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Analysis: Lahore terror target not cricket

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Indrajit Basu
Kolkata, India (UPI) Mar 5, 2009
Fears have been looming for years that terrorists one day would attack cricket, South Asia's most popular international sport. It finally happened Tuesday, when gunmen ambushed a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan. But experts say the motives run deeper than an attack on cricket, and the implications of the attack are far greater.

The attack appears to be a cleverly crafted strategy to undermine Pakistan's democratically elected government, Sri Lanka's latest offensive against terrorism and, more importantly, create a deep rift in the friendly and close ties between Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

"Sri Lankan cricketers are not viewed as Indian cricketers by the terrorist organizations, and I cannot think of any terrorist group that has a grievance with Sri Lankan cricket," said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies of Nanyang Technology University in Singapore.

"Although the attack was directed against the Sri Lankan cricket team, in many ways it is against the Pakistani government and the state because, unlike India, Pakistan maintains very cordial relations with Sri Lanka and an attack against Sri Lankan targets is a good way to embarrass both governments," Gunaratna said.

In this cricket-crazy continent, the match between the two countries in Lahore was not just an international sporting event. It was also a goodwill gesture by Sri Lanka to help Pakistan regain its pride after India refused to play international cricket in Pakistan, citing security concerns following the Mumbai attacks last year.

"Sri Lanka went to Pakistan to help them out of a tragic situation where the host country had not played (hosted) a single test match for the past 14 months," wrote Sa'adi Thawfeeq, sports editor of The Nation newspaper in Sri Lanka. He added that Sri Lanka agreed to play in Pakistan to help out an Asian neighbor and fill in the void created by India's pullout.

"The attack was aimed at embarrassing the current democratically elected government, since the responsibility for protecting the Sri Lankan cricket team was solely that of the Pakistan government, as well as to spoil the relationship between the two countries," said Gunaratna.

Admittedly Pakistan has been an important friend to Sri Lanka ever since India stopped supplying weapons to Sri Lanka to help the island nation fight its war against the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Experts say that over the years Sri Lanka was forced to turn to Pakistan and China for weapons, which willingly obliged and consequently forged military links with Sri Lanka.

Reports suggest that military aid received from Islamabad and Beijing has been a key factor enabling Sri Lanka to successfully launch its recent military operations against the LTTE.

And that could be another reason behind the Tuesday attack. According to Shanaka Jayasekara, terrorism researcher at the Center for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism at Macquarie University in Sydney: "While Pakistan has been conceding to a great extent to the demands of the Taliban, such as the Shariah law in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region, the Sri Lankan government has taken a completely opposite strategy to eradicate terrorism by opting for a military operation. Many say that this is an attack on that concept of handling terrorism, where Sri Lanka has demonstrated some success."

The publicity mileage that such attacks derive cannot be ignored. "These days terror attacks in Pakistan hardly attract more than a scrolling news line at the bottom of the TV. In (the) absence of any worthwhile international events or targets in Pakistan, I think attacking the cricket match in Pakistan was the only opportunity the terrorists had to attract headlines globally," said Jayasekara.

Of course, there's no shortage of theories as to who could be responsible for the attacks. While some Pakistani police officials see clear similarities between Tuesday's attack and the Mumbai attack in November in terms of style, many suspect the LTTE played a role as well.

"While it is too early to assess who might have been responsible for the attack and why, one has to recall past instances of contacts (between the) LTTE and the Harkat-ul-Mujahedin, a member of the International Islamic Front of al-Qaida, and the role played by the commercial ships of the LTTE in the 1990s in facilitating heroin smuggling from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region," wrote noted Indian security expert B. Raman in his blog.

Moreover, Jayasekara's research over the years has revealed the LTTE has developed close relationships with several Islamist groups, including many in Pakistan, for mutually beneficial objectives.

"It is difficult to establish that link without sufficient evidence, but I know that the LTTE link with HUM is very active; they have good relations with members of HUM and have also established a front organization with them in Karachi. So LTTE involvement cannot be ruled out either," said Jayasekara.

But Jayasekara finds it difficult to believe that the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba -- which is based in Muridke, near Lahore, and was allegedly responsible for the Mumbai attacks -- was behind Tuesday's attacks as well, although the two operations had similar signatures.

"Most suspect the LeT behind the Mumbai attacks, but being a pro-Pakistani militant outfit with the tacit backing of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), I feel that it would be detrimental for LeT to attack targets in Pakistan," said Jayasekara.

Then who is responsible? Gunaratna believes the culprits belong to "imported terror groups" now based in Pakistan.

According to him, following the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, about 40 terror groups located in Afghanistan moved into Pakistan, finding a safe haven in which to set up their bases.

"Today Pakistan is fighting a relentless battle against terrorist groups like Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaida that were imported from Afghanistan. These are different from the likes of Afghani Taliban or LeT that the Pakistan government supports. These groups are totally against Pakistan and are capable of such acts," said Gunaratna.

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