Nearly 12 years after the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai, Pakistan has moved under US pressure to convict the man responsible, terror financier and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed.
Pakistan’s cynical move was on Wednesday described by Indian experts, including intelligence officials, as an “eyewash" aimed at placating the US ahead of President Donald Trump’s 24-25 February visit to India.
The 11-year jail term handed out to Saeed was also described as a blatant attempt by Islamabad to mollify the US ahead of a meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) watchdog on Sunday.
Indian authorities said money continues to be pumped into LeT to recruit and radicalize new fighters, in an indication of a “firmly established money network", one that Saeed’s arrest would have little impact on.
“The National Investigation Agency (NIA) had irrefutable evidence that Hafiz Saeed had created a vast hawala network in the country to establish and fund sleeper cells of the terror outfit (LeT)," said a senior central government official familiar with the developments, even as the agency continues to probe Saeed’s money laundering network in India.
The NIA, which has been probing multiple cases of terror financing, said Saeed created the Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) along with the deputy chief of FIF, a man named Shahid Mahmood. Together they “hatched a conspiracy around 2012 to create sympathizers and sleeper cells and logistic bases in Delhi and Haryana under the garb of religious work such as construction of mosques and madrasa education," the NIA reported in 2019.
Saeed and Mahmood identified people, including in West Asia, who would receive funds to create sleeper cells and hideouts.
“A lot of non-state actors such as Hafiz Saeed cannot be controlled by Pakistan anymore and, if they try, they will turn against them. Saeed was the very man who was allowed to contest elections. He’s going to be under arrest only on paper," said a senior intelligence official who did not wish to be identified.
“This (Saeed’s conviction) is eyewash. Pakistan is doing this because it’s good optics just ahead of the FATF plenary. This way they avoid being put on the blacklist because now they can say they’ve acted against terrorism and terror financing," said the official. In August last year, the FATF, an international terrorism-financing watchdog, threatened to blacklist Pakistan if it failed to stop the funding of militant groups and their leaders.
Defence experts also said the speed with which the sentencing has been done showed that Pakistan was eyeing Trump’s visit to India.
“There are several reasons for the action, none of which pertain to stamping out terrorism. It is a smokescreen to convince the international community that Pakistan is struggling to deal with terror activities and financing on its soil. The truth is that this is the very basis on which the foundation of the Pakistani state rests and Hafiz Saeed is a godfather, whether in or out of prison, and will be treated as such," said D.P.K. PIllay, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a Delhi-based think tank.
India has handed several dossiers to Pakistan, including in 2009, 2010, and 2019, establishing Saeed’s involvement with anti-India terrorism and terror financing.