Book Review

Pakistan and its Army of the Pure

21 Mar, 2019    ·   5568

Rana Banerji review's Dr C Christine Fair's book, In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba

Rana Banerji
Rana Banerji
Distinguished Fellow

In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba

C. Christine Fair

C. Hurst & Co. London, 2018

This book on the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) is the culmination of years of painstaking research by renowned Georgetown University academic, Dr Christine Fair, who travelled through Pakistan first as a young doctoral student in the mid-1990s, and through subsequent decades, till the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) assessed that she was (in her own words) a "nasty woman." Her earlier work on the Pakistan army, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford, 2014) argues that Pakistan is a revisionist state in Kashmir and seeks to resist India’s rise in the region. Fair holds here that the Army "fights to the end" more "for ideological rather than security reasons."

Despite the ISI’s ban on her entry into Pakistan, Dr Fair was able to access a vast corpus of the LeT/ Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD)’s own writing, obtained by libraries in the US under the PL-480 programme. She presents new information about the organisation, its recruits, the families that produce them, and the external and domestic political imperatives that motivate its operations within and beyond Pakistan.

Starting with a brief history of Pakistan’s security competition with India from Partition onwards, Dr Fair goes on to describe the evolution of Pakistan’s asymmetric war/non-state actor strategy, underpinned by its development of nuclear weapons. She then delves into LeT’s ideological roots, organisational structure and operational development, including its most recent foray into politics, under the garb of the Milli Muslim League (MML) party. The most substantive part of the book is contained in chapters five (Who are the Soldiers in the Army of the Pure) and six (The Domestic Politics of LeT). Finally, Dr Fair discusses "options of dealing with the LeT" and ways, if any, to "escape Pakistan’s nuclear coercion."


Quantitative and qualitative insights from 918 posthumous biographies of slain 'martyrs' reveal that "contrary to popular belief," while many LeT fighters studied in madrassas, they were recruited also from Urdu medium schools in the regular government stream. Some had also been to college or universities, being thus more educated than most, relative to the population from which they were drawn. The average age of new recruits was around 17-18 years. They were underemployed, not necessarily from compulsion, although often by choice.

The vast majority of recruits (89 per cent) came from Punjab while 5 per cent were from Sindh, 4 per cent from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and 1 per cent each from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). This data partially substantiates earlier assertions made by many analysts about the LeT and the Pakistan army having an overlapping recruitment base. However, Fair depicts two tables (figures 5. 1 and 5.2) to show that the army’s recruitment base is more diverse – while 10 central and south Punjab districts account for LeT recruitment, the army’s spreads over 11 Punjab districts as well as Karachi, Peshawar and PoK.

Role of Mothers

Families were incredibly important in encouraging their sons to join the organisation and ultimately to fight and die in its service. Hafiz Mohd Saeed (HMS) deliberately stipulated family consent as a prerequisite for fighting in Kashmir. This is emphasised as "an important part of the Ahle-Hadis tradition." Women ­particularly mothers – sustained the individual ideological motivation of recruits. Though many mothers were initially reluctant, LeT’s propaganda machine managed to overcome this resistance. Exhortation to parents finds place in LeT’s Tafseer Surat at-Taubah. LeT publications venerate the role of mothers in educating themselves about the sacrifice of their sons. Their grief is mobilised to provide social mobility, with a fighter’s death according a higher status to LeT mothers. The organisation shores up familial support financially. Tanzeems compensate fighters’ families. Families of martyrs attend annual ijtemas (gatherings) where the heroism of their sons is attested.


In her book, Fair brings out how the LeT is "highly selective" before providing military training. Though religious training is easily available, more people want to join for militant activities than can be deployed. From the samples studied, only five per cent of the trainees were deployed into India (Kashmir mainly) after completing the basic 18-day course (Daura-e-Aam). The majority (62 per cent) underwent the advanced Daura-e-Khaas course and an additional 12 per cent took on specialised training - Daura e Saqeela, Daura e Abdullah bin Massod, or Daura e Ribat - which could extend to four months. Those selected for combat must demonstrate their capacity to infiltrate on their own into India and exfiltrate through regular or irregular routes before they are taken in for higher or more specialised military training. LeT leaders "leverage quality control," "continually assessing the person’s suitability and fitness for military operations." Lobbying by family members and other influential relatives with LeT leaders is often necessary for selection. "Fighters who stay under cover in India for an extended period must engage in successful operational security," "learn Devanagari" and "speak Hindi fluently."

Here, interestingly, Fair draws similarities and differences with the Pakistan army’s training of its officers as well as other ranks (ORs). She holds that using LeT’s trained fighters enables the Pakistan army to add supportive manpower at a fraction of the costs. While army personnel get more extensive benefits, LeT fighters "have presumably comparable fighting capabilities and human endowments" as army non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and junior commissioned officers (JCOs).


Biographies of 'martyrs' studied indicated multiple motivations, including: a history of prior violent behaviour from childhood, possible criminal records including in narcotics abuse, origin from families with "a jihadi mindset" where brothers had already been martyred, "boredom with their lives," and search for "more meaningful and exciting" purpose. Fighters "drew upon their belief about the Kashmir conflict," the alleged illegitimacy of the Indian claim, posited brutality of "Hindu India" and its army. There was a cultivated "belief, pervasive among Pakistanis that Kashmiris welcome their contributions to the battle and actively support their efforts."

Role in Domestic Politics

Apart from serving as a proxy militia, LeT/JuD performs a critical role in assisting the deep state to secure its domestic objectives. It ideologically combats Islamist militant groups that target the Pakistani state, seen especially between 2009-2013. It undertook philanthropic work after the 2005 earthquake in PoK and during the floods. Even as Deobandi groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) engaged in sectarian or communal attacks, the LeT/JuD opposed sectarianism and even talked of protecting, assimilating or proselytising Hindu minorities inside the country. LeT/JuD also does not endorse takfir (the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim apostate) and maintains a discreet silence on the persecution of Ahmaddiyas. HMS denounced the Islamic State (IS) as "evil."

Fair examines in detail the concepts of jihad, takfir and kufr (disbelief), as explained in the writings of ideologues Ubaid ur Rehman Muhammadi and HMS, in which justification for waging jihad against "Hindu India" for "killing Muslims in Kashmir" can be found. She refers in passing to the deep state’s re-investment in Deobandi groups like Masood Azhar’s Jaish e Mohammed (JeM), which is described as "a cornerstone of Pakistan’s strategy of managing its own security challenges as well as…its policy of terrorism backed by nuclear blackmail.."

Emergence of MML

HMS announced MML’s formation in August 2017. Fair contends that this reversal of erstwhile LeT abstinence from electoral politics could not have occurred without the explicit involvement of the army and ISI. The emerging importance of Tabish Qayyum is flagged here, with Fair pointing out that he has been cultivated over a long time by Pakistan’s deep state. In June 2013, he presented a series of workshops in Karachi and Islamabad on “Social Media Warfare,” which were organised under the supervision of an army colonel by the name of Nazir Ahmed, initially a co-accused with HMS for the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. Qayyum completed his postgraduate degree from Pakistan’s National Defence University in 2016, and is today one of HMS’s main lieutenants. Among MML’s goals postulated in an October 2017 JuD journal, Invite, are a commitment to support the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and contribution to efforts to overcome Baloch resistance to the CPEC.

Options to Deal with LeT

As LeT remains the army’s "most useful proxy in managing domestic insecurity" and its "faithful executioner abroad," in her concluding chapter, Fair examines the options to deal with group in the future. Within option one, "American cupidity" and "Indian strategic restraint" are seen as having helped "maintain the status quo." LeT has not faced option two, which is that of "leadership decapitation," but Fair contends that as a fairly structured organisation, it could withstand such an eventuality, though at present its leaders remain heavily guarded by several security layers, and "its managers in ISI and the Pakistan army do not anticipate any meaningful threat to its prized proxy." Option three looks briefly at Pakistan’s nuclear coercion strategy. Fair believes "Pakistan’s nuclear bluff" should be called out but that India "cannot do it alone," while the US continues to recoil from meaningful penalties. She advocates de-incentivising Pakistan by stopping Coalition Support Funds (CSF) and even purchase of strategic weapon systems with sovereign funds, and declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. She suggests that there may be "no good options," just “less bad options” at present.

Some minor glitches, not central to the book’s main theme, appear in Fair’s book. In her discussion on the succession of the army chief, for example, Fair does not accurately assess the nuances of civil-military tension that have cyclically plagued Pakistan. Musharraf appointed Kayani his successor, disregarding the Tariq Majeed, then X Corps Commander, Rawalpindi. This was the first time that an ISI Chief ascended to the top job. All army professionals, serving and retired, did not appreciate this. Regrettably, though not necessarily in sequel, Tariq Majeed had to later embarrassingly negotiate with Islamist terrorists for the release of his kidnapped son-in-law by paying a huge ransom. Raheel Sharif was number three in the pecking order at the time Nawaz Sharif appointed him chief. The real reason was Raheel’s kinship to his elder brother, Shabbir Sharif, Pakistan’s highest decorated military martyr of the 1971 war, a choice Pakistan’s generals could hardly demur. Again, when General Bajwa was chosen, superseding three seniors, there were murmurs against this selection and talk of a possible Ahmmadiya link, which may have been fanned by the overlooked generals.


While many or most of Dr Fair’s sinister findings about the LeT /JuD’s role and character were known to Indian security analysts and have been repeatedly highlighted before global interlocutors, they do provide timely scholastic imprimatur at a moment when the sceptre of the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) impending censure is forcing Pakistan to undertake perhaps a more than cosmetic crackdown on madrassas and other financial fronts of the LeT / JuD and JeM. How long this crackdown lasts is another matter. Only time will tell whether the 'mainstreaming' of these entities will enable Pakistan to completely curb the malaise, which is ultimately more damaging to its own society. Dr Fair remains convinced it will not.

Rana Banerji is Member, IPCS Governing Council, and former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India