Aided by exacting laws, protected by the state, Hafiz Saeed, terror’s grand imam, flourishes still
The main entrance of the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, that portal of Pakistani military might and pride, still brings to mind the day in October 2009 when Punjabi jehadis stormed the high-security area in a fidayeen-style attack. The audacity and ease with which they operated stunned the army leadership.
Chief of army staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani was at his desk as jehadis in uniforms swooped in at the gate, overpowered the security detail, and proceeded to kill six soldiers and take hostages. Again, in May last year, ex-military jehadis made a brazen assault on the Mehran naval air base in Karachi.
Punjabi jehadis, Pakistan Taliban, Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda...the militant faultlines in battlefield Pakistan are as blurred as ever. Hardened foreigners have joined hands with home-grown footsoldiers and masterminds, training together and pooling in resources to strike within and outside Pakistan. Several arrested militants were old ISI hands; one was from the Army Medical Corps. Pakistan is a powder keg of high explosivity, and one of the gatekeepers of the arsenal is a very visible public figure.
|2001, Parliament attack On December 13, five Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists breached security and attacked Parliament. Seven people were killed. It led to the large-scale mobilisation of troops along the border with Pakistan.
||2006, Mumbai Train Blasts On July 11, a series of seven bomb blasts on trains of the suburban railway killed 209 people and injured 700. Probes accuse the LeT and SIMI, with the ISI providing overall support.
||2008, 26/11 Mumbai was again the target for this most devastating terror attack of recent times. Ten LeT terrorists carried out coordinated attacks in hotels, railway stations and on the roads, killing 164 and wounding 308.
Last week, at the government-owned Flashman hotel, opposite the GHQ gate in Rawalpindi, Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed, founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Toiba, held a press conference. Saeed was responding to the US offer of a bounty of $100 million to anyone who could provide information to put him behind bars for alleged terrorist acts spanning decades.
The focus on Saeed intensified when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised the issue of his arrest in his discussions with Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari on his visit to India on April 8. In fact, Zardari was told Indians would judge their ties with Pakistan according to the way those responsible for the terror attacks in India were dealt with.
|For one whose organisation is banned by Russia, US, UK, the EU and blacklisted by the UN, Saeed’s confidence is stunning.|
“I am not hiding in caves and mountains; I am here in Rawalpindi; we are not hiding...for bounties to be set on finding us,” Saeed said defiantly to the assembled press. “I think the US is frustrated because we are taking out protests against the resumption of NATO supplies and drone strikes...they can contact me whenever they want,” Saeed dared the US. The venue of his performance told the world that he had the backing of Pakistan’s security establishment. For someone whose organisation is banned by Australia, US, UK, Russia, the EU, with the UN declaring the Jamaat-ud-Dawa to be an LeT front, Saeed’s confidence is astounding. Allowed to grant interviews by his handlers, Saeed once turned down a request from Outlook
because he was “discouraged” from doing so.
The terror charges against Hafiz Saeed—a 62-year-old scholarly-looking father of five—are consistent, varied and deadly. Other than supplying a generation of jehadi militants in Kashmir, LeT and Saeed are held responsible for the 2001 Parliament attack, the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, and in 26/11, as a chief strategist of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. On August 25, 2009, Interpol issued a red corner notice against Saeed, in response to Indian requests for his extradition.
Saeed was in and out of prison after 9/11, as the US sought to stamp out known jehadi ideologues. After the Mumbai terror attacks, which India says he planned as LeT chief, Saeed was put under house arrest, released, and arrested again. Then, according to official records, “On October 12, 2009, the Lahore High Court quashed all cases against Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and set him free. The court also notified that Jama’at-ud-Da’wah is not a banned organisation and can work freely in Pakistan”. Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, one of two judges hearing the case, observed: “In the name of terrorism, we cannot brutalise the law.” This from the same courts that have so self-righteously taken on the PM and security agencies. It shows how the judiciary’s exactitude has served to help Saeed—someone who has openly espoused terror’s ways for so long and with such deadly success.
Till date, Pakistani courts have failed to sentence him because of a lack of concrete and ‘substantial’ evidence. After the recent announcement of the US bounty, several voices in Pakistan asked India to provide their “so-called” watertight evidence to the US, which would accomplish two things at once. “Pakistani courts would be provided evidence to put him behind bars, and the Indian home ministry would be richer by $100 million,” said an official, one who had once condemned the Mumbai terrorist attack as being “shameful”.
It never fails to confound young, urbane and educated Pakistanis that the state continues to cultivate Punjabi jehadis as assets, and have learnt nothing from their past harvests of hatred. Saeed’s braggadocio is especially venomous. “There cannot be any peace while India remains intact. Cut them, cut them so much that they kneel before you and ask for mercy,” he once said.
Protests against the bounty for Saeed
Aisha Fayyazi Sarwari, a young Pakistani, asks, “Who would want to do business with a country where a renowned hatemonger is given state shelter? He led the funeral for Osama bin Laden, to the embarrassment of the ISI. He reputedly cried while he read prayers for the world’s most wanted terrorist and called him a martyr and a fellow brother Muslim.”
In a letter to the editor in Daily Dawn, Pakistani writers like Masood Khan from Jubail, Usman Ghani from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa and Khawaja Umer Farooq from Jeddah say: “We are unable to punish even a single terrorist, while thousands of civilians and security personnel have lost their lives in attacks. There should be no two opinions that our justice system has failed to prosecute and punish criminals”.
Figures from the older generation, like PML(N)’s Ayaz Amir, euphemistically argue that Saeed’s LeT, along with Hizbul Mujahideen, were the instruments of ISI policy, whose “activities imparted a sectarian character to military activity in Kashmir”. Amir’s party, which controls the all-influential Punjab, is not beyond public dalliances with the Punjabi Taliban during elections. It nevertheless criticises the ISI’s “narrow-based” Kashmir policy. “The ISI, by its Pakistan-first policy, dealt a death blow to the prospects of the Kashmir liberation struggle. Far from being upset, India has reasons to feel grateful for this ham-handed approach,” says Amir, sounding somewhat disappointed.
For the ordinary Pakistani, however, the seductions of someone like Saeed is tough to resist. His recent excoriation of the US, even at the risk of physical danger, saw his popularity soar. Many on the Pakistani street applauded a man who had the guts to take on an ‘arrogant’, ‘evil’ empire.
Saeed has another claim to people’s hearts. His Jamaat-ud Dawa runs tens of free schools, health centres and charity organisations across Pakistan.
Jamaat men at a relief camp in Nowshera, 2010
Outlook was a witness how, during the huge 2005 earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the LeT was the first to rush rescue and relief efforts to affected areas, largely through its ground-level workers who knew the area well. In a report, Al Jazeera said, “He (Saeed) started a foundation, and his men played a key role in aid efforts after the earthquake in Kashmir, and the floods in Pakistan. They still are the main frontline in any calamity.” The effectiveness and commitment of Jamaat-ud Dawa workers were again evident during the devastating floods that crippled Pakistan in 2011.
Thus, people were appalled and angered a few years ago when the government closed down his institutions in the wake of the Jamaat being blacklisted, and many students and patients were left to fend for themselves. A vaccum created by government apathy and ineptitude is fertile ground for men like Saeed to prosper and proliferate.
|Some think the US decision on Hafiz Saeed is blackmail, for Pakistan’s closing the NATO supply routes in recent months.|
Saeed’s virulent bluster, his mass popularity and the large anti-US, anti-India Jamaat-ud Dawa rallies have proved that he is safe as long as he has the state security institution solidly behind him. It helps Saeed that he is not wanted for any specific crimes against the US, and that the party baying for his blood, India, depends mostly on the US to lay hands on him.
There is also a view in Pakistan that the sudden US decision about Saeed is simply blackmail—a payback for Pakistan’s closing NATO supply lines in retaliation for Pakistani casualties from drone attacks.
As Pakistan’s media is gripped by the possibility of a visit by PM Manmohan Singh, many are asking if Pakistan could also bring itself to raise the issue of the terrorists behind the Samjhauta Express blasts in 2007, in which several Pakistanis were killed.
“India repeats its mantra against Hafiz Saeed. Pakistan too should build a case with the US against Col Shrikant Prasad Purohit, the strategist responsible for the deaths of Pakistanis. Or will the US look the other way, as, unlike the 26/11 attacks, no Americans were killed?” asks an official at the Foreign Office.
It would be instructive to see how the mighty Saeed himself reacts to being measured against someone of a decidedly different make, along a register of dubious achievements.