India terror group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the new Al Qaeda? BY JAMES GORDON MEEK NEW YORK DAILY NEWS WASHINGTON BUREAU
Sunday, December 21st 2008, 4:00 AM
WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence was caught off-guard by Lashkar-e-Taiba's "highly sophisticated" Mumbai terror strikes last month, which top spies now consider the debut of a new "brand name" to rival Al Qaeda.
The Islamist group was formed with Pakistani government help decades ago, but U.S. officials admit underestimating Lashkar's shift from waging a minor conflict in the Kashmir region to threatening Westerners and Jews.
"There is real concern over the fact LeT has raised its profile," a U.S. counterterror official told the Daily News. "A lot of people are watching closely now to see if they're plotting new attacks."
The group is as mainstream in Pakistan as its ally Hamas is in the Palestinian territories.
Before the mayhem that began Nov. 26, no Lashkar camps in Pakistan's tribal areas had been targeted during an intense CIA offensive in the fall, a senior intelligence official confirmed.
The agency has used unmanned drones to fire missiles at Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives directing the insurgency in Afghanistan. Lashkar cross-trains with the two terror groups.
But U.S. counterterror efforts are now getting beefed up, sources said.
"Assume that the intelligence community has new targets it previously hoped would be only distractions, of which LeT is one," a third U.S. official told The News.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Lashkar - which once focused on the India-Pakistan fight over Kashmir - hit a "new threshold" of terror by killing Americans, Brits and Jews.
"They specifically targeted a Jewish center that was off the main drag," Mullen recently told reporters. "It raises this outfit to a much higher level than where it was before."
Brooklyn Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, were slain there, leaving their baby, Moshe, an orphan.
Many also were surprised by what one internal U.S. government document called "hit and run" tactics that killed scores of Indians and six Americans.
Mullen said the 10 thugs "in a highly sophisticated manner [held] at bay an entire city."
They had been trained by military pros in small arms and close combat for a year near Kashmir - though evidence isn't a slam dunk that Pakistani spies aided them, sources said. The killers used satellite GPS units and phones and Google Earth to plan and execute the attacks.
Ex-CIA analyst Michael Scheuer declared it "a superb operation."
Americans and Jews now face greater danger from Lashkar overseas, officials said.
"There are a lot of tourists in South Asia, and there's really not a lot we can do," Scheuer said.
"The question," said another intelligence official, "is whether Mumbai is a 'one-off' or if such operations could be sustained."