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EFSAS Commentary

Arrest of Lashkar-e-Taiba recruit in the US: It is high time the West pins down Pakistan’s ISI


The 7 February arrest in New York of United States (US) national of Dominican origin, Jesus Wilfredo Encarnacion, a fresh recruit to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), testifies that the Pakistani-sponsored terrorist outfit continues to remain a major threat to the West. As underlined in EFSAS Study Paper on the LeT and its prized American recruit David Coleman Headley, the LeT seeks to fill the void left by the vanquished Islamic State (IS) and the marginalized Al Qaeda by presenting itself in the eyes and imagination of impressionable postulant Jihadis in the US and Europe as the horse for the long race that would better fulfill their vision of gore and grime. It demonstrates the LeT’s true calling as an international terrorist organization which while paying lip service to the cause of the Kashmiris is actually hell-bent on inhibiting any peacefully negotiated solution to the Kashmir-issue. It starkly shows how State support, an enabling environment, and freedom to operate openly can lend potency and longevity to terrorist organizations. Above all, it is a grim and overdue reminder to the West that unless it acts promptly, effectively and firmly against the LeT and its benefactor, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), not only will remain highly vulnerable to LeT-linked terrorist attacks, but will also be kept on the tenterhooks over the Kashmir flashpoint between the nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan.

A press release of the US Department of Justice announced on 8 February, that the New York resident Jesus Wilfredo Encarnacion had been arrested at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York when he was about to board a flight on his way to Pakistan to join the LeT. US Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman was quoted as saying that “Jesus Encarnacion, a Manhattan man, plotted to travel to Pakistan to join and train with the terrorist organization Lashkar e-Tayyiba, which is infamous around the world for perpetrating the lethal 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and other atrocities. The excellent work of the FBI and NYPD stopped Encarnacion’s alleged plan to support this deadly terrorist organization before he took flight, and now he will face federal terrorism charges”.

James P. O’Neill, Commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD), added, “Jesus Encarnacion had expressed his desire to commit a terrorist attack while living in New York City and never abandoned those plans. Allegedly, one of his stated motives for traveling overseas was to get the training and experience he believed he needed to someday return to the United States and carry out attacks”. William F. Sweeney, Assistant Director-in-Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) New York Field Office, concurred by saying that “not only did Mr. Encarnacion express a desire to execute and behead people, he scheduled travel and almost boarded a plane so he could go learn how to become a terrorist. These organizations are using the internet and social media to appeal to the most barbaric impulses in people, and train them to kill”.

Several alarming details of the LeT’s modus operandi for identifying and recruiting western targets, and its support structure in the West, were revealed in the criminal complaint filed by US authorities on 8 February in the Manhattan federal court. FBI Special Agent Seth Yockel, who had personally been involved in investigating the matter, in his sworn deposition before the court accused Encarnacion aka “Jihadistsoldgier”, “Jihadinhear”, “Jihadinheart” and “Lionofthegood”, of “knowingly and intentionally attempting to provide ‘material support or resources’ as that term is defined in Title 18, United States Code, Section 2339A(b), namely, personnel (including himself) and services, to a foreign terrorist organization, to wit, Lashkar e-Tayyiba (‘LeT’), which at all relevant times was designated by the Secretary of State as a foreign terrorist organization”.

The complaint brings out that on 1 November 2018, Encarnacion began sending messages through a social media service to "a group chat for American Jihadis" consisting of nine participants, including Michael Kyle Sewell, a resident of Fort Worth city in Texas, in which he communicated his strong desire to join a Jihadi terrorist organization. Sewell responded with private direct messages to Encarnacion in which he recommended the LeT as the organization that would be worth joining. Sewell wrote, “They aare [sic] a group in pakistan. [Th]ey have way [b]etter fund[i]ng[]. And they operate in kash[m]ir afghanistan and india”. Sewell, who himself was interested in travelling to Pakistan to join the LeT, directed Encarnacion to an individual whom Sewell had earlier recruited for the LeT. He assured Encarnacion that this individual would assist him in travelling to Pakistan to join the LeT and receive training to commit terrorist acts on behalf of the outfit.

Encarnacion established contact with this individual, who was actually an undercover agent, and communicated with him until his arrest last week. In his communications Encarnacion betrayed vile and brutal intent, "Will I live in Pakistan. I want to fight. I want to execute. I want to behead". Encarnacion specifically committed to join the LeT in order to fight in Pakistan against India. He expressed a particular penchant to serve as an "executioner" and to commit acts of murder on behalf of the LeT.

The Complaint described Encarnacion as a “LeT supporter who attempted to travel overseas to join LeT yesterday, i.e., February 7, 2019. Since November 2018, ENCARNACION has repeatedly expressed… his allegiance to and support for LeT, and has discussed his desire and plans for joining LeT overseas so that he can receive training and participate in violent acts of terrorism. During those communications ENCARNACION said that he had made arrangements to travel to a particular city in a particular country in Europe as the first step of traveling to Pakistan to join LeT. On February 7, ENCARNACION traveled to JFK Airport, where he was arrested by the FBI after he attempted to board that flight to the European City”.

On the LeT, the complaint highlighted that “The State Department has reported that LeT is a Pakistan-based terrorist group originally formed in the late 1980s to oppose the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. LeT has conducted operations, including several high profile attacks, since at least 1993, against targets in India, with the stated objective of ending Indian control of the province of Kashmir. In particular, LeT was responsible for the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai against luxury hotels, a Jewish center, a train station, and a popular cafe that killed 166 people – including six U.S. citizens – and injured more than 300. The group has also attacked Coalition Forces in Afghanistan. LeT uses assault rifles, machine guns, mortars, explosives, and rocket-propelled grenades, and continues to operate freely within Pakistan, holding public rallies, raising funds, and plotting and training for terrorist attacks”.

In his communications with the individual Sewell had put him in touch with, Encarnacion repeatedly said that he hated the US and that he would “love to attack USA. I want to do like a bombing and shooting here”. He revealed that his primary reason for joining the LeT was to obtain training and guidance for this very purpose.

Meanwhile, in Texas a criminal complaint was filed against Sewell in which the FBI accused him of using social media to recruit people on behalf of LeT and send them to Pakistan for terrorist training.

The arrests of Encarnacion and Sewell reaffirm what EFSAS has contended in its aforementioned Study Paper on the LeT. While the Mumbai attacks of 2008 and the LeT plan to attack the Danish newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten in 2009 did shake the West out of its misplaced belief that the LeT posed a threat only to India, these two arrests should drive home to western law enforcement agencies the intent and capability of the organization to recruit radicalized individuals from within their countries, including people like Encarnacion whose eventual aim was to carry out attacks in the US. What allows the LeT to develop such capability, despite it not being as large or geographically well-spread a terrorist organization as the IS and Al Qaeda were in their heyday, is the nurturing care and unfettered operational space that its patron and benefactor, the ISI, provides it. That effectively frees the LeT of military pressure from the State that hosts it. This is the major hindrance that other terrorist groups have to contend with, as they should.

Unless the West cranks up pressure on the ISI and compels it to act against the LeT by using all the leverages that it possesses with Pakistan, it will have to live under the constant threat of more Encarnacions and Sewells emerging periodically from amongst its disgruntled, radicalized minority.

Unlike Encarnacion and Sewell, some of them will actually succeed in slipping through the radar. They can cause serious damage when they return indoctrinated, battle-hardened and determined to fulfill their dream of unleashing mayhem.