Hafiz Saeed | The ‘professor’ who runs terrorist networks

Hafiz Saeed | The ‘professor’ who runs terrorist networks

The Mumbai attack mastermind has kept a low profile since his arrest last year but remains at the helm of the terror outfits he founded.

There are many facts about Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the mastermind of the Mumbai 26/11 attacks, that set him apart from other terror chiefs in Pakistan. Unlike the battle worn, gun-toting terrorists wanted for attacks in Afghanistan and India, Mr. Saeed identifies himself as a “professor” of Islamic studies, with two Master’s degrees from Lahore University, and a two-year specialisation at the King Saud University in Riyadh, where, he says, he was inspired by the Saudi Grand Mufti into setting up the now-banned Markaz Dawat wal Irshad (MDI) movement.

According to scholar Arif Jamal, author of the book Call for Transnational Jihad, about Saeed and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Saeed drew inspiration from the same Salafi sheikhs and groups in the Saudi Kingdom that spurred Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but unlike other pan-Islamist groups, Saeed’s organisations have never targeted Pakistan, and stayed within the lines drawn by its power military establishment.

Saeed traces his origins not to the Pukhtoon areas along the Durand line or from Kashmir along the Line of Control, but to a Gujjar family from Haryana which travelled to Pakistan’s Punjab during Partition, on a journey where Saeed says 36 members of his family were killed in India.

Saeed’s family of clerics have had international exposure: while Saeed went to Saudi Arabia, his brothers Hafiz Hamid, Hafiz Mastodon and Hafiz Hannan ran Islamic centres in and around Boston, until they were deported back to Pakistan for visa violations by the U.S. government in 2007.

While most of Saeed’s “colleagues” in the world of transnational jihad are either dead, missing or on the run, Saeed has managed to evade UNSC designations, American bounties and Indian convictions for more than a decade, addressing public rallies, giving interviews to international media, and threatening attacks.

He has been arrested, charged and convicted and then released by Pakistani courts on various terror-related charges, but could always continue his work at the helm of the LeT, and its many offshoots, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), Tehreek-e-Azadi Jammu and Kashmir (TAJK), and a political party, the Milli Muslim League, all of which have been banned internationally.

This month, Saeed, who is currently in prison, was handed two sentences of 10 years each for his role in terror financing, but given his past ability to have court orders overturned, many remain sceptical that he will be brought to justice eventually.

Dreams of destruction

“Some people don’t evolve. They only ride the crest of passion hoping to realise their dreams of destruction,” wrote Pakistani journalist Aamir Mir about Saeed, in his 2009 book Talibanization of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11. Mr. Mir was speaking about the fact that despite being banned, and being placed on several terror lists between 1999 and 2008, Saeed continued to hold public meetings, threatening the dismemberment of India. What even Mr. Mir could not have known is that 12 years after the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed, including six U.S. citizens, and nationals of at least 16 other countries, Saeed still retains a large amount of that immunity. He has never been charged in Pakistan for the 26/11 attacks, and continues to claim he is innocent of the conspiracy to send 10 armed and trained terrorists to wreak havoc on India’s Maximum City.

The evidence against Saeed for 26/11 is damning by any measure. Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving Pakistani gunman in the attack, gave a lucid description during his trial, of how he was motivated by Saeed’s speeches, indoctrinated by the LeT and trained for the attack at camps in Pakistan.

Identifying Saeed’s photograph in court, Kasab spoke of how the “Amir” Hafiz Saeed had himself visited the training camps to give his blessings to the group for their attack on “Bambai”, as he referred to India’s financial capital.

When Kasab was hanged in 2012, Saeed led thousands in prayer for him, even though the JuD/LeT had disclaimed any knowledge of him in the past. David Headley, the man convicted in the U.S. for the 26/11 conspiracy for his role in scouting locations for the terrorists to attack, also identified Saeed ‘Sahib’ as his mentor since he met him at a terror camp in 2002 and the mastermind of the Mumbai carnage.

After Saudi Arabia facilitated the arrest of 26/11 conspirator and LeT commander Abu Jundal (Zabiuddin Ansari) in 2012, Jundal too spoke in court of his meetings with Saeed to plan the Mumbai attacks. And even Pakistan’s Federal Investigations Agency (FIA) chief confirmed details of the LeT plot, the guilt of Saeed’s right hand and associate since 1986 Zaki Ur Rahman Lakhvi in commanding the operation from a control room in Karachi, ostensibly under Saeed’s guidance.

Saeed’s impunity from both international scrutiny and Pakistani law is clearly no coincidence. Right from the 1990s, when Saeed himself confessed to training Mujahideen for Afghanistan with the help of “guns from the U.S.”, Pakistan’s military agencies have supported his ventures. Rather than charge him directly for a number of terror attacks in India and Afghanistan, agencies had held him on “preventive detention” or charged him with minor “hate speech” misdemeanours. Over the years, Saeed was able to grow a considerable empire with his headquarters at Muridke, Punjab, and JuD/FiF offices around the country, raising millions of dollars for his work, despite UN strictures.

Head Qazi

National Security Advisory Board member Tilak Devasher, who was based in Pakistan for many years, writes in his book, Pakistan: Courting the Abyss, that the JuD/LeT was even allowed to set up seven “Sharia courts” in Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and other cities to “dispense justice” , with Saeed as the “Head Qazi”, chief justice of the courts. In the wake of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) greylisting in 2018, Pakistani government agencies said they had confiscated all Saeed’s properties, but officials quoted by local agencies said Saeed and other JuD leaders continued to use the premises and give sermons on Fridays.

He was able to do all this despite a $10 million award announced by the U.S. for his arrest in 2012. Saeed’s response to the bounty was to mockingly ask the U.S. government to give it to him directly in return for a “daily update on his location”.

After his arrest in July 2019, Saeed has kept a low profile, and more so after an alleged assassination attempt on his son Talha Saeed in December last year. With long prison sentences announced against Saeed along with all his top aides like brother-in-law Abdul Rahman Makki and JuD spokesperson Yahya Mujahid, speculation is rife that Pakistan’s military establishment is finally wearying off its favourite, and has decided to offload the LeT that has grown into the proverbial albatross around its neck. Or Saeed is being simply kept on hold, and if Pakistan evades a possible “blacklisting” at the dirty money watchdog FATF, which is due to make a final decision in February 2021, the terror-Professor may once again return to his diabolical business.

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