LAHORE, Pakistan — The United States has tied him to terrorist plots from Northern Virginia to Mumbai and has offered $10 million for information leading to his conviction, but Hafiz Mohammad Saeed knows his rights and where to exercise them: in the Lahore High Court, an ornate red-brick remnant of British rule.
The fiery founder of the outlawed Lashkar-i-Taiba, or Army of the Pious, petitioned the justices last week to protect him from U.S.-inspired bounty hunters, saying that Pakistan’s constitution grants him “security of person.” Saeed, 61, also asked the court to bar the Pakistani government from handing him over to U.S. officials — which isn’t expected to happen, anyway.
For Saeed, the court is friendly territory. It cleared him in 2009 of charges that he masterminded the attacks that killed 166 people in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, the year before. He was also exonerated by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which declared that “the India lobby” ginned up the charges.
Saeed’s ability to evade U.S. and Indian calls for his arrest for almost four years can be attributed, observers say, to the dysfunction of Pakistan’s civilian and judicial institutions, which are nominally independent but subject to strong-arming by the powerful military.
Now the bounty on Saeed is playing into negotiations by the United States to restore its relationship with Pakistan, whose cooperation Washington needs to prosecute the war in Afghanistan and withdraw its troops.
The bounty announcement intensified the passionate anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis — from members of conservative religious parties to mainstream politicians — joined Saeed in decrying the bounty as a sop to historical adversary India and another example of U.S. meddling in sovereign affairs.
“Saeed appears to have gotten a public boost from it,” said American University professor Stephen Tankel, author of “Storming the World Stage,” a book about Lashkar-i-Taiba.
Before he was designated a top-tier terrorist in the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program this month, Saeed had irritated the United States with his vociferous campaign against the reopening of NATO supply routes through Pakistani territory; the routes were closed after U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
Parliament recently approved the convoys, which are expected to resume shortly. Now Saeed has called for mass civil disobedience in which followers would use their bodies to block the trucks and oil tankers.
Among Pakistanis, Saeed has built goodwill through his Lahore-based Jamaat-ud-Dawa, or Party of Truth, which operates schools, poverty-relief programs and health clinics.
The United States has also designated Jamaat-ud-Dawa as an international terrorist organization, but it is not banned in Pakistan. Saeed says it is a social welfare group that has nothing to do with Lashkar-i-Taiba.
Saeed enjoys the support of several pro-Taliban religious leaders and groups organized under the banner of the increasingly influential Defense of Pakistan Council, which serves as an outlet for Pakistani anger over CIA drone strikes in the country’s tribal territories and the war in Afghanistan.
“The mother of all evils is the U.S.-led NATO troop presence on Afghanistan’s soil,” Saeed told about 5,000 people at a council rally in Peshawar this month.
After Saeed openly ridiculed the United States for putting out a bounty on a man whose whereabouts were well known, the State Department clarified that the $10 million would be paid for information leading to Saeed’s prosecution, not about his location.
Saeed’s headquarters, which include a mosque, a bookstore, offices, classrooms and dormitories, occupy more than a city block in a teeming commercial district of Lahore. His group’s readily identifiable black-and-white flags festoon the campus buildings.
The awkward State Department clarification gave Saeed’s supporters another talking point: “By seeking evidence, they are acknowledging that they don’t have any evidence against him,” said Saeed’s brother, Hafiz Muhammed Masood, the information secretary of Jamaat-ud-Dawa. “After all these years, with all the intelligence they have and all the investigators, they are giving money for evidence?”
Terrorism experts who track Lashkar-i-Taiba say it has grown from an outfit that in the 1990s was focused mainly on training Islamic zealots to fight for the liberation of Indian-ruled Kashmir into a transnational threat to Western countries, with operations in Britain, Australia and the United States.
Saeed has not only called for the destruction of India, but he also preached in a sermon a few years ago, “The time is very near when you will see America in hundreds of pieces.”
In the mid-2000s, federal prosecutors won long prison terms for members of what they dubbed the “Virginia jihad network.” Officials said some of the members trained at Lashkar-i-Taiba camps and played paintball games in preparation for holy war against U.S. troops.
On April 13, a 24-year-old Woodbridge resident and native of Pakistan was sentenced to 12 years in prison for providing material support to Lashkar-i-Taiba. He had trained at a Lashkar camp and pleaded guilty to producing a violent jihadist video after communicating with Talha Saeed, Saeed’s son.
But cases against Lashkar-i-Taiba members in Pakistan drag on for years and have generally been unsuccessful. Some analysts attribute this to interference by the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, which U.S. officials say protects certain militant groups for its own ends, even as Pakistan’s army battles other insurgents trying to bring down the government.
ISI does not deny directing Lashkar-i-Taiba militants in operations in Kashmir but says it ended contact with the group after 2001 and has not been involved in directing its operations since.
In his book “Pakistan: A Hard Country,” researcher and analyst Anatol Lieven presents this case for why Saeed is a free man: “While the Pakistani authorities could do a great deal more to restrict and detain [Lashkar] activists and leaders, it is extremely difficult to put them on public trial — for the obvious reason that they would then reveal everything about the ISI’s previous backing for their organization.”
Although U.S. officials portray Saeed as a terrorist on a par with fugitive Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, who also has a $10 million price on his head, the sentiment is far different in the court of public opinion — especially in the dusty alleys where Jamaat-ud-Dawa dispenses charity.
The other day, in a Lahore storefront clinic with a tiny examination room made private with a worn brown curtain, neighborhood women received free antibiotics and fever remedies for their sick children from a pharmacy assistant named Abdul Majeed.
Majeed also checked the blood pressure of one of the regular patients, a mother of seven who suffers from hypertension and diabetes. The 34-year-old housewife, who gave her name only as Mrs. Khalil, said she knew nothing about the bounty but did know certain other things about Saeed’s group.
“They not only give treatment to people, but my own daughter is reciting the Holy Koran with them,” she said. “They cannot be terrorists.”