US dials up pressure over Omar Sheikh but will Pak end its ties with jihadis?
If the Pakistan government had plans to initiate a reset of its relationship with the US under the Biden administration, those have been virtually scuppered by the country’s Supreme Court acquitting Omar Saeed Sheikh, the mastermind behind the 2002 kidnapping of reporter Daniel Pearl.
Pakistan’s policy-makers would have woken on Friday to two strong statements from the White House and the US state department expressing outrage and strong concern about the Supreme Court’s ruling that could pave the way for Sheikh and three other men convicted of the 2002 abduction and murder to walk free.
Underlining the gravity of the situation, the statement from the US state department wasn’t issued by a spokesperson, but by the new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and even before he had made an introductory call to his Pakistani counterpart. Blinken also offered to prosecute Sheikh in the US “for his horrific crimes against an American citizen” – in effect, asking Pakistan to hand over Sheikh.
The timing of the Pakistan Supreme Court’s order was also inopportune because it came weeks before the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) holds its first plenary meeting of 2021, at which the multilateral watchdog will review Pakistan’s efforts to fight terror financing. The court verdict will only lead to greater scrutiny of Pakistan’s efforts to crack down on terrorism and the long-standing problem of links between terrorists and the military establishment.
It is widely known that Sheikh had turned himself in to Pakistan’s intelligence agencies after Pearl’s murder in 2002, a week before his formal arrest by police. It is also known that Sheikh had surrendered to former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer Ijaz Shah, who was then the home secretary of Punjab province and till last month, the interior minister of Pakistan.
Sheikh, who studied at the London School of Economic, came to prominence in India after he was arrested in 1994 for the kidnapping of an American and three Britons. He was then linked to the Harkat-ul-Ansar. Five years later, he was taken from an Indian prison and released along with Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Masood Azhar and terrorist Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar in exchange for the passengers of an Indian Airlines flight that was hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in Afghanistan, which was then controlled by the Taliban.
At the height of tensions between India and Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Sheikh made hoax calls from a Pakistani prison to then president Asif Ali Zardari, pretending to be Indian external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee and threatening retaliatory actions for the carnage in Mumbai. The resultant tensions were defused only through a flurry of phone calls between leaders in Islamabad, New Delhi and Washington.
Pakistan-US ties suffered a body blow when former US president Donald Trump cut off all security assistance to Pakistan through a New Year’s day tweet in 2018, accusing the country of “lies and deceit” despite getting $33 billion in aid. Though the US has leaned on Pakistan to get the Taliban to the negotiating table, the overall relationship has not been repaired.
In recent weeks, Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has spoken of efforts to reset his country’s relationship with the US, saying the Biden administration should engage with Pakistan and India on the basis of changes that have occurred in recent years.
Qureshi even wrote a letter to Blinken, highlighting what he said was a “big shift” in Pakistan’s policies and looking forward to more talks on the issue.
The reality is Pakistan’s powerful military has shown no signs of giving up its policy of “good and bad” terrorists, or cutting its ties with terrorists in the second camp such as Sheikh.
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