U.S. lawmakers urged the Obama administration on Thursday to focus more attention on Lashkar-e-Taiba militants and push Islamabad harder to rein in the Pakistan based group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Reuters reported.
"This group of savages needs to be crushed," said Gary Ackerman, chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.
"The LeT is a deadly serious group of fanatics. They are well-financed, ambitious and, most disturbingly, both tolerated by and connected to the Pakistani military," the Democratic lawmaker told a hearing called to discuss Lashkar militants.
LeT, one of the largest and best-funded Islamic militant groups in South Asia, was nurtured by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency to fight India in Kashmir.
Pakistani authorities officially banned LeT after it was blamed for an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 but analysts say the group is still unofficially tolerated as it is not believed to have been involved in attacks inside Pakistan.
The November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, which killed more than 100 people in India's commercial capital, are blamed on LeT.
Ackerman said the group had a "clear public presence" in Pakistan by providing charitable and social services to millions of poor people throughout the country.
"Public estimates suggest LeT operates some 2,000 offices in towns and villages throughout Pakistan, as well as maintaining ties with the Pakistani military," Ackerman said.
Pakistan has in recent months offered greater cooperation in tracking down Taliban militants from neighboring Afghanistan but U.S. officials are frustrated this has not extended to LeT extremists.
The senior Republican on the committee, Dan Burton, said LeT's growing influence had serious implications for regional and international security.
"Dismantling and eliminating the threat posed by LeT is clearly no easy task but we cannot shy away from it," said Burton. "As we all know, Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal which would pose a grave threat to the entire region should it fall under the control of extremists."
In the United States, there has been greater interest in LeT since the arrest in October of Pakistani-American David Headley, charged with aiding the 2008 Mumbai attackers.
Prosecutors in Chicago have given details of Headley's alleged role in scouting targets in Mumbai and elsewhere for militant groups. Pakistani-born Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana was also arrested in October on charges he helped the 2008 Mumbai attackers. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Pakistan expert Lisa Curtis said Washington must develop policies to tackle LeT with the same urgency as the threat posed by al Qaeda, blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
LeT's "sharp anti-Western ideology should have raised alarm bells in Washington a long time ago," she told lawmakers.
Most troubling about the Headley case, said Curtis, was that it showed the Pakistani military's apparent closeness to LeT. A former army officer was named as Headley's handler.
"The degree of control that Pakistani intelligence retains over LeT's operations remains an open question," said Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said Islamabad had no intention of putting LeT out of business, describing the group as the spearhead of the Pakistani military's campaign against its key rival, India.