By Sebastian Abbot for The Associated Press
One of Pakistan’s most notorious extremists mocked the United States during a defiant media conference close to the country’s military headquarters Wednesday, a day after the US slapped a $10 million bounty on him.
“I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me,” said Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, referring to the fact that the bounty was given to a man whose whereabouts are not a mystery. “I will be in Lahore tomorrow. America can contact me whenever it wants to.”
Analysts have said Pakistan is unlikely to arrest Saeed, founder of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, because of his alleged links with the country’s intelligence agency and the political danger of doing Washington’s bidding in a country where anti-American sentiment is rampant.
Saeed, 61, has been accused of orchestrating the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people, including six American citizens. But he operates openly in Pakistan, giving public speeches and appearing on TV talk shows.
He has used his high-profile status in recent months to lead a protest movement against US drone strikes and the resumption of NATO supplies for troops in Afghanistan sent through Pakistan. The supplies were suspended in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Hours before Saeed spoke, US Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides met Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in the nearby capital, Islamabad, for talks about rebuilding the two nation’s relationship. In a brief statement, Nides did not mention the bounty offer but reaffirmed America’s commitment to “work through” the challenges bedeviling ties.
Increasingly ‘brazen’ appearances
The US said Tuesday it issued the bounty for information leading to Saeed’s arrest and conviction in response to his increasingly “brazen” appearances. It also offered up to $2 million for Lashkar-e-Taiba’s deputy leader, Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, who is Saeed’s brother-in-law.
The rewards marked a shift in the long-standing US calculation that going after the leadership of an organization used as a proxy by the Pakistani military against archenemy India would cause too much friction with the Pakistani government.
This shift has occurred as the US-Pakistani relationship steadily deteriorated over the last year, and as the perception of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s potential threat to the West increased.
The US may be hoping the bounty will force Pakistan to curb Saeed’s activities, even if it isn’t willing to arrest him. But the press conference he called at a hotel in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Wednesday was an indication that is unlikely, and the bounty may even help him by boosting his visibility.
At the hotel, located near the Pakistani army’s main base and only a half hour drive from the US Embassy in Islamabad, Saeed was flanked by more than a dozen right-wing politicians and hardline Islamists who make up the leadership of the Difa-e-Pakistan, or Defense of Pakistan, Council. The group has held a series of large demonstrations against the US and India in recent months.
Some in the media have speculated the movement has the tacit support of the Pakistani military, possibly to put pressure on Washington.
“I want to tell America we will continue our peaceful struggle,” said Saeed. “Life and death is in the hands of God, not in the hands of America.”
Denies involvement in Mumbai massacre
He denied involvement in the Mumbai attacks and said he had been exonerated by Pakistani courts.
Pakistan kept Saeed under house arrest for several months after the attacks but released him after he challenged his detention in court. It has also resisted Indian demands to do more, saying there isn’t sufficient evidence.
The bounty offers could complicate US efforts to get the NATO supply line reopened. Pakistan’s parliament is currently debating a revised framework for ties with the US that Washington hopes will get supplies moving again. But the bounties could be seen by lawmakers and the country’s powerful army as a provocation and an attempt to gain favor with India.
Origins in the Kashmir dispute
Saeed founded Lashkar-e-Taiba in the 1980s allegedly with ISI support to pressure India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. The two countries have fought three major wars since they were carved out of the British empire in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.
Pakistan banned the group in 2002 under US pressure, but it operates with relative freedom under the name of its social welfare wing Jamaat-ud-Dawwa — even doing charity work using government money.
The US has designated both groups foreign terrorist organizations. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts say Lashkar-e-Taiba has expanded its focus beyond India in recent years and has plotted attacks in Europe and Australia. Some have called it “the next Al Qaeda” and fear it could set its sights on the US
* Associated Press writer Asif Shahzad contributed to this report from Islamabad.