February 3, 2017 12:07:17 am
IN the summer of 2009, memories of the carnage on 26/11 still fresh in the world’s memories, Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed was set free to walk out of his own home — the prison that had held him since his organisation’s role in the terrorist attack was revealed. The Federal Investigations Agency, prosecuting the case in Pakistan, had not linked him to the attacks, the Lahore High Court noted, nor had any evidence of his links to other terrorist activities been produced. Then, the Opposition-ruled Punjab Government in Pakistan withdrew its appeal in the Supreme Court: “we don’t have anything against him and our intelligence has nothing to detain him”, provincial Home Secretary Nadeem Asif announced.
“Even if Saeed is technically not roaming the streets, the Government of Pakistan’s inability to win the legal case against him is embarrassing,” then United States ambassador Anne Patterson wrote in a cable to the State Department. “Realising the importance of Saeed’s detention, (Prime Minister Yusuf Raza) Gilani and (Interior Minister Rehman) Malik are determined to use any law or means to keep him confined to his home,” Patterson wrote.
WATCH VIDEO | Jamaat-ud-Dawah Chief Hafiz Saeed Placed Under House Arrest
The pious hope was belied: within months, Saeed was spearheading mobilisations by the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, while its charitable wing, the Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation, expanded its operations globally. The United States stood by, watching powerlessly.
But now, there’s a twist in the story: last month, Pakistan placed Saeed under detention, without assigning reasons, and shut down the operations of the JuD and FiF. The government has offered no explanation of why this happened; the Army’s public-relations wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations, held a press conference to say the action was “in the national interest”, to bring Pakistan into compliance with United Nations Resolution 1267.
In 1918, the legendary Hungarian-born magician, Erik Weisz, better known by his stage name Harry Houdini, premiered what’s become known as the Make-the-Elephant-Vanish Trick. An elephant was shut into a box with raised wheels, thus ruling out the use of a trapdoor. When the box opened, the elephant had disappeared. The key to the trick was lost for decades, until rediscovered by author and magician Jim Steinmeyer. The elephant was, in fact concealed behind a diagonally-placed mirror: what the audience saw as the entire empty box was really a half-empty box, reflected to appear whole.
The ISI has its own version of the vanishing elephant trick: Saeed was arrested on December 21, 2001, in the face of Indian war threats after the attack on Parliament, only to surface again on March 31; arrested again on May 31, 2002, to be released on October 31, 2002; arrested on August 9, 2006, after the Mumbai train bombings, and released on August 28; arrested the same day yet again, and released on October 17, 2006. Not once did he ever face actual criminal prosecution.
In media reports published both in Pakistan and India, the most popular theory is that Saeed has been arrested to ward off possible United States sanctions. The country, this proposition has it, was due to submit a report to the Asia Pacific Group of the multinational Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on counter-terrorism — and having Saeed roaming free would have been a violation of the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 1267, under which he has been sanctioned. In one version, United States Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Richard Boucher, threatened Pakistan’s ambassador with sanctions at a January 11 meeting.
The story would explain a great deal — but doesn’t, in fact, stand on solid empirical foundation. For one, the FATF story is a bit more complex than its pop version. In 2010, a FATF assessment identified significant shortcomings in Pakistan’s legislation and practices against money laundering and financing of terrorism. In February 2015, though, Pakistan, along with six other countries, including Kuwait, was taken off the FATF monitoring list, subject to its continuing to address issues identified in its “evaluation report, in particular, fully implementing UNSC Resolution 1267”.
For Pakistan to meet the 1267 standard, moreover, it had no need to arrest or prosecute Saeed, only freeze his assets, which the State Bank of Pakistan had done after 26/11, and impose a travel embargo.
Though frustration has been mounting in Washington over Pakistan’s failure to rein in terrorism, an elaborate legal process is needed before sanctions are imposed, so it’s profoundly unlikely Pakistan acted out of fear of a deadline. Indeed, in September, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner dismissed speculation “suggestive of any kind of sanctions; we’re not there”.
So what, in this case, has driven Pakistan to act? There are at least three major possibilities. First, the expansion of operations by the FiF, the Lashkar charity, has raised eyebrows in the counter-terrorism community worldwide. Last year, the JuD magazine, Invite, announced that it was conducting relief operations in Gaza, Syria, Somalia, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. FIF fundraising, estimated at over $50 million a year, had led the United States Treasury Department to designate Lashkar leaders Shahid Mehmood and Muhammad Sarwar as global terrorists; earlier, Saudi Arabia and the United States had jointly designated Naveed Qamar, Abdul Aziz Nuristani, and Mohammed Ejaz Safarash.
This, in turn, may have pushed Pakistan’s Army to show that it is indeed serious about taming its client-jihadis; indeed, deliberations were reported to be taking place on this issue in Islamabad last summer.
A second possibility is that Pakistan sought to pre-empt action by the United States by demonstrating resolve — though its real intentions may well be simply to buy time with a new administration. “The Barack Obama administration was getting tougher,” notes eminent scholar C Christine Fair, “and President Donald Trump has shown himself to be a loose cannon. The will of Congress to keep writing cheques to Pakistan in this environment cannot be taken for granted”.
Finally, Pakistan’s key ally, China, may itself be concerned about the destabilising potential of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Though Beijing may have no great fondness for India, war would threaten returns from its planned multi-billion dollar investments in Pakistani infrastructure. Thus, China may be prodding the Pakistan Army to rein in its jihadist allies.
New Delhi has little reason for immediate comfort from these developments. For the moment, the only concrete result from the detention of Saeed has been that Lashkar establishments have been rebranded with signboards proclaiming them to belong to the Tehreek-e-Azaadi-e-Kashmir — the name Saeed chose for the mobilisation he spearheaded when he was released from house arrest in 2009. Then, as now, Saeed had the backing of the who’s who of the Islamist establishment in Pakistan, as well as its Army.
The jihadi elephant in the room, though, hasn’t really disappeared. But if the Army is seeing a reason to tie fetters to its legs, new alignments and strains could soon develop in Pakistan’s jihadi landscape, of profound significance to that country.
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