyond the Kashmiri theater (for example, Jack Roche, who has been linked to alleged terror strikes in Australia, and Shehzad Tanweer, one of the British Muslims involved in the July 7 bombings in London).

Long-time observers of the LeT, however, believe U.S. concerns are misplaced, arguing that Washington’s current perception of the group is based on a fallacious understanding of its historical lineage and reflects more post-9/11 biases than any genuine reorientation of the organization’s intentions. Analysts within Pakistan similarly reject the notion of a globalized LeT, noting that Lashkar is one of the more ideologically unified groups that has fought in J&K, and is therefore not as prone to the type of wider, non-Kashmiri metastasization that JeM and HuJI have undergone. They also point out that there is currently no evidence to substantiate claims about LeT’s supposed internationalist activities, further arguing that anti-Western rhetoric is nothing new and certainly not something that has translated into assaults outside J&K and India [4].

Yet it is important to stress that LeT does not have to be global to be of great significance for South Asia and beyond. The group is known to have been behind the attack on India’s Red Fort in December 2000 and it may have been deeply involved in the strike against India’s parliament in December 2001—an event that nearly precipitated all-out war between India and Pakistan. The potential to initiate such conflict, with the attendant specter of nuclear escalation, readily underscores the latent threat LeT poses to regional and international security that is irrespective of the actual bounds of its physical presence. Most recently, Indian officials believe that LeT may have been involved with the October 2005 serial blasts in New Delhi. The Islamic Inquilabi Mahaz (Islamic Revolutionary Movement) claimed responsibility for the blast, but some Indian analysts speculate that the Mahaz is tied to LeT.


The reorientation of Kashmiri Islamist terrorism has had a decisive impact on Pakistan’s internal stability. As noted, President Musharraf has already been the target of two concerted assassination attempts. Moreover, many Pakistanis believe entities such as JeM and HuJI are directly contributing to a noticeable expansion of radical Islamist sentiment across the country and that, unless constrained, will result in a highly polarized state that lacks any effective middle ground of political compromise. The 2002 elections that brought the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) to prominence in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan are often singled out as a salient case in point. This multi-party religious alliance, which is vigorously opposed to the GWOT and the modernist leanings of the Musharraf regime, has caused Islamabad a number of problems, not least by undermining efforts aimed at reforming madrassas and curtailing the activities of militants on the ground.

Beyond these national considerations, the various machinations of JeM, HuJI and LeT have significantly complicated Islamabad’s external relations. This is particularly the case in relation to India, which has repeatedly portrayed Pakistan as a bastion of Islamist extremism that poses a fundamental threat to the stability of South Asia and even the world. More seriously, attacks such as Lok Sabba in December 2001 clearly underscore the potential of these groups to trigger a wider inter-state conflict on the sub-continent. That a situation of this sort should arise is especially unnerving given that both countries possess nuclear weapons and that India has pursued an explicit war doctrine since 1999 and a “cold start” doctrine since 2002.

Peter Chalk is a Policy Analyst with the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, U.S. Christine Fair is the coordinator for South Asia research programs at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP). This article draws from their ongoing work for USIP Research and Studies Program.


1. Fair interviews with analysts of Pakistani militant organizations in Lahore, January 2005 and June 2005.

2. Massoud Ansari, “Divine Mission,” Newsline (Pakistan), June 2004; Zahid Hussain, “Al-Qaeda’s New Face,” Newsline (Pakitan), August 2004, Abbas, Zaffar . “The Pakistani Al-Qaeda,” The Herald, August 2004.

3. Zaffar Abbas. “What Happened,” The Herald, June 2005, p. 71; “Pearl murder plotter orchestrated bid to assassinate Musharraf,” The Daily Times, May 24, 2004; Amir Mir, “Uniform Subversion,” South Asia Intelligence Review, October 19, 2005; Zahid Hussain, “Al-Qaeda’s New Face,” Newsline, August 2004.

4. This judgment of LeT’s anti-western rhetorical orientation is based upon Fair’s collection of LeT materials since the mid-1990s. For more information about connections to the London bombings and Pakistan, see Massoud Ansari, “The Pakistan Connection,” Newsline (Pakistan), August 2005.