FEELING THE HEAT
The real story behind Pakistan’s sudden house arrest of 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed
Pakistan army spokesperson Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor has said Pakistan’s decision to arrest Hafiz Saeed, leader of a ‘philanthropic’ organisation with established militant credentials and suspected links to the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, is based on a new “national policy and for the national interest”.
Saeed, who has a $10 million bounty placed on his head by the United States, is often cited by India as the “mastermind” of the Mumbai terror attacks, which resulted in the deaths of 166 people, including several Americans. He has been apprehended at least four times between 2002 and 2009, but was let go after a few months in detention. The popular jihadist can still attract large crowds with his anti-America and anti-India diatribes.
But military insiders are saying that Saeed’s house arrest in Lahore on January 30 has to do with a fast changing local and international environment, including the new Donald Trump administration in the US and a change of guard in the powerful Pakistan army. Significantly, Saeed has been detained under the stricter Pakistan Anti-Terror Act.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s new chief of army staff, has a reputation of being religiously progressive and pro-democratic. His boss, Prime Minister
Nawaz Sharif, has been trying to normalise relations with India since coming to power in 2013, but has been sidetracked by terror attacks traceable to Pakistan and growing unrest in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir. Days before he appointed Bajwa in November 2016, Sharif told me, “The contradictory policy of duality—support for some militants and going against others—will soon be finished.”
Thus, the arrest of Saeed, a Quranic expert with extreme views about jihad with India and a man who has historically enjoyed state protection, is being linked to the changing factors at home and abroad. “Recent indicators from our friends, the US and China, are that he has to go,” said a senior military officer, on condition of anonymity, on the sidelines of a rare military briefing held at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi on January 31, less than 24 hours after Saeed’s arrest. “The UN, the Americans etc. have been asking questions about how the state has not been able to control this man.”
Maj. Gen. Ghafoor added that the new army chief ’s resolve to improve Pakistan’s security is clear. “If Pakistan improves, and the army chief goes to his grave, he would think it’s still worth it,” he says. “For Gen. Bajwa, individuals are less important than the state. National interest must prevail.” As for pressure from the Trump administration being a cause for the arrest, he says, “There are all sorts of pressures from within the global system. We don’t live in a vacuum. A major decision like this one was not made randomly.”
“Of course, the Pakistanis will react to a changing environment,” says Shehzad Chaudhry, a former air force officer and popular TV analyst. “This arrest is a win-win decision. The Chinese, our best friends, are going to be happy, for we don’t have to embarrass them any more. The Americans will be happy that we’ve finally heard them out. The Indians will lose a major excuse to complain about us to the rest of the world. And Mr Saeed will understand that when it comes to him or Pakistan, Pakistan will be the obvious choice.”
Hafiz Saeed being taken away by the police in Lahore
Police barricade the road to Saeed’s house in Lahore