An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has sentenced Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, to 15 years imprisonment in a terror financing case. Saeed has already been convicted in multiple terror financing cases. The latest sentence handed to the dreaded terrorist will be simultaneously carried out with the previous ones over a total period of about 36 years. The 70-year-old Saeed has been the key architect in executing Pakistan’s strategy of perpetrating terrorism against India. His outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has been instrumental in unleashing terror in Jammu and Kashmir for years. Saeed’s conviction must essentially be seen purely through the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) lens. Pakistan is struggling to be put off the “grey list” but has failed so far. In view of the upcoming FATF plenary in February 2021, Pakistan is hastily taking steps in a bid to be seen as taking credible action against terror financing networks. On this pretext, Pakistan has banned groups led by Hafiz Saeed in the past as well. However, all such outfits have reincarnated under different names and resumed their usual nefarious activities.
At the same time, the Sindh High Court has ordered immediate release of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British born terrorist, who was given the death sentence in the Daniel Pearl murder case by a Pakistan anti-terrorism court in 2002. Earlier, the Sindh High Court had commuted the death sentence due to discrepancies in the prosecution case and lack of sustainable incriminating evidence. Sheikh was arrested under the Musharraf regime for abducting and killing Pearl, a US citizen and the South Asia Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal. Notably, a video of Pearl’s killing was sent to the US consulate in Karachi. Perturbed by the latest ruling on Omar Sheikh, the US State Department noted it was “deeply concerned” while being assured that the accused has not been released yet. It is seemingly due to US’s displeasure that Omar Sheikh’s release has been put on hold for the time being.
The US-Pakistan ties have hit several rough patches ever since the War on Terror began in 2001. The elimination of Osama Bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan in Abbottabad was a tipping point. However, the equations between the two have somehow survived deadlocks over the years given Pakistan’s centrality in achieving US’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan including an impending exit plan. Therefore, given limited options, it remains to be seen whether the US administration is able to act stridently to prevent the release of Omar Sheikh or chooses to be restrained as events further unfold.
Both Hafiz Saeed and Sheikh Omar have a direct link to India’s decades-old quest against Pakistan sponsored terrorism. While Saeed is the lynchpin of multiple attacks against India, Omar Sheikh was one of the three terrorists released in the IC814 hijack and hostage crisis.
Before his release, Omar was in an Indian prison. He was involved in the grisly kidnapping and killing of foreign tourists in the then state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1995. Omar Sheikh was then an operative of the Al-Faran group. His name also figured in the 9/11 investigations and he is understood to have arranged finances for one of the attackers on the World Trade Centre. Besides, Omar Sheikh is also accused of making hoax calls from inside his Pakistani prison. This he did apparently to precipitate tensions between India and Pakistan.
The two simultaneous albeit contrary court rulings are but reminiscent of Pakistan’s dualistic and misleading approach while dealing with the spectre of terrorism. It reflects on the direness of Pakistan’s long-standing association with terrorism as the pivotal instrument of state policy. In its relentless pursuit to unleash terror in its proximate neighbourhood and beyond, Pakistan has nurtured terror organizations and state-patronized individuals as Hafiz Saeed and Omar Sheikh. For now, it seems Pakistan is not prepared to end its proclivity and the patronage that it unabashedly continues to offer these terrorists and their violent activities.
Script: Dr. Priyanka Singh, Strategic Analyst on Af-Pak Affairs