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‘My fate in hands of God, not US’

“I move about like an ordinary person — that’s my style,” said Saeed, a burly 64-year-old, reclining on a bolster as he ate a chicken supper. “My fate is in the hands of God, not America.”

world Updated: Feb 08, 2013 00:38 IST
Declan Walsh

“I move about like an ordinary person — that’s my style,” said Saeed, a burly 64-year-old, reclining on a bolster as he ate a chicken supper. “My fate is in the hands of God, not America.”

Saeed is the founder, and is still widely believed to be the true leader, of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. The UN has placed him on a terrorist list and imposed sanctions on his group. But few believe he will face trial anytime soon in a country that maintains a perilous ambiguity toward jihadi militancy, casting a benign eye on some groups, even as it battles others that attack the state.

Saeed’s increasing comfort with public life seems more than just an act of mocking defiance against the Obama administration and its bounty, analysts say. As US troops prepare to leave Afghanistan next door, Lashkar is at a crossroads, and its fighters’ next move — whether they join the jihadist fight against the West in numbers, disarm and enter the Pakistani political process, or return to battle in Kashmir — will depend largely on Saeed.

At his sprawling Lahore compound — a fortified house, office and mosque — Saeed is shielded not only by his supporters, burly men wielding Kalashnikovs who stand outside his door, but also by the Pakistani state. His security seemingly ensured, Saeed has over the past year addressed large public meetings, appeared on prime-time television, and is now even giving interviews to Western news media outlets he had previously eschewed.

He says he wants to correct “misperceptions.” During an interview with The New York Times last week, Saeed insisted that his name had been cleared by the Pakistani courts. “Why does the US not respect our judicial system?” he asked.

Still, he says he has nothing against Americans, and warmly described a visit he made to the US in 1994, during which he spoke at Islamic centres in Houston, Chicago and Boston.

During that stretch, his group was focused on attacking Indian soldiers in Kashmir — the fight that led the ISI directorate to help establish Lashkar-e-Taiba in 1989. But that battle died down over the past decade, and Lashkar began projecting itself through its charity wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which runs a tightly organised network of hospitals and schools across Pakistan.

The Mumbai attacks propelled the LeT to notoriety. But since then, Saeed’s provocations toward India have been largely verbal. Last week, he stirred anger there by suggesting that Bollywood’s highest-paid actor, Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim, should move to Pakistan. In the interview, he said he prized talking over fighting in Kashmir.

“The militant struggle helped grab the world’s attention,” he said. “But now the political movement is stronger, and it should be at the forefront of the struggle.”

Pakistan analysts caution that Saeed’s new openness is no random occurrence, however. Shamila N Chaudhry, a former Obama administration official and an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, said: “These guys don’t start talking publicly just like that.”

What it amounts to, however, may depend on events across the border in Afghanistan, where his groups have been increasingly active in recent years. In public, Saeed has been a leading light in the Defence of Pakistan Council, a coalition of right-wing groups that lobbied against the reopening of Nato supply routes through Pakistan last year. More quietly, Lashkar fighters have joined the battle, attacking Western troops and Indian diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan, intelligence officials say.

The question now is what will happen to them once US troops leave. One possibility is a return to Lashkar’s traditional battleground of Kashmir, risking fresh conflict between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India. But a more hopeful scenario, floated by some Western and Pakistani officials, is that Saeed would lead his group further into politics, and away from militancy.

“When there are no Americans in Afghanistan, what will happen?” said Mushtaq Sukhera, a senior officer with the Punjabi police who is running a fledgling demobilisation programme for Islamist extremists. “It’s an open question.”

A shift could be risky for Saeed: Some of his fighters have already split from Lashkar in favour of other groups that attack the Pakistani state. And much will depend on the advice of his military sponsors.

For their part, Pakistan’s generals insist they have abandoned their dalliance with jihadi proxy groups. In a striking speech in August, the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, said the country’s greatest threat came from domestic extremism. “We as a nation must stand united against this threat,” he said. “No state can afford a parallel system of governance and militias.”

Five years of near-continuous battle against the Pakistani Taliban along the Afghan border, where more than 3,300 members of Pakistan’s security forces have been killed in the past decade, has affected army thinking, some analysts believe. Senior officers have lost colleagues and relatives, softening the army’s singular focus on India.

But there is ample evidence that parts of the military remain wedded to jihadi proxies. In Waziristan, the army maintains close ties to the Haqqani Network, a major player in the Afghan insurgency.

And Saeed’s freedom to roam around Lahore — and, indeed, across Pakistan — suggests some generals still believe the “good” jihadis are worth having around.

For all his ease, Saeed has to walk a tightrope within the jihadi firmament. His support of the state puts him at odds with the Pakistani Taliban, which, he claims, are secretly supported by the US and India. “They want to destabilise Pakistan,” he said.

But that position leaves Saeed vulnerable to pressure from fighters within his own ranks who may still have Taliban sympathies. Western security officials say Lashkar has already suffered some defections in recent years.

But ultimately, said Stephen Tankel, author of a book on the LeT, much depends on the Pakistani army: “The army can’t dismantle these groups all at once, because of the danger of blowback. So for now, it’s too early to tell which way they will go.” NYT