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Hafiz Saeed speaks with supporters after attending Friday prayers in Lahore, Pakistan on Nov. 24. Photo by Mohsin Raza/Reuters

A militant leader is set free in Pakistan. Here’s why it matters to the U.S.

A Pakistani court released the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Hafiz Saeed, from house arrest last week. The court said it did not have enough evidence from India to continue to hold him.

Saeed’s release does not bode well for U.S.-Pakistani relations, and with Defense Secretary James Mattis visiting Islamabad on Dec. 4, the Pakistani government will have much to explain.

Who is Hafiz Saeed?

The bearded and bespectacled Saeed is head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant organization that primarily targets India and Indian forces in Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Based in eastern Pakistan’s Punjab province, the group seeks restoration of Islamic rule throughout India.

India believes the group orchestrated the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, which left 166 people dead including six Americans. Police killed nine of the gunmen, and the lone survivor was found guilty and executed. In the aftermath, Saeed was placed under house arrest but released about six months later in June 2009.

After President Donald Trump took office in January, Saeed again was placed under house arrest under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism law, until his release on Nov. 22.

The United Nations has designated Saeed a “global terrorist,” and the U.S. has offered a $10 million reward for information that brings him to justice.

Saeed denies any connections to militants and has filed a petition with the U.N. to remove his name from the list of designated terrorists.

What’s the perspective from within Pakistan?

Active since 1989, Lashkar-e-Taiba now operates as a charitable organization under the name Jamaat-ud-Dawa, said Madiha Afzal, a nonresident fellow of global economy and development at Brookings. Jamaat-ud-Dawa provides ambulance services, runs schools and distributes aid during natural disasters, including the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods.

About 2 million people were forced to leave their homes in the 2010 floods. Photo by Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

About 2 million people were forced to leave their homes in the 2010 floods. Photo by Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

“They were able to get to parts of Pakistan that the state had difficulty responding to quickly in the wake of those disasters,” Afzal said.

In general, Pakistanis view militant groups negatively, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, but many people either don’t know the extent of the group’s violent activities or they equate it with Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s charitable acts, she said. “Because there isn’t an open-state narrative about these groups, the common Pakistani will not really understand that this is a terrorist organization.”

U.S. officials said they believe Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, has ties to the militant group. “The fact that his group, under a charitable and political front, is able to conduct operations freely in the heart of Punjab lends credibility to the idea that at least important elements within Pakistan’s security forces do support and back the group,” said Afzal.

However, during a visit to Washington, D.C., in October, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif refuted those claims, telling reporters, “You want us to sniff them out, we will do that. You want us to take action against them, whatever action you propose, we will do that… (but) these hollow allegations are not acceptable.”

What is the U.S. reaction?

After Saeed’s release, the State Department called on the Pakistani government to arrest and charge him. The White House warned that, “If Pakistan does not take action to lawfully detain Saeed and charge him for his crimes, its inaction will have repercussions for bilateral relations and for Pakistan’s global reputation.”

President Donald Trump, when issuing the U.S. policy on South Asia in August, demanded that Pakistan stop harboring militants. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that post a threat to the region and beyond,” he said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”

The U.S. policy on South Asia focused on the Haqqani network, which primarily attacks U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the Afghan government allegedly from bases in Pakistan, said Afzal. (The U.S. designated the Haqqani network a terrorist organization in 2012.) “In some sense, Pakistan thought Lashkar-e-Taiba slipped under the radar,” which also might explain Saeed’s release, she said.

What does his release mean?

Pakistan’s attitude, however, has slowly been changing toward Lashkar-e-Taiba, particularly how it might be harming Pakistan itself and the country’s standing on the world stage, said Afzal. To Pakistan’s government, the $10 million bounty is chump change, she said, and given that Saeed was just released again, the government still appears to consider him more of an asset than a liability.

In the last few months, Saeed has created a political party that will run in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, and his release means he’ll be more involved. At recent rallies and sermons, his message is not just anti-India, but anti-West and anti-Israel, and that broader scope might ultimately lead to his undoing, she said.

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