A video clip surfaced on Monday showing Pakistan Interior Minister Shehryar Afridi promising “full support” to UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
The video shows Afridi sitting with members of the Milli Muslim League (MML), a body affiliated with the LeT, reassuring that the group would be protected by the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI).
“Allah willing, as long as we are in the Assembly, we will support Hafiz Saeed and anyone who follows the righteous path. This is our faith,” Afridi is seen as saying.
His comment came in response to the MML leaders expressing concern about the US sanctioning the group as a terrorist organization. Also its struggles to get registered as a political party in Pakistan.
“You should come [and] join us in the assembly and see whether we’re on the right path or not… We aren’t even worth the dirt on your feet,” the minister adds in the video.
The video surfaced two months after a team from the Asia-Pacific Group in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which monitors the funding of terrorist groups, expressed dissatisfaction with Islamabad’s efforts to cut financial support for terrorist organizations.
In February, the FATF placed Pakistan on its grey list following inaction in regard to funding of terror groups. The country still faces the threat of relegation to the FATF blacklist alongside North Korea and Iran, unless it complies with the international agency’s recommendations.
Government sources have confirmed that groups affiliated with Hafiz Saeed, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), which front as charities for the militant organization, have regularly been cited as the primary concern of FATF delegates.
Hafiz Saeed and his groups were designated as terrorist groups in February, when the Anti-Terrorism Ordinance 2018 was passed. However, observers note that the move was a bid by the former government to forestall FATF action ahead of a summit meeting in Paris.
A similar last-ditch effort was seen when the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan released its Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Regulations in line with FATF recommendations ahead of the follow-up meeting with the terror watchdog in June.
However, with the duration of the Anti-Terrorism Ordinance lapsing, Hafiz Saeed is no longer designated as a terrorist in the country, a shortcoming that led to the US State Department admonishing Islamabad last month for its failure to follow up on the matter.
Experts now believe the video of Shehryar Afridi’s meeting with Saeed could spur another international backlash.
“This will be taken very seriously by the FATF. It will also depend on how the US is looking at the matter. It could get nasty for Pakistan,” the former secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production Lieutenant-General Talat Masood said.
“The government needs to urgently clarify its position. Because nobody believes Pakistan now. People know exactly what is happening in the country. The state needs to stop deceiving itself and its people,” he said.
However, Shehryar Afridi told local media the video was “two years old” and questioned the timing of its release “at a time crucial for the entire country.”
But there is skepticism about his claim, given that the MML was only formed in August last year and the fact that US sanctions discussed in the video were put in place in April this year.
Insiders within the JuD and MML have confirmed that members of the group have been asked to refrain from commenting on the matter in front of the media, and confirmed the fact that the video was old. “The video is a few months old but not two years old,” a member of the MML told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, senior JuD leader Yahya Mujahid said the video was “very old, but I can’t say how old.” He refused to comment on the video and blamed India for stirring conspiracy in Pakistan. “It’s the Indian media that has generated noise for no reason, and [the Pakistani media] is unnecessarily following their lead.”
Sources said the group’s reluctance to speak about the matter despite the minister openly vowing support for Hafiz Saeed was because its leaders were still working on future plans of action with their “backers”.
Lieutenant-General Masood maintains that the military is protecting Hafiz Saeed because that is part of the establishment’s policy to try to get militants into the ‘mainstream’ of politics, and that is the prime reason why Saeed’s groups have enjoyed impunity.
“The military has its own policy which is dominant. Whether the video is from before the election or now, it’s the military that is dictating the [mainstreaming] policy,” he said.