2018 marks a decade of the 26/11 terror attack, in which 10 Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists killed more than 150 people at multiple locations across Mumbai. Following the attack, the United States placed a bounty of $ 10 million on Hafiz Saeed, the founder and foremost leader of the Lashkar. Despite international sanctions on the Lashkar and sustained global pressure on Pakistan to act against terrorist groups, Hafiz Saeed has remained largely free. He intends to join mainstream politics now, and is scheduled to release the manifesto of his party, Milli Muslim League, on Friday. He has also challenged in court a February 10 notification by the government, freezing bank accounts and taking over assets linked to his Jamaat-ud-Dawa organisation and its charity arm, the Falah-i-Insaaniyat Foundation, under the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018.
Where does Hafiz Saeed currently stand in Pakistan’s larger political context?
Sword of sanctions
The government’s action against the JuD and FIF was aimed at evading grey-listing by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — the inter-governmental body that sets standards for legal, regulatory and operational measures to combat threats to the international financial system from money laundering and terror financing — during its plenary session in Paris last month.
Although Islamabad failed to get off the hook, the fear of harsher sanctions by the FATF is creating turmoil in the country. Pakistan army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa has accused former finance minister Ishaq Dar of “dragging his feet on a number of much-needed reforms related to money-laundering and terror-financing law” — this, despite the fact that the Lashkar has long been considered a “good” terrorist group by the Pakistan army, which has used it as a proxy against India and Afghanistan.
Hurdles in the courts
Earlier this month, Islamabad High Court set aside the Election Commission’s resolution refusing registration for JuD’s political front, Milli Muslim League (MML). The Commission acted on a recommendation by the Pakistan Interior Ministry, citing MML’s links with banned militant outfits. MML’s Yaqoob Sheikh, a US-designated terrorist, then contested the by-election for the National Assembly constituency NA-120 (Lahore-III) as an Independent, and came in fourth, securing 4.59% of the vote. Following the HC order, however, MML can contest the parliamentary elections scheduled for July.
The government’s view
So, how exactly does the government view the LeT, JuD and FIF? In its recommendation to the Election Commission, the Interior Ministry said, “There is evidence to substantiate that Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-i-lnsaniyat are affiliates and are ideologically of the same hue. Lashkar-e-Taiba has been proscribed since 14-01-2002, whereas Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-i-lnsaniyat Foundation are placed under restrictions since 27-1-2017 and later extended up to 26-1-2018 under Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. They have also attracted sanctions under the United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 1267 and have been dealt accordingly.”
To avoid grey-listing, Pakistan promulgated an Ordinance amending the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, to include terrorist organisations listed by the UNSC. Consequently, JuD and FIF were declared as proscribed groups, and all their properties in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan were confiscated. About 148 properties and assets were seized in Punjab, the government informed Senate. In Islamabad, three immovable assets, including hospitals and dispensaries, were taken over. Hafiz Saeed has now challenged the order in Islamabad High Court.
Pakistan’s limited options
Limited action against Saeed’s groups is unlikely to satisfy the FATF. But in the context of a looming election, and political turmoil following the conviction of former PM Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges, the government will find it hard to push the envelope. An influential section in the Army reportedly believes that Hafiz Saeed is too big — taking him on directly will have unmanageable consequences.
However, even friendly countries such as China and Saudi Arabia voted against Pakistan at the FATF, and India succeeded in shaping global opinion against Pakistan. The US has compelled Pakistan to initiate stringent action against terror groups. As is so often the case in Pakistan, the ball with regard to Hafiz Saeed is now in the army’s court.