Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Photo: AFP

An anti-terrorism court in Lahore sentenced Hafiz Saeed to two concurrent five-and-a-half-year prison sentences in terror financing cases on Wednesday.

Saeed, the founder of jihadist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its political wing Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), was sentenced alongside close aide Malik Zafar Iqbal, who runs the militant organization’s charity front Al-Anfaal Trust.

By charging both Saeed and Zafar under the Anti-Terrorism Act Section 11-F (2), the court reaffirmed the organizations they belong to, whereas Saeed specifically was found guilty of being a “member of a terrorist outfit.”

Saeed had been arrested by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) in July 2019 and was named in 27 other cases relating to terrorism. Observers noted the significance of the verdict meted out to Saeed given that he has largely been able to avoid any state action despite being involved in a multitude of terror activities in the region.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks

Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, following which he was declared a globally designated terrorist by the United Nations and the US.

In 2012, Washington put a US$10 million bounty on Saeed. While Saeed had publicly denied any affiliation with the LeT, evidence of the JuD’s infrastructure overlapping with the group had been presented in court proceedings against him many times.

There were innumerable public addresses, and JuD literature, where Saeed had vowed jihad against India. As recently as December 2018, Saeed vowed ‘war in Hyderabad Deccan,’ former a princely state in India which has now been divided among the states of Telangana, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

There was also evidence of Saeed’s direct involvement in the Mumbai attacks, in classified documents from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Books like Steve Coll’s Directorate S narrate how Saeed directly briefed 10 of the Mumbai attackers.

Establishment support

While cases and temporary house arrests have intermittently continued over the past 12 years, Saeed has continued to enjoy a public presence in Pakistan.

This was largely because of his group’s echoing calls for jihad in Kashmir, which has been the official military policy of Pakistan. Former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf had acknowledged the ISI’s use of the LeT.

Former ISI chief Hameed Gul publicly spearheaded the conglomerate of radical Islamist groups, Difa-e-Pakistan (Defense of Pakistan) Council [DPC], which stood hand in hand with Saeed.

Meanwhile, Musharraf has called himself “the greatest supporter” of the LeT, which prompted talks of a potential political alliance between Saeed and Musharraf ahead of the 2018 general elections.

The Saeed-affiliated Allah-o-Akbar Tehrik (AAT) did contest the polls, despite the LeT chief having been designated as a ‘terrorist’ in Pakistan.

Where Saeed and his groups have enjoyed legitimacy and support in Pakistan’s power corridors over the past couple of decades, Islamabad has had to rethink its Kashmir jihad policy, at least publicly, owing to pressure from global counter-terrorism watchdogs.

Blacklist risk

The most prominent among them is the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which has been on Pakistan’s case in recent years.

In February 2018, Pakistan was told at the FATF meeting in Paris that it would be placed on the grey-list of terror financing offenders, which was formalized in July that year.

Over the next 18 months, during multiple global meetings and FATF visits to Islamabad, Pakistan was told that it faces the risk of being blacklisted.

In October last year, Pakistan dodged the blacklist despite being largely compliant on a mere five of the 27 points issued in the FATF guidelines. Being placed on the blacklist, with Iran and North Korea, would signal a global banking isolation for the country at a time it is already embroiled in a multi-pronged economic crisis.

However, Pakistan was given a lifeline at the FATF’s Working Group meeting in Beijing last month, when the terror watchdog expressed ‘satisfaction’ with Islamabad’s progress. Diplomatic sources confirm that the turnaround had been spearheaded by the US.

A statement issued by Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior, following the January visit of Alice Wells, the US Assistant Secretary of State on South and Central Asia, noted that Washington had appreciated the counter-terror measures of Pakistan.

Timely action

“The counter-terror measures are there for all to see. There has been a massive decrease in terror incidents in Pakistan over the past couple of years,” said Salman Shah, the government’s finance advisor in Punjab.

“Furthermore, the court sentencing Hafiz Saeed is further evidence that the guidelines issued by the FATF are being followed. The gaps in law enforcement and convictions in the past have been pointed out by the FATF,” he added.

However, critics have noted that Pakistan has customarily taken short-term action against Saeed and his groups ahead of a FATF review. Islamabad designated Saeed as a terrorist days before the 2018 FATF meeting in Paris where the decision was taken to grey-list Pakistan.

“This is a tactic that Pakistan issues, but the FATF and APG accept it in the passbook. Hence [the Hafiz Saeed sentence] will have a positive impact, because this has been the biggest issue raised by the FATF,” said security analyst Muhammad Amir Rana, the Director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS).

“But ultimately we need to take an institutional approach. The government takes action owing to FATF pressure, but it needs to translate into other efforts as well,” Rana added.

US support for Pakistan has come immediately after Washington’s increased involvement in the region in the aftermath of the execution of the Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike last month. That was followed by the US announcing it would be resuming military training with Pakistan.

While the government has officially maintained neutrality, and urged Washington and Tehran to de-escalate the talk of war over the past month, experts argue that the US could use the FATF and the International Monetary Fund to drive home its interests through Islamabad.

However, others argue that Pakistan has historically been all too willing to take up such a role.

“Historically, we’ve compromised our regional interests to suit someone else’s. Once our policies start reflecting what’s best for Pakistan – whether its security or economy – all kinds of terror outfits would be eliminated, including those that have been used by the state for its own regional goals,” says Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a former secretary at the Ministry of Defense.

“In Hafiz Saeed’s case, his groups continue to resurface under new banners. Other militant outfits in the country have been doing the same. First and foremost, Pakistan needs to take action against such fronts that aim to legitimize militant outfits,” he added.

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