MURIDKE, Pakistan — At first sight, it could be the campus of a tony boarding school, with neatly trimmed lawns and earnest young students walking between classes.
The government of India, however, says the site, just outside the eastern city of Lahore, is the headquarters of the terrorist group that's responsible for last week's Mumbai carnage.
If India decides to take retaliatory military action the sprawling campus, which is marked by orderly rows of trees and includes a farm, a swimming pool and a hospital, might be on a target list.
Pupils were dutifully performing science experiments in the classrooms, peering into microscopes and connecting electrical circuits. They live in spartan hostels on the property.
The organizers of a media tour Thursday said this was the educational and charitable arm of Jamaat ud Dawa, or JUD, an Islamic group that's legal in Pakistan. In fact, the campus was created by Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic extremist group that's reputedly has ties to al Qaida and was banned by Pakistan at American behest in 2002.
Is it an innocent educational facility, doing philanthropic work, or terror-central?
According to the U.S. government, which has declared it a terrorist organization, JUD is an alias for LeT.
The founder of LeT, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, set up the facility, according to a 2005 paper written for the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington research organization, by Husain Haqqani, the recently arrived Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.
Haqqani, who was an adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated former prime minister, described the facility as "a campus and training facility" for LeT, which he said follows Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative strain of Islam patronized by the Saudi royal family.
The group has been "backed by Saudi money and protected by Pakistani intelligence services," said Haqqani, who wrote the paper while a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy organization in Washington.
"Pakistani authorities have been reluctant to move" against Lashkar or JUD, he wrote in the paper, "The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups."
Quoting Lashkar literature, Haqqani said the group considers the U.S., India and Israel "existential enemies of Islam," a possible explanation for the Mumbai terrorists' targeting of six Americans and a Jewish center run by an Israel-based organization.
Indian officials Thursday charged that Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Yusuf Muzammil, leading members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, were the masterminds behind the Mumbai attack, and one or both have been mentioned in published reports as currently in Pakistan. They identified Lakhvi as the overall operations chief and Muzammil as its operations chief in the Indian-controlled Kashmir and in other parts of India.
"This is a residential and educational complex," said Abdullah Muntazir, Jamaat ud Dawa's spokesman, taking journalists around the Muridke site. "You can see for yourself. This is all Indian propaganda."
"Jamaat ud Dawa speaks up very loudly against Indian conspiracies, we let the public know that India is the real enemy, that's why they always point at us."
The carefully orchestrated visit took a gaggle of foreign and local journalists to the well-equipped school and a hospital, which provides free treatment for villages from the surrounding area. The media wasn't taken to the madrassa, the mosque, or other facilities. After holding a news conference and providing lunch, reporters were shown the door.
The school follows the national curriculum, headmaster Rashid Mehnaz said, with pupils coming from all around Pakistan. The poor are given financial help, and richer pupils pay fees. He also dutifully condemned violence.
"This suicide bombing is absolutely wrong. It is forbidden in Islam," Mehnaz said.
Although the group had said that anyone was welcome to look around the site at any time, an attempt by a McClatchy reporter to take up this offer was met with a heavy-handed response. Walking around alone and unguided, trying to see the student hostels, burly young men with scraggly black beards appeared on motorcycles, and circled, demanding that the reporter leave.
"The Indian media is creating a hype but I don't think they'll bomb us," said Muntazir, the spokesman, "If they did, it would be up to the government of Pakistan and the armed forces to deal with it."
He said that JUD was a peaceful group but it had "supported" Lashkar-e-Taiba until it was banned. He said that "morally" it would continue to back those who'd taken up arms against Indian rule in Kashmir of which Lashkar is the leading example.
"The (Kashmiri) freedom fighters are doing their job very well. Their cause is just," said Muntazir. "But I can't speak on behalf of Lashkar-e-Taiba."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
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