ISLAMABAD - The United States has announced a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, a Pakistani militant leader accused of orchestrating the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, who in recent months has emerged at the vanguard of a prominent anti-US political-lobbying interest.
Wendy Sherman, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, announced the reward while in India on Monday for help finding Saeed, described as the leader of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. She also announced $2 million for information leading to the capture of Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, Saeed’s brother-in-law.
The reward was welcomed by Sherman’s Indian hosts, who have long pressed Pakistan to imprison or extradite Saeed. A spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs said it was a strong signal to Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose attacks are often directed at Indians, and evidence of growing security cooperation between the United States and India. The Mumbai attacks killed at least 163 people, including six Americans.
But the gesture toward India is likely to further strain relations with Pakistan, currently being renegotiated following a border clash in November in which US warplanes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. And it met with a contemptuous reception among Saeed’s supporters, one of whom described the reward as an “April Fools’ joke’’ and ridiculed the notion that Saeed was a hunted man.
“Hafiz Saeed and his aides are not fugitives,’’ said Hafiz Muhammad Masood, the central information secretary of Jamaat-ud-Dawwa, a religious charity that serves as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba and that lists Saeed as its founder and leader. “They are not living a secret life. They are living in Pakistan as free members of society.’’
The Rewards for Justice program, which is administered by the State Department, has paid out $100 million to 70 informants who helped track down criminals since 1984. But the case of Saeed, 61, a former engineering professor, is unusual because his whereabouts are not a mystery.
Unlike other figures at the top of the list, such as Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who carries a $25 million reward, or Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who carries a $10 million bounty, Saeed lives openly in Lahore and travels freely. He has given numerous interviews, some on prime-time television, and addressed large crowds of supporters.
In recent month, he has flitted between cities across the country to attend rallies organized by the Defense of Pakistan Council, a right-wing lobbying group that includes banned jihadist groups, religious parties, and conservative politicians. The group’s aim is to influence politicians who are currently debating the future of Pakistan’s relationship with Washington in Parliament, and to prevent the reopening of NATO supply lines that have been closed since November.
The Defense of Pakistan Council rallies have alarmed Western diplomats and many Pakistanis with their anti-American rhetoric and the presence of heavily armed jihadi fighters. The ease with which the group operates has stoked media suspicions that it enjoys tacit support from the military, possibly as a means of pressuring Washington.
“Pakistan is facing very severe threats from both sides - India is one side, American and NATO forces are on the other, and the agenda of both is Pakistan,’’ Saeed told The Financial Times at a rally in Rawalpindi in January. “We want to send a message to them that the defense of Pakistan is uppermost in our minds.’’
In many ways, 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-Dawwa. Attempts to prosecute Saeed for his alleged role in various attacks have failed.