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Earlier this month, a Chicago man pleaded guilty to helping plot the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India. David Coleman Headley said he attended militant training camps in Pakistan, and was linked to a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lashkar claims to be focused on the tensions between Pakistan and India, but U.S. officials say the group's aspirations are broader, and that David Headley is proof. They're concerned Lashkar will recruit other Americans to attack America.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: David Headley's bio reads like a spy novel. He's the character who can straddle two worlds. His mother was an American, a Philadelphia socialite, his father, a Pakistani diplomat. As a young man, he traveled often to Pakistan and India, and, with his American passport, attracted little attention. So little attention that U.S. officials were unaware that he was building ties to militants or that he attended training camps run by the Islamic group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Mr. RICK NELSON (Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies): The issue with David Headley was very serious.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Rick Nelson tracks counterterrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. NELSON: Not only was he recruited but he actually went overseas and conducted some very technical operations vis-a-vis surveillance and mapping of targets. And that's a higher level of support than we've seen.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And is he an outlier or do we think that there are other people here that we don't know about?
Mr. NELSON: I think LeT is very sophisticated and is going to continue to try to recruit individuals like the David Headleys of the world that can help them conduct their attacks in India and elsewhere that's in their interest, absolutely.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Headley is important because of what his connection to the group says about Lashkar's ambitions. While India remains the group's principal target, it's been waging a low-grade holy war against the United States for a decade. Remember the Virginia paintball case? Back in 2000 and 2001, the FBI arrested a group of men playing paintball in the woods of Virginia. It came out later that the men were out there doing military training and had a Lashkar connection.
Mr. STEPHEN TANKEL (Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Two of those people trained with Lashkar-e-Taiba before 9/11, and then four of them trained with them after 9/11.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Stephen Tankel is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He's just written a book on LeT.
Mr. TANKEL: This is again a very good example of how LeT not only trains Westerners but how it then used them. There are rumors that one of them might have been asked to do reconnaissance in the U.S., but nothing ever came of it. But again, this was a way for LeT to grow its network.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The group's network is vast. It has people in the Persian Gulf, Europe, North America, and operatives as far away as Australia. Again, Stephen Tankel.
Mr. TANKEL: This is a group with transnational networks that they're not necessarily going to use to do attacks outside of South Asia - but that they could.
TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. officials haven't been able to do much about LeT for political reasons. Lashkar was supposed to be outlawed in Pakistan in 2002. But according to court papers in the Headley case, it still has ties to former Pakistani military officials.
Christine Fair is a fellow at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and a professor at Georgetown University. She says pressuring LeT would require leaning on Pakistan.
Professor CHRISTINE FAIR (Political Science, Georgetown University): We have been very reluctant, even after Mumbai, to put pressure on the Pakistanis because we understand very well that Lashkar-e-Taiba is the preferred organization of the army, the Pakistan army, and their intelligence agency, the ISI.
TEMPLE-RASTON: She says that LeT will continue to be protected as long as it's seen as a hedge against what the country sees as its number one enemy: India. But the development that worries U.S. intelligence is that LeT is running training camps specifically for Westerners, who can then find their way to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
That's the route David Headley took. It turns out Lashkar-e-Taiba actually introduced him to an al-Qaida operative in Pakistan. The irony? The reason the U.S. uncovered Headley's connection to the Mumbai plot was because they were watching the man from al-Qaida.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.