Saeed is back as key player in Pak jihadi politics
Islamabad: Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who has been named among the world`s five most wanted terrorists by the US, has re-emerged as a key player in Pakistan`s jihadi politics after a brief setback in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Though Saeed was briefly placed under house arrest after the Mumbai incident, largely due to pressure from the West and the UN Security Council, the 61-year-old militant ideologue staged a powerful comeback last year by uniting over 40 hardline and extremist groups under the umbrella of the Defa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC).
Cashing in on anti-American sentiments following a NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November, the DPC ? which includes notorious banned groups like the Sipah-e-Sahaba ? has organised massive rallies across Pakistan. At these gatherings, militant leaders like Saeed have backed calls for jihad while targeting the US and India.
Saeed maintained a low profile for over a year after the Mumbai attacks, carried out by LeT, and for some time authorities barred him from appearing at gatherings. However, he stepped up his public appearances in 2011, and came to Islamabad for the first time since the Mumbai attacks on April 11 last year to lead funeral prayers for Kashmiri leader Maulvi Showkat Ahmed Shah.
Since then, Saeed has shared the stage at public meetings with top politicians like PML-N chairman Raja Zafrul Haq and former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who appeared with the JuD chief at an anti-India meeting in Lahore on February 18.
Analysts said Saeed`s hobnobbing with these politicians reflects an acceptance of the JuD`s immense clout by political parties. "The JuD has a huge network across the country and it has built up goodwill by carrying out relief operations after the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods. No party can afford to ignore the JuD, especially in Punjab province," said one analyst, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Others questioned the timing of the announcement of the US bounty of 10 million dollars for Saeed, noting that the JuD chief was not on the run and had addressed a DPC rally a short distance from the Parliament in Islamabad as recently as March 27.
"The timing of putting Hafiz Saeed on this list of most wanted persons is a bit suspect because Pakistan-US relations are in quite a mess. It could be the Americans` way of putting pressure on the Pakistani military, something they did in the case of Kashmiri activist Ghulam Nabi Fai too," leading columnist Mehmal Sarfraz told PTI.
"It is also interesting that a bounty has been put on Saeed despite the fact that he`s not in hiding, he holds public rallies in major cities across Pakistan. What will they do about that? And it is quite clear that it has nothing to do with India as such but only Pakistan-US relations," she added.
Pakistan-US ties have virtually been on hold since the NATO air strike in November and a parliamentary review ordered by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has run into problems due to reservations expressed by some opposition parties to proposed new terms of engagement.
Observers believe the bounty for Saeed, who has long been accused of having links to the security establishment, could be part of American measures to put the squeeze on the Pakistani military.
Saeed has been named among four terrorists for whom the US Rewards for Justice programme has offered 10 million dollars. The others in the same category include Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar and al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Du`a.
The only person with a greater bounty on his head is al- Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, for whom the US has offered 25 million dollars. Though the UN Security Council named the JuD as a front for the LeT in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, the Pakistan never formally banned the group under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
This was even acknowledged by a senior law officer of the federal government in the Lahore High Court in 2009 during the hearing of a case related to Saeed`s detention. Some have also raised questions about Saeed`s continued patronage by the security establishment.
When Saeed and Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat leader Ahmed Ludhianvi attended a DPC rally in Islamabad on March 27, Ludhianvi was chased by security forces for almost six hours, arrested and symbolically detained for a day for defying an order not to enter the federal capital. Though the same order applied to Saeed, the JuD leader was allowed to address the rally and leave Islamabad without facing any problems.