July 18, 2011

Book Review: Steve Tankel's "Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba"

Genius CNAS research assistant Mirv "Matt" Irvine, who knows more about Pakistani militant groups than most, has written a review of my friend Steve Tankel's new book on Lashkar-e Taiba. Enjoy.


bombings tore through downtown Mumbai last week, killing 17 people. Though
attributed to domestic Indian Mujadhedin, these attacks revived painful memories
of the devastating 2008 raid launched by 10 Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters in the
same city. Last week’s attack did not amass near the casualties as LeT’s 2008
spectacle, but it comes at a critical juncture in the still tenuous security
environment of South Asia.

U.S.-Pakistani relations approaching near complete dysfunction over the bin
Laden raid, the latest attacks brought further suspicion of Pakistan and its
ability and willingness to control its cadre of state-sponsored militant groups.  A new book, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba
(Columbia University
Press, 2011), by Stephen Tankel shines a new light on the murky world of
Pakistan’s premiere militant group and its rise to become one of the world’s
most dangerous non-state actors (a term used very loosely).

The 2008 attacks
marked a turning point for Lashkar-e-Taiba and for Pakistan's infamous ISI: the
Mumbai raid signaled the arrival of Lashkar as a globally capable terrorist
organization and was a clear example of the explosive danger of Pakistan and its
military and intelligence services' active support for terrorist proxies
against India. According to Tankel, the Pakistani "army and ISI essentially
built Lashkar's military apparatus from the mid-1990s onward specifically for
use against India."

In discussing
Pakistan's calculus following the 9/11 attacks, Tankel argues that the
Musharraf regime and ISI divided the country's militants into good and bad
jihadis. Lashkar won out over other terrorist groups because it "was the
most reliable in Islamabad's eyes and fared the best." Lashkar would
occupy an increasingly prominent role in the India-Pakistan conflict as the two
nuclear powers sought to avoid conventional clashes due to the risk of

resisted eliminating its proxies throughout the last decade to preserve what
the ISI viewed as "a necessary auxiliary force in the event of a war with
India, which they continued to view as an existential threat." Following
the 2008 Mumbai attacks, according to Tankel, "the security services made
no attempt to dismantle the military apparatus that produced Lashkar's
militants and which made the Mumbai attacks possible."

Just as Pakistan
practices a double game with the United States and militant proxies today,
Lashkar itself balances its state sponsor's interests with its own effort to
support the jihad against America and the West. Tankel documents how Lashkar
capitalized on its protected position within Pakistan by offering safe haven to
other jihadi groups, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan against American forces,
recruiting and training al Qaeda fighters and participating in terrorist
attacks in Pakistan and abroad.

policymakers are increasingly focusing on Lashkar as an emerging transnational
threat that weighs heavily on not only U.S. counterterrorism objectives but
also the broader U.S.-Pakistani relationship. As a parting component of Storming the World Stage, Tankel answers
the question: Does Lashkar threaten the U.S. and its Western allies at home and
abroad? Yes. According to him, the group's role in the war in Afghanistan, its
targeting of foreign interests in India and elsewhere and its increasingly
global operations make it a direct threat to U.S. interests. More alarmingly
for Tankel, Lashkar's
continued "work as part of a consortium" of militant actors working
in concert makes it a key enabler for transnational terrorism, one that
receives support and protection from the Pakistani government.

Lashkar is not
going to fade from the world stage for the foreseeable future. Policymakers in
the U.S. and throughout the world must increasingly plan for dealing with the
group. However, it is also important to note that the group and its Pakistani
sponsors are not unitary actors and, as Tankel notes, "unless something
changes, arresting this tide will only grow more difficult with time."

Tankel has
produced one of the definitive accounts of Lashkar’s rise as well as the 2008
Mumbai attacks, and his book should be the go-to-guide for those looking to
understand Pakistan’s reliance on proxies against India and its attached

follow-on reading: Sebastian Rotella’s Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story and Bruce Riedel’s Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of Global Jihad.

Matthew Irvine is a researcher at the Center for a New American
Security and co-author of the report Beyond
Afghanistan: A Regional Security Strategy for South and Central Asia.