LAHORE, Pakistan - While the war against Islamic militancy has focused on shadowy underground organizations such as al-Qaeda, counterterrorism officials say there is a growing worldwide threat from an extremist group operating in plain sight in Pakistan.
The group, formerly named Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Righteous, was formed in the late 1980s. With the support of the Pakistan government, it has launched attacks against India in the dispute over the Kashmir region.
In recent years, the camps that Lashkar once used primarily to train Pakistanis to fight for Kashmir have increasingly become a training ground for other extremists who come from around the world to learn guerrilla warfare, according to current and former U.S. and allied counterterrorism officials.
As growing anti-U.S. sentiment has swelled its ranks, there is evidence the group is working more closely with al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and may be getting directly involved in jihadist activities against the West, the officials say.
They cite evidence in recent years of fund-raising or recruiting efforts in Canada, Britain, Australia and the United States, including current probes in Massachusetts and Lodi, Calif.
Lashkar-e-Taiba was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in December 2001 and was soon outlawed by Pakistan. It disbanded, and its founders created another group, named Jamaat ud-Dawa, which functions openly in Pakistan as an officially recognized humanitarian organization.
U.S. authorities consider it the same as Lashkar-e-Taiba and say it has continued to operate camps that train militants. The Treasury Department put the terrorist label on Jamaat ud-Dawa in April 2006, saying, "LET renamed itself JUD in order to evade sanctions. The same leaders that form the core of LET remain in charge of JUD."
U.S. counterterrorism officials say the group's status as a legal organization in Pakistan makes it difficult to oppose. It has thousands of loyal supporters and close ties to a government that has done little to rein it in.
"The U.S. government . . . has voiced its concerns" about Jamaat ud-Dawa to the Pakistan government, said Daniel Markey, who oversaw South Asia policy at the State Department until February.
Pakistani officials said that Jamaat ud-Dawa is "under watch," but that the group was legal and separate from Lashkar-e-Taiba, which they insisted they have shut down.
Representatives of Jamaat ud-Dawa say they are running a legitimate charity, citing the group's campaign to help Pakistanis recover from a massive earthquake in 2005 and its efforts to provide social services, food, water, medical care and education.
Jamaat ud-Dawa spokesman Abdullah Muntazir said it did not participate in jihadist activities or run military training camps.
"No political party in Pakistan has as many offices as Jamaat ud-Dawa," he said. "So how can the government of Pakistan ban a group that has such deep roots throughout Pakistani society?"
U.S. officials say that Pakistan has closed down some of the training camps, but that the camps pop up again in secret locations along the borders with India and Afghanistan.
A major concern for U.S. officials now is that the Pakistani government of President Pervez Musharraf, contending with its own crises, does not have the ability to control the group.
"It has gradually grown and morphed over recent years from something that was directed and manipulated by the Pakistan military establishment into something more grassroots, more independent and more dangerous - and more closely tied to terrorist groups with global reach," Markey said.
Although its leadership has not been directly connected to any terrorist acts against the West, members of the former Lashkar-e-Taiba and others who have attended its training camps have been linked to some of the most serious plots uncovered since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.