The strange case of Hafiz Saeed!

In 2008, when Pakistan-trained gunmen of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) attacked the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, it was clear as daylight that a key conspirator behind the attacks was Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, co-founder of the LeT. Over the years, the deep state in Pakistan have kept him protected, as one of their prized assets. More recently, thanks to pressure from the international financial watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Pakistan has had to file cases against Hafiz Saeed for acts of terror and terrorism financing. It is in continuation of these prosecutions that in the beginning of April this year that a Lahore High Court sentenced the LeT co-founder to 31 years in jail. While the court records show that Saeed was found guilty in the two cases, it is not clear how much time he will actually spend in jail, as he is already undergoing jail sentences for other cases in Pakistan.

The Lahore Court order (7 April 2022) states, “The sentences awarded to convict Hafiz Muhammad Saeed run concurrently of this case and of previously awarded, if any”. Saeed, who was first arrested in 2019, is already serving a 15-year prison sentence after being found guilty on similar charges of terror financing in 2020. In the recent sentencing, the Lahore High Court also imposed a fine of PKR 3,40,000 on the UN-designated terrorist. Ejaz Ahmad Buttar, Judge, Lahore Anti-Terrorism court handed out the judgement under various sections of Pakistan’s Anti-terrorism Act, 1997. Under Pakistani law, unless a sentence is thrown out or reduced on appeal, Naseeruddin Nayyar, Saeed’s lawyer, said his client can appeal against the latest sentence. Saeed will have to serve them consecutively.

Saeed has been arrested and released several times in the past decade. A brief chronology of his arrests and release from 2001 to 2017, as put together by journalist Praveen Swami demonstrates Pakistan ISI’s deep links with jihadists. Saeed was first arrested on 21 December 2001, released on 31 March 2001; arrested on 31 May 2002, released on 31 October 2002; arrested on 9 August 2006, released on 28 August 2006; arrested on 28 August 2006, and released on 17 October 2006; arrested on 31 January 2017, and released on 22 November 2017. Since January 2018, Saeed has been under house arrest. This however, is for “activities prejudicial to public order”, not for terrorism-related criminal offences. Saeed’s incarceration had not degraded the LeT’s capability and capacity, is evidenced in the Punjab Government’s order (14 April 2018) which notes that the “Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat have planned to spread chaos in the country on [its leaders’] expected release”.

Hafiz Saeed is a much wanted terrorist, with the US having offered a US$ 10 million reward for information leading to his conviction. Saeed has for long, denied involvement in any armed operations conducted by the LeT, including the Mumbai attacks in 2008 in which 166 people were killed. This is despite being a UN-designated terrorist. Testimony of the surviving attacker and another arrested LeT operative had blown the cover of Pakistani ISI involvement in both the 26/11 attacks, as well as general LeT operations in Jammu and Kashmir. The LeT group has been active for several years in J&K, carrying out multiple attacks, suicide bombings and kidnappings. This trend continues till date.

While Pakistan would like the world to believe that it is taking action against the likes of Hafiz Saeed and the LeT, the organization itself continues to organise events to raise funds and recruit fighters.  Following his initial house arrest in 2018, the Pakistani government had seized Saeed’s extensive network of mosques, schools, seminaries and charities and other assets in the country. Saeed’s conviction also comes at a time when Pakistan is trying to avoid blacklisting by the global watchdog FATF, which judges a country’s ability to combat illicit financing, including to armed groups. Since 2018, Pakistan has remained on the “grey list”.

The LeT’s social media outlets have been regularly publishing news about congregations and conferences to be attended by senior and central Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) leaders, including, Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki, Hafiz Talha Saeed, Rana Muhammad Ashfaq, MaulanaManjoor Ahmed, Maulana Saifullah Khalid, Maulana Qari Yaqoob Sheikh and Maulana Amir Hamza, as also Hafiz Abdul Rauf, Chairman of Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation. Outreach has focused on exhorting people to join the jihad or help in funding the group’s jihadi activities. In fact, the LeT publicly announced its intention to turn PoK into a base camp for insurgency in 2022.

In a strange way, the latest ‘sentencing’ of Hafiz Saeed is an attempt by Pakistan to show its good intentions to the FATF, whose Plenary in early March this year continued to keep Pakistan on the grey list. Thus, it is unclear, if Saeed will remain in jail for long. Past experience suggests that the more likely scenario will see Saeed walk free after an appeal is filed by his lawyers. In June 2021, Saeed survived an assassination attempt in Lahore. The ISI’s objective was to probably get him ‘killed’ and then resurrect him in another avatar. The unsuccessful attempt is a part of a series of efforts, including political mainstreaming by the deep state in Pakistan to keep Hafiz Saeed in play, for as long as possible. In August 2017, the ISI helped the Jamaat-ud-Dawa to launch the Milli Muslim League (MML), a political party which aims to make Pakistan, a real Islamic state. That the MML failed to make any impact in the 2018 elections, has not discouraged the ISI which continues to keep a hand on the tiller.

Pakistan’s image as a country has taken a beating with the FATF grey listing and it continues to be a politically and economically unstable nation. At this juncture, the ‘sentencing’ of Hafiz Saeed appears to be another episode in the periodic drama that Islamabad plays out before the world, to show its supposed seriousness in tackling terror. Global attention to Pakistan for its poor anti-terrorism record was drawn recently when India and the US after the 2+2 dialogue issued a joint statement which asks Pakistan to take, “immediate, sustained and irreversible” action to ensure that no territory under its control is used for terrorist attacks and called for the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and Pathankot attacks to be brought to justice”.