Categorized | Pakistan & Kashmir

Pakistani crackdown on extremists: One hand works to neutralise the other

Pakistani militant leader Hafez Saeed

By James M. Dorsey

Pakistan has put one of the world’s most wanted men under house arrest in a half-hearted crackdown on a militant group with close ties to the military and intelligence, in a bid to persuade President Donald Trump from adding the country to those whose citizens were last week banned from travelling to the United States.

Pakistani media reports and analysts said the move against Hafez Muhammad Saeed (pictured above), a leader of the banned group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its alleged front, Jamaat-ud-Din (JuD), came after US officials days before the inauguration of Mr Trump gave Pakistan until 31 January to respond to complaints by the Bangkok-based Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG) about various JuD financial transactions.

Mr Saeed is believed to be among others responsible for the 2008 attacks on 12 targets in Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, a train station, a café and a Jewish centre. Some 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. The US government has a bounty of $10 million on Mr Saeed for information leading to his capture.

Writing in The News, Pakistani investigative reporter Azaz Syed said US officials had told Pakistan’s ambassador in a meeting on 11 January that “if the objections raised in the report were not addressed, the US may put Pakistan in the blacklist of the countries in the International Cooperative Review Group (ICRG)”.

Symbolic detention

Apparently pre-warned that action may be taken against him, Mr Saeed suggested during a press conference in Islamabad three days later that JuD may start operating under a new name, a practice frequently adopted by militant groups with government acquiescence. Mr Saeed hinted that the new name would be Tehreek-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir (Kashmir Freedom Movement).

Mr Syed, in a telephone interview alongside other analysts, said the move against Mr Saeed, several other JuD leaders and the group itself, were cosmetic. The symbolism was evident in the fact that Mr Saeed was confined to his home in Lahore that was declared a sub-jail rather than carted off to prison.

The symbolism was also reflected in public displays such as the removal of JuD flags from streets and the hoisting of Pakistani flags at the group’s 81-hectare headquarters in Muridke, a city of two and three-storey pillboxes famous for its fruits and vegetables, 22 kilometres north of Lahore. The International Crisis Group has reported that the complex, which contains an ultra-conservative religious school and housing for 3,000 students and staff, was built in 1998 with Saudi funding.

Links with Saudi Arabia

Mr Saeed has had longstanding links to Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom-backed Ahle-Hadith movement, a group whose ultra-conservative religious views are most closely aligned with Saudi-supported forms of Wahhabism and Salafis. A graduate of an Ahle-Hadith madrassa and King Saud University in Riyadh, Mr Saeed, backed by Saudi money founded Islamic schools in which potential jihadis not only studied Islam but also acquired computer and communication skills.

Mr Saeed was appointed in the 1980s by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq as a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory body of clerics and scholars established to assist the Pakistani government in bringing laws in line with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad. He has long left that post.

While studying in Saudi Arabia, Mr Saeed reportedly met with Saudi scholars involved in the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It was those scholars who launched him in his career as a militant. Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian scholar who taught in Saudi Arabia, before founding the precursor to Al-Qaeda, is believed to have been one of LeT’s original inspirations.

“Nothing has changed”

Analysts and journalists compared the moves against Mr Saeed and JuD to an announcement in October by the State Bank of Pakistan that it had frozen the accounts of more than 2,000 people associated with political violence. Major groups like JuD, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM), which focus mainly on Kashmir, were not included in the list.

“Nothing has changed,” one analyst said.

The degree of official protection Mr Saeed and his group have enjoyed over the years has long been an issue of concern to the United States.

US Assistant Secretary of State Esther Brimmer noted in a cable in 2009 in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, published by Wikileaks, that JuD “is still operating in multiple locations in Pakistan, and that the group continues to openly raise funds. It is unclear what, if any, steps the GOP [Government of Pakistan] has taken to freeze JUD’s assets or otherwise implement UN [Resolution] 1267 sanctions, which include an asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo”.

An earlier cable warned that charities connected to LeT and JeM that had been funded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had increased the local population’s dependence on extremist groups and undermined the influence of moderate Sufi religious leaders.

Mr Saeed was in recent years a familiar figure in the news and in the public eye. In December he attended, alongside other prominent militants such as HuM founder Fazlur Khalil Rehman, a solidarity rally in the Pakistani Kashmir capital of Muzaffarabad.

Mr Rehman is a specially designated terrorist on the US Treasury Department’s list who counts a Saudi among his wives. He operates a madrassah [religious school] guarded by AK-47-toting guards on the outskirts of Islamabad. Mr Rehman, a signatory of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa declaring the International Front Against Jews and Crusaders, has leveraged his close ties to the Pakistani world of militancy, his advocacy of armed struggle in Kashmir and his well-established connections to the Pakistani military and intelligence to position himself as a go-between.

Mr Saeed was accorded VIP treatment two weeks after the Muzaffarabad rally on board a state-owned Pakistan International Airways flight to the Baloch capital of Quetta where he gave a news conference together with Shahzain Bugti, the government-backed grandson of killed Baloch tribal leader Nawab Akbar Bugti.

Months earlier, Mr Saeed headed a pro-Kashmir Azadi or Freedom caravan of buses, trucks, and cars from Lahore to Islamabad that stretched for kilometres along the Grand Trunk road that connects the two cities. The caravan swelled as it travelled the 270-kilometre-long road under the slogan: “The cure to India is nothing but jihad,” participants shouted.

In another twist of irony, Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority has tasked an institute run by a former JuD official who left the group because of a labour dispute rather than ideological differences with research on reform of madrassas, the religious schools many of which are suspected of being breeding grounds for political violence. The issue may be one of only appearance, given that the institute’s researchers make a serious impression in interviews. It nonetheless raises questions.

Cracking down on JuD may solve Pakistan’s most immediate potential issue with the United States. However, it does little to tackle the fundamental problem represented by JuD: a belief in key branches of the state that militant groups can serve a geopolitical purpose without endangering the fabric of society, a fabric that has already been infused by ultra-conservative strands of Islam, many of which are akin to Saudi Arabia’s puritan interpretation of the religion.

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