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Is Pakistan Finally Cracking Down on Lashkar-e-Taiba?

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The Pulse

Is Pakistan Finally Cracking Down on Lashkar-e-Taiba?

Alleged LeT leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is under house arrest. What does that mean for Pakistan’s approach to extremism?

Is Pakistan Finally Cracking Down on Lashkar-e-Taiba?

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, chief of the banned Islamic charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa, looks over the crowed as they end a “Kashmir Caravan” from Lahore with a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan (July 20, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Caren Firouz/File Photo

The alleged mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, was placed under house arrest by Pakistan on January 30, 2017. Then, just two days later, his name also appeared on the Exit Control list, restraining him from leaving the state. Four other JuD leaders and 38 associates linked with Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) were also detained under Section 11-EEE of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act 1977.

Saeed is believed to be the founder of terrorist outfit LeT but has repeatedly denied allegations that his charity (JuD) is merely a cover for the banned militant outfit LeT, despite the United Nations stressing otherwise.

The Mumbai attacks shook the Indian nation to its core and claimed 164 lives. It has since become another sore spot, adding to the list of outstanding unresolved issues between the two hostile neighbors. One major outstanding question was India’s demand for Pakistan to crack down on Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and LeT, the group behind the attacks.

LeT was formed in the early 1990s in Afghanistan and has primarily operated in Indian-held-Kashmir. It aims to “liberate” the people of Kashmir from the “oppressive” rule of Indian military. The outfit also opposes defiance and rebellion against the state of Pakistan, something which leads India and the West to believe there is a symbiotic relationship between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and LeT. ISI denies any ties to LeT.

It is not uncommon or unsurprising to find contrasting narratives and disagreements on events between Pakistan and India. For an example, just take the case of the September 2016 episode of “surgical strikes.” The recent developments surrounding Saeed are no exception.

The response from India has been one of innate skepticism. One Indian media house denounced the move as a “dumb charade” that must fool no one. India’s foreign ministry, as well as high-pitched voices from local politicians and newsroom anchors, have likewise dismissed the “meaningless detention,” implying that external pressure is most likely behind Islamabad’s actions. The director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, denied that any foreign pressure was behind the arrest of the JuD chief during a press conference.

India’s skepticism is based on a similar house arrest which lasted less than a year after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson was also quick to hit back and was quoted as saying, “India should take corrective actions for itself rather than commenting on other countries’ affairs.” The spokesperson added that India had remained involved in “perpetrating terrorist activities and terror financing in Pakistan.”

Some speculate the Islamabad’s actions come as a preventive measure to assuage the Donald Trump administration and to avoid becoming part of the so-called “Muslim ban” and possible sanctions. Others have suggested that China may be the force behind the move. A recent article in Dawn suggests that China is once again putting pressure on Pakistan to contain its militancy problem and most likely to tame relations between India and Pakistan to ensure the smooth execution of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects. China has denied any involvement, reports The Hindu. Similar pressure in the past ended with the Lal Masjid crackdown back in 2007.

Amidst such speculations, it’s interesting is that Saeed himself thinks his“ detention order has come from Washington and not Islamabad.” The move will only help to highlight the cause of Kashmir, he believes.

For a man who has a sizable bounty on him, Saeed may be the most visible wanted suspect of the 21st century. In 2012, the United States announced a bounty of  $10 million on Hafiz Saeed for his alleged role in the Mumbai attacks, in which six American citizens were also killed. That had little affect on his daily routine, though. Saeed still held regular press conferences and offered fiery sermons during Friday prayers. In response to the reports of the bounty announcement, he stated, “I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me,” he added. “I will be in Lahore tomorrow. America can contact me whenever it wants to.”

The cliche that “one mans terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” fits Saeed. Depending on your perspective, there are two contrasting images of Saeed. He is a man who believes and supports in the right of freedom and self-determination for the people of Kashmir; or he is a terrorist and militant who supports violence and breeds hatred against India.

Some Pakistanis have grown weary of the government’s reluctance to take action against Saeed, especially in the wake of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated attempts to brand Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. One lawmaker last year wondered,  “Which eggs is Hafiz Saeed laying for us that we are nurturing him?” Just days after the news of the house arrest broke, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior hinted at the incompetency of the previous government of Pakistan (Pakistan Peoples Party) for not taking “various actions that needed to be taken under the relevant resolution, i.e. arms embargo, travel ban, and asset freeze.”

However, news of the house arrest evoked mixed responses from within Pakistan, drawing various groups (including the United Jihad Council) out on the streets to demonstrate against the government’s actions. Under the circumstances, one might expect to see unruly mobs dressed in shalwar kameez holding anti-government, anti-U.S., and anti-Indian slogans demanding Saeed’s release. Surprisingly, though, lawyers and even Hindus organized have organized protests in different cities. A member of Hindu Panchayat stated that “Saeed may be a terrorist for India or United States of America. However, for the people of Thar, he has proven himself to be a great philanthropist.”

The debate of whether U.S. or Chinese concerns have driven the decision to confine Saeed seems irrelevant given the latest update. A new organization calling itself Tehreek Azadi Jammu and Kashmir (TAJK) (meaning “expedite the freedom of Kashmir”), has popped up, something Saeed spoke of just a week prior to his arrest. Times of India reports that just one day before Kashmir Day was to be observed in Pakistan, TAJK banners appeared in Lahore and other cities, signalling that Saeed may have gotten wind of his warrant being issued and was moving to set up a new organization to take the heat off of JuD. Saeed’s arrest and any crackdown on JuD or LeT may be immaterial if the energies and loyalties of his supporters will now simply operate under a different title.

Potentially more important is the question of whether these followers, if not Saeed himself, lose “love” and “respect” for the Pakistani state and decide to rebel. Those who withdraw their support (even verbally) from extremist entities are neither forgiven nor forgotten by these groups.

Syeda Kanwal Hassan is a PhD Student in the Government and International Studies Department at Hong Kong Baptist University, researching Pakistan’s foreign policy.