Posts Tagged ‘ Hafiz Muhammad Saeed ’

Pakistani Militant, Price on Head, Lives in Open

By Declan Walsh for The New York Times

Image

Ten million dollars does not seem to buy much in this bustling Pakistani city. That is the sum the United States is offering for help in convicting Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, perhaps the country’s best-known jihadi leader. Yet Mr. Saeed lives an open, and apparently fearless, life in a middle-class neighborhood here.

“I move about like an ordinary person — that’s my style,” said Mr. Saeed, a burly 64-year-old, reclining on a bolster as he ate a chicken supper. “My fate is in the hands of God, not America.”

Mr. Saeed is the founder, and is still widely believed to be the true leader, of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, in which more than 160 people, including six Americans, were killed. The United Nations has placed him on a terrorist list and imposed sanctions on his group. But few believe he will face trial any time soon in a country that maintains a perilous ambiguity toward jihadi militancy, casting a benign eye on some groups, even as it battles others that attack the state.

Mr. Saeed’s very public life seems more than just an act of mocking defiance against the Obama administration and its bounty, analysts say. As American troops prepare to leave Afghanistan next door, Lashkar is at a crossroads, and its fighters’ next move — whether to focus on fighting the West, disarm and enter the political process, or return to battle in Kashmir — will depend largely on Mr. Saeed.

At his Lahore compound — a fortified house, office and mosque — Mr. Saeed is shielded not only by his supporters, burly men wielding Kalashnikovs outside his door, but also by the Pakistani state. On a recent evening, police officers screened visitors at a checkpoint near his house, while other officers patrolled an adjoining park, watching by floodlight for intruders.

His security seemingly ensured, Mr. Saeed has over the past year addressed large public meetings and appeared on prime-time television, and is now even giving interviews to Western news media outlets he had previously eschewed.

He says that he wants to correct “misperceptions.” During an interview with The New York Times at his home last week, Mr. Saeed insisted that his name had been cleared by the Pakistani courts. “Why does the United States not respect our judicial system?” he asked.

Still, he says he has nothing against Americans, and warmly described a visit he made to the United States in 1994, during which he spoke at Islamic centers in Houston, Chicago and Boston. “At that time, I liked it,” he said with a wry smile.

During that stretch, his group was focused on attacking Indian soldiers in the disputed territory of Kashmir — the fight that led the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to help establish Lashkar-e-Taiba in 1989. But that battle died down over the past decade, and Lashkar began projecting itself through its charity wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which runs a tightly organized network of hospitals and schools across Pakistan.

The Mumbai attacks propelled Lashkar-e-Taiba to notoriety. But since then, Mr. Saeed’s provocations toward India have been largely verbal. Last week he stirred anger there by suggesting that Bollywood’s highest-paid actor, Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim, should move to Pakistan. In the interview, he said he prized talking over fighting in Kashmir.

“The militant struggle helped grab the world’s attention,” he said. “But now the political movement is stronger, and it should be at the forefront of the struggle.”

Pakistan analysts caution that Mr. Saeed’s new openness is no random occurrence, however. “This isn’t out of the blue,” said Shamila N. Chaudhry, a former Obama administration official and an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm. “These guys don’t start talking publicly just like that.”

What it amounts to, however, may depend on events across the border in Afghanistan, where his groups have been increasingly active in recent years. In public, Mr. Saeed has been a leading light in the Defense of Pakistan Council, a coalition of right-wing groups that lobbied against the reopening of NATO supply routes through Pakistan last year. More quietly, Lashkar fighters have joined the battle, attacking Western troops and Indian diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan, intelligence officials say.

The question now is what will happen to them once American troops leave. One possibility is a return to Lashkar’s traditional battleground of Kashmir, risking fresh conflict between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India.

But a more hopeful possibility, floated by some Western and Pakistani officials, is that Mr. Saeed would lead his group further into politics, and away from militancy.

“When there are no Americans in Afghanistan, what will happen?” said Mushtaq Sukhera, a senior officer with the Punjabi police who is running a fledgling demobilization program for Islamist extremists. “It’s an open question.”

A shift could be risky for Mr. Saeed: Some of his fighters have already split from Lashkar in favor of other groups that attack the Pakistani state. And much will depend on the advice of his military sponsors.

For their part, Pakistan’s generals insist they have abandoned their dalliance with jihadi proxy groups. In a striking speech in August, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said the country’s greatest threat came from domestic extremism. “We as a nation must stand united against this threat,” he said. “No state can afford a parallel system of governance and militias.”

Five years of near-continuous battle against the Pakistani Taliban along the Afghan border, where more than 3,300 members of Pakistan’s security forces have been killed in the past decade, has affected army thinking, some analysts believe. Senior officers have lost colleagues and relatives, softening the army’s singular focus on India.

“This is a changed army,” said Shaukat Javed, a former head of the Intelligence Bureau civilian spy agency in Punjab Province. “The mind-set has changed due to experience, and pressure.”

But for all that, there is ample evidence that parts of the military remain wedded to jihadi proxies. In Waziristan, the army maintains close ties to the Haqqani Network, a major player in the Afghan insurgency. In western Baluchistan Province, it has used Sunni extremists to quell an uprising by Baluch nationalists — even though the same extremists also massacre minority Shiites.

And Mr. Saeed’s freedom to roam around Lahore — and, indeed, across Pakistan — suggests some generals still believe the “good” jihadis are worth having around.

Western intelligence officials say Lashkar’s training camps in northern Pakistan have not been shut down. One of those camps was the training ground of David C. Headley, an American citizen recently sentenced to prison by an American court for his role in the Mumbai attacks.

“There’s a strategic culture of using proxies,” said Stephen Tankel, an American academic and author of a book on Lashkar-e-Taiba. “And if that’s the tool you’re used to grabbing from the toolbox, it can be hard to let go.”

For all his apparent ease, Mr. Saeed has to walk a tightrope of sorts within the jihadi firmament. His support of the state puts him at odds with the Pakistani Taliban, which, he claims, are secretly supported by America and India — a familiar refrain in the right-wing media. “They want to destabilize Pakistan,” he said.

But that position leaves Mr. Saeed vulnerable to pressure from fighters within his own ranks who may still have Taliban sympathies. Western security officials say Lashkar has already suffered some defections in recent years..

“If he continues in this direction, the issue is how many people he can bring with him,” Mr. Tankel said.

But ultimately, he added, much depends on the Pakistani Army: “The army can’t dismantle these groups all at once, because of the danger of blowback. So for now they are putting them on ice. It’s too early to tell which way they will ultimately go.”

 

Advertisements

Pakistan Leader’s India Visit Hailed For Its Symbolism

By Mark Magnier for The Los Angeles Times

Pakistan’s president arrived in India on Sunday, the first official visit one leader of the wary neighbors has paid to the other nation in seven years. No breakthroughs were announced, but both sides hailed the meeting as a sign of easing tensions along one of the world’s most dangerous borders.

Spinmeisters on both sides worked overtime to lower public expectations of the “private” trip that saw Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discuss the 2008 terrorist attack on the Indian city of Mumbai, modest if expanding trade links, the disputed territory of Kashmir and efforts to bring various militants to justice.

The Pakistani president then visited a famous Muslim shrine for Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, offering a $1-million contribution.

“I am very satisfied with the outcome of this visit,” Singh said. “The relations between India and Pakistan should become normal — that is our common desire.”

The rapid-fire luncheon and shrine visit weren’t enough to overturn long-standing distrust between the nuclear neighbors, however, as summed up in a headline in India’s Mail Today tabloid newspaper: “Eat, Pray, No Love.”

The meeting is part of an apparent effort to follow the diplomatic model in place between India and China, which fought a war in 1962 over their disputed border: Put aside the most nettlesome issues for the time being and focus on building investment and trade links that benefit both sides.

This year, India and Pakistan approved a most-favored-nation agreement, lowering taxes that impede trade. Although India had offered this benefit to Pakistan in 1996, it wasn’t reciprocated until recently. Official two-way trade of about $2.6 billion is heavily weighted in India’s favor.

Sunday’s one-day visit was heavy on symbolism if not on substance. Zardari invited Singh for a reciprocal visit to Pakistan, which the Indian leader accepted, although no date was set. Zardari’s 23-year-old son, Bilawal, invited ruling Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi to Pakistan, which was also accepted, again with no date set.

On other fronts, both sides agreed in principle to ease visa restrictions. India offered its assistance in the wake of this weekend’s massive avalanche in the Siachen Glacier area, which buried about 130 people on the Pakistani-controlled side of the border in disputed Kashmir. And both sides did lots of glad-handing for the cameras.

“We had fruitful bilateral talks,” Zardari said. We “hope to meet on Pakistani soil very soon.”

But any bid to bring to justice those who planned the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed at least 166 people was sidestepped. India has long blamed Pakistani-based groups for plotting the attack.

Last week, Washington offered a $10-million reward for information leading to the capture of one Pakistani militant leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who enjoys widespread support in Pakistan.

Analysts on both sides of the divide welcomed the gradual thaw even as they acknowledged its slow pace. That no date was set for a return visit, and that Congress Party head Sonia Gandhi — characterized by some as India’s real leader behind the scenes — didn’t meet Zardari or attend the lunch, suggests the Indian government is wary of getting too far ahead of public opinion, some observers said.

“There have been some useful steps forward,” said B. Raman, director of Chennai’s Institute for Topical Studies and a former Indian intelligence officer on the Pakistan desk. “But the government has taken a cautious line.”

The fact that Zardari, 56, made the trip at all suggests that Pakistan’s military realizes improved relations are in its interest, added Talat Masood, an analyst and retired Pakistani general.

“They’re overstretched, realize the economy’s in a shambles and that you can’t have a genuine defense without a good economy,” Masood said. “It’s very sad in a way, that the process has been held hostage to jihadi groups and hard-rightists on both sides.”

Singh, 79, heading a weak government beset by corruption scandals, has pushed for improved ties with Pakistan in a bid to secure a legacy, analysts on both sides said. “Prime Minister Singh realizes he’s only going to be there a few more months,” said Masood. “He wants to do something positive so he’s remembered.”

%d bloggers like this: