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Extremist Who Defies the World



By Declan Walsh

February 15, 2013

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

“I move about like an ordinary person — that’s my style,” said 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.”

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 anytime soon in a country that maintains a perilous ambiguity towards extremist militancy, casting a benign eye on some groups, even as it battles others that attack the state.

Saeed’s increasing comfort with public life seems more than just an act of mocking defiance against the Obama administration and its bounty, analysts say.

As US troops prepare to leave Afghanistan next door, Lashkar is at a crossroads, and its fighters’ next move — whether they join the extremist fight against the West in numbers, disarm and enter the Pakistani political process, or return to battle in Kashmir — will depend largely on Saeed.

At his sprawling Lahore compound — a fortified house, office and mosque — Saeed is shielded not only by his supporters, burly men wielding Kalashnikovs who stand outside his door, but also by the Pakistani state.

On a recent evening, armed policemen screened visitors at a checkpoint near his house, while other officers patrolled an adjoining park, watching by floodlight for intruders. His security seemingly ensured, Saeed has over the past year addressed large public meetings, 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, 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 centres 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-Dawah, which runs a tightly organised network of hospitals and schools across Pakistan.

The Mumbai attacks propelled Lashkar-e-Taiba to notoriety. But since then, 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 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, Saeed has been a leading light in the Defence 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 US troops leave. One possibility is a return to Lashkar’s traditional battleground of Kashmir, risking fresh conflict between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India.

But there is ample evidence that parts of the military remain wedded to Jihadi proxies. 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, a US citizen recently sentenced to prison by a US 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.

For all his apparent ease, Saeed has to walk a tightrope of sorts within the Jihadi firmament. 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. It’s too early to tell which way they will ultimately go.”