Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari, the alleged facilitator of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, has proven to be a “treasure trove of information” for Indian investigators, according to new reports in the Indian press. Ansari has reportedly revealed that al Qaeda was tasked with training the Mumbai attackers in a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) training camp close to the Pakistan-Iran border.
It is not entirely clear where the camp was located, as Ansari has been unable to pinpoint its location for investigators. But according to at least one article, the LeT camp was inside Afghanistan. LeT terrorists are known to operate in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Ansari (a.k.a. Abu Jundal) was captured inside Saudi Arabia and then transferred to Indian custody in June. [See LWJ report, Key Mumbai plotter arrested in Saudi Arabia.]
The Deccan Chronicle reports that Ansari’s interrogation reports say he has explained that there is a “great degree of coordination now between Lashkar, Al Qaeda and even the Taliban.”
LeT reportedly called in al Qaeda to train its operatives because it was convinced that the organization could do a better job of preparing them for the Mumbai siege. Although 22 to 25 operatives were initially selected for the training, only 10 were able to complete it.
“Had all the 25 militants completed the training and made it to Mumbai the carnage would have been much worse,” a senior Indian official told the Deccan Chronicle.
Bin Laden’s documents
This is not the first time al Qaeda has been linked to the Mumbai attacks. Documents recovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan safe house reportedly show that the deceased al Qaeda master may have played a role in the plot. [See LWJ article, Report: Osama bin Laden helped plan Mumbai attacks.]
The Hindustan Times previously reported that bin Laden was in close contact with Hafiz Saeed, the wanted LeT chief. Citing Bruce Riedel, a former advisor to President Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Hindustan Times said bin Laden’s documents prove the extensive relationship between al Qaeda’s deceased emir and LeT.
“The documents and files found in Abbottabad showed a close connection between Bin Laden and Saeed, right up to May 2011,” Riedel told the Hindustan Times. Riedel added that the captured files “suggested a much larger direct al Qaeda role in the planning of the Mumbai attacks than many assumed,” and said bin Laden may have seen surveillance reports prepared by David Headley, the LeT operative who scouted out locations for the Mumbai siege.
The revelation of Hafiz Saeed’s ties to bin Laden also reportedly led the US to offer a $10 million bounty for the LeT chieftain in April. The relationship between Saeed and bin Laden is hardly surprising as al Qaeda and LeT have cooperated with one another since the 1990s. Bin Laden is also said to have played a direct role in LeT’s founding.
Still another al Qaeda link to the Mumbai attacks may be found in Ilyas Kashmiri’s role. Kashmiri reportedly took part in planning the operation. Kashmiri, a longtime commander in another al Qaeda-allied terrorist group, Harakat-ul Jihad Islami (HUJI), played a prominent role inside al Qaeda prior to his demise in 2011. Kashmiri was the head of Lashkar al Zil, or al Qaeda’s Shadow Army, which operates in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Kashmiri was also tasked with plotting attacks against Western and other targets. In January 2010, a US federal grand jury indicted Kashmiri for plotting to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Denmark for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
One of Kashmiri’s co-conspirators in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper plot was David Headley. It was Headley who performed surveillance on the targets selected for the Mumbai attacks. And it was Headley’s surveillance reports that may very well have ended up in bin Laden’s hands.
Tension over Pakistan’s role
Indian investigators are questioning Ansari about not only LeT’s ties to al Qaeda, but also about LeT’s ties to Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment. At least two Pakistani army officers have been connected to the plot and to Headley. One of them gave Headley the cash used to perform the surveillance in Mumbai.
The LeT has long been a Pakistani proxy. LeT chieftain Hafiz Saeed is protected by Pakistan to this day, even though there is a large bounty on his head.
Indian authorities say that, based on Ansari’s interrogations, Saeed may have even been inside a “control room” in Karachi that was used to coordinate the Mumbai attacks.
Ansari’s “interrogations now prove beyond doubt the existence of such a control room,” India’s home minister P. Chidambaram told reporters last week. “Such a control room could not have been established without some kind of a state support.”
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.