Hafiz Saeed (C), the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, leaves after a news conference in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on April 4, 2012.
Washington’s bounty of up to $10 million for information leading to the arrest of Hafiz Saeed was not met with a whole lot of gravitas in Pakistan this week.
Two days after the announcement, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, in which 166 people were killed, organized a press conference at a hotel not far from the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi. After spending the day wandering about town, the former Arabic and engineering professor got up in front of reporters to deny he was a fugitive and say it was “absurd” to place a bounty on someone who lives out in the open. “These rewards are usually announced for people who are hiding in mountains or caves,” Saeed told reporters. “If the United States wants to contact me… they can contact me.”
The bounty — one of the highest the U.S. has issued — was announced on Monday as part of the U.S. government’s ongoing “Rewards for Justice” program. (Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, on a visit to India, also announced on Monday a smaller $2 million bounty for Saeed’s second-in-command and brother-in-law, Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, whose whereabouts are unknown.) U.S. counter-terrorism efforts have connected Saeed both to al-Qaeda and the three-day massacre in Mumbai allegedly orchestrated by the militant group he founded, Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT). And India has been calling for his arrest since Pakistan’s courts cleared him of charges related to the attacks in 2009. He now heads Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a charity group widely regarded as a screen for LeT’s continuing activities and, like LeT, listed by the U.S. as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
On Wednesday, the State Department indirectly addressed Saeed’s scoffing, asserting that the bounty calls for information that will stand up in court – not Saeed’s well-known whereabouts. “We all know where he is,” State Department spokesmen Mark Toner was quoted as saying at a Wednesday press briefing on the website of Foreign Policy. “Every journalist in Pakistan and in the region knows how to find him. But we’re looking for information that can be usable to convict him in a court of law.”
That quest seems bound to ratchet up tensions between all parties involved, except, perhaps, between the U.S. and India, which not surprisingly welcomed the news. But it will not offer much pleasant conversation later this week when Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s President, has lunch with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his first official visit to India since the Mumbai attacks. After the embarrassing raid in which U.S. Special Operations Forces killed Osama Bin Laden while he was hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the bounty is clearly designed to apply more acute pressure on Islamabad to hand Saeed over. And since Islamabad has already stated that it has no immediate plans to do so, demanding instead that Washington present “concrete evidence” of Saeed’s role in the Mumbai attacks, the bounty may be doomed to become yet another prickly point of contention in the fragile U.S.-Pakistan alliance.
It remains to be seen whether Pakistanis living in Lahore, the city where Saeed reportedly bases himself, will be tempted by the millions on offer to come forward with the evidence the U.S. seeks. With his organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, lending a hand in natural disaster relief efforts in recent years, Saeed enjoys popular support as a patriot who is unafraid to stand up to the United States. He has been particularly visible lately in his rallying against the deeply unpopular U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions and his calls for Islamabad not to reopen NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. The Defence Council of Pakistan, a coalition of extremist groups which Saeed is involved in, has called for nationwide protests on Friday, and for Zardari to cancel his visit to India later this week.