Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Militant Taunts US Over $10m Bounty
By Matthew Green in Islamabad, Farhan Bokhari in Rawalpindi and Geoff Dyer in Washington
One of Pakistan’s most notorious militants taunted the US for offering a $10m bounty for information leading to his arrest by appearing before journalists on Wednesday to claim the money for himself.
Tacitly underscoring his links to Pakistan’s security establishment, Hafiz Saeed, who is accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, addressed television crews and reporters at a hotel near the army headquarters in Rawalpindi a day after the US put a bounty on his head.
“I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me,” Mr Saeed said. “I will be in Lahore tomorrow ... America can contact me whenever it wants to.”
Mr Saeed’s defiant tone raised the risk that the offer of a reward could backfire by emboldening hardline nationalists at a time when the US is trying to repair the worst crisis in relations with Pakistan in a decade.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry said the country needed “concrete evidence” to take any legal proceedings. Mr Saeed was detained after the Mumbai attacks but later released by a court in the eastern city of Lahore.
The state department in Washington said it was seeking evidence that could be used in court to link Mr Saeed to the Mumbai attacks.
“We are not looking for information about his location,” said spokesman Mark Toner. “Every journalist in Pakistan knows where to find him.”
Long backed by Pakistani intelligence, the professor of Islamic studies has been permitted to raise his public profile in the past six months, holding a series of rallies in major cities to give fiery speeches denouncing the US and India.
He is the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group that was formed in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion and rose to prominence fighting Indian forces in Kashmir in the 1990s. The organisation has since been blamed for attacks on Indian interests, including the Mumbai assault, and for battling Nato forces in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think there’s any question that a relationship exists between the Pakistani military and LeT,” said Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University and an authority on the organisation. “It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that a day after the US puts a bounty on his head he’s giving a speech in the military’s backyard.”
Although there seems little chance that Mr Saeed will face arrest in Pakistan in the near future, US officials may have calculated that the reward will signal to his patrons in Pakistan’s security establishment that his activities are under renewed scrutiny. Only Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as head of al-Qaeda, commands a bigger US bounty, at $25m.
Lashkar-e-Taiba has been primarily focused on India, but experts say some members would like to stage attacks in the US or Europe. Perhaps the greatest risk it poses is that another Mumbai-style attack could one day push nuclear-armed Pakistan and India towards war.
“Lashkar-e-Taiba has the capacity to launch attacks in the west – the question is its level of intent,” Mr Tankel said.
The reward announcement, however, may complicate efforts by the US to assuage lingering anger over the raid that killed bin Laden in May and over the deaths of 24 Pakistani troops in a US air strike on the Afghan border in November.
Pakistan’s army has the biggest say in setting foreign policy but the parliament is also deliberating what kind of relationship the country should have with the US. Some politicians have warned that the reward offer may bolster Islamist parties pushing for a tougher stance against Washington.
India moved quickly to welcome the reward, aggravating Pakistani officials who believe Washington has long been biased towards its arch-rival.
The US may have been spurred into action by Mr Saeed’s increasingly public profile. He has repeatedly given television interviews and denounced India and the US at a series of rallies in major Pakistani cities in the past six months.
Victoria Nuland, spokeswoman for the US state department, said in Washington on Tuesday that Mr Saeed’s appearances had been “quite brazen”. She said: “The sense has been over the last few months that this kind of a reward might hasten the judicial process.”
Rallies have been organised by the Pakistan Defence Council, a coalition of extremist groups and hawkish ex-generals in which Mr Saeed is a leading luminary. The front has urged the government of Asif Ali Zardari to maintain a blockade on supplies to Nato forces in Afghanistan imposed after the deaths of the 24 Pakistani soldiers.
-This report was published in Financial Times on 04/04/2012