US tightens screws on Pakistan with $10 million bounty

Yesterday the US announced a $10 million bounty for Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the leader of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba who lives openly in Pakistan.

By , Staff writer

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The US has offered a $10 million bounty for the Pakistani militant accused of plotting the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai, which killed 166 people, including several US citizens. The move was welcomed in India, but could anger rival Pakistan, which has been considering changes to its fraught relationship with the US.

Hafiz Mohammad Saeed lives openly in Pakistan, occasionally giving speeches and appearing on talk shows, and founded the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in the 1980s. The US considers it a terrorist group and Pakistan officially banned LeT in 2002 under US pressure, but the group still operates relatively freely in Pakistan, Associated Press reports.

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India, which has struggled to contain and punish terror attacks on its soil, welcomed the news of the US bounty and held it up as proof that Pakistan harbors terrorists, the Indian Express reports.

“I think it has become clear before the world and everybody recognises that a terror mastermind, who was instrumental in terror attacks, is being sheltered and harboured there (Pakistan),” Home Secretary RK Singh said. “We welcome it. It is a very good step. It is absolutely appropriate and necessary. I hope this move will add pressure on Pakistan to act."

The New York Times reports that Saeed lives openly on the outskirts of Lahore and previous attempts to prosecute him have failed, as did efforts to put him under house arrest. “Hafiz Saeed and his aides are not fugitives. They are not living a secret life. They are living in Pakistan as free members of society,” said Hafiz Muhammad Masood, the central information secretary with the social welfare arm of LeT, Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

The bounty on Saeed could further upset an already endangered counterterrorism partnership between the US and Pakistan. After an accidental US strike on Pakistani troops in November, Pakistan closed its Afghanistan border crossings to US supplies bound for NATO troops there. It also blocked access to an air base the US formerly used to launch drone strikes.

The US is hoping that current deliberations will result in the border being reopened – something Saeed has vocally opposed, organizing demonstrations against the move. The Pakistani government has "historical links" to the militant and it is politically dangerous to be seen as "doing Washington's bidding" by pursuing Saeed, AP notes.

Saeed has spoken at rallies throughout the country organized by the Defense of Pakistan Council, a lobby aiming to persuade politicians to vote against the reopening of the supply lines. The group, which counts banned jihadist groups among its members, operates freely in Pakistan. The US suspects that it has unofficial support from Pakistan's military, possibly as a way to further pressure Washington, The New York Times reports.

In many ways, Mr. Saeed embodies Pakistan’s struggle to rein in homegrown Islamist militants. The former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, banned Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2002 but it quickly reemerged under the guise of its charity wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa.… But the greatest problem lies in his ambiguous relationship with the military’s powerful intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. The ISI nurtured Lashkar-e-Taiba in the 1990s to fight Indian soldiers in Indian-occupied Kashmir and it quickly gained a reputation as a disciplined and effective militant unit.

ISI officials insist they effectively lost control of the group after cutting their ties in 2002. But they have also failed to stop its fundraising and recruitment activities through Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which operates from the Muridke compound outside Lahore and has run substantial charity operations across Pakistan, particularly after an earthquake in 2005 and widespread floods in 2010. 

The $10 million reward is one of the highest offered by the US, equal to the amount offered for Taliban chief Mullah Omar. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became head of Al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden's death, commands a $25 million bounty. There has been an Interpol arrest warrant for Saeed for some time, but Pakistan has not acted on it.

Reuters reports that Pakistan's intelligence agency "nurtured" LeT and Pakistan still tolerates the group because it considers it a useful tool for pressuring neighbor India, which it has fought in four separate wars in the last 65 years.

The US also announced yesterday that it was posting a $2 million bounty for Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, Mr. Saeed's brother-in-law, The New York Times reports.

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