ISLAMABAD: Hafiz Saeed, the religious leader and head of the Jamaatud Dawa charity, who has had a $10 million American bounty placed on his head earlier this week, has been expending his energies helping de-radicalise militants under efforts to stabilise the strategic US ally, a top counter-terrorism official said on Friday.
Hafiz Saeed, suspected of masterminding the Mumbai attacks in 2008 that killed 166 people, including six Americans, met government officials from the Punjab province and pledged his support for the drive, the official said.
“Saeed has agreed with the Punjab government programme of de-radicalisation and rehabilitation of former militants and extended full cooperation,” the counter-terrorism official told Reuters.
The counter-terrorism official maintained that Saeed had not been paid for his de-radicalisation efforts.
US officials in Washington said that the decision to offer a reward under the State Department’s longstanding “Rewards for Justice” program came after months of discussions among US agencies involved in counter-terrorism.
The $10 million figure signifies major US interest in Saeed. Only three other militants, including Taliban leader Mullah Omar, fetch that high a bounty. There is a $25 million bounty on the head of al Qaeda leader Ayman alZawahiri.
The announcement of a reward for Saeed comes at a time of strained ties between the United States and Pakistan and is likely to increase pressure on Islamabad to take action against one of Pakistan’s most notorious religious leaders.
A senior police official in Punjab province, who is closely involved with investigations into militant activity, confirmed that Saeed and his supporters were helping efforts to transform militants into law-abiding citizens.
“Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) was consulted, and they approved the de-radicalisation plan. They assured us of their intellectual input and resource materials. They also offered teachers,” he told Reuters, referring to the charity Saeed heads.
The bounty highlighted the divide between the United States’ direct approach to tackling militancy, and strategies employed by Pakistan.
While Pakistan has mounted offensives against militant groups like the homegrown Taliban, it also contends other tactics such as de-radicalisation are vital to sustaining battlefield gains.
Yahya Mujahid, the JuD spokesman, said the group had not participated in the de-radicalisaton programme.
Hafiz Khalid Waleed, another senior JuD member, declined to comment on whether their leader had been directly assisting the government in de-radicalisation.
But he said Saeed and his followers were promoting non-violence.
“Hafiz Saeed was one of the first religious leaders to denounce militancy and suicide bombings,” said Waleed. “Our schools and madrassas are urging peace.”
Spotting idle militants
Under the programme, former militants are urged to develop technical skills that could give them long-lasting employment to keep them from taking up arms against the state again.
Experts also try to reverse what is called brainwashing by militants who preach war against the West.
To help the de-radicalisation programme, Saeed identifies former militants who may still be recruited because they are jobless and idle and he helps steer them toward the programme, said the counter-terrorism official.
India maintains Saeed is a criminal and has long called for his capture, blaming the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group he founded in the 1990s, for the Mumbai carnage.
Pakistan is home to some of the world’s most dangerous militant groups, who carry out suicide bombings and beheadings in their bid to topple the US-backed government. There are also less violent groups with the same aims.
But many Pakistani citizens privately support Saeed’s animosity to India.
The bounty, which would be paid for information leading to Saeed’s arrest and conviction, however puzzled Pakistanis. His whereabouts are usually not a mystery. He wanders the country freely, fires up supporters at rallies and runs a huge charity.
Waleed mocked the decision to place a bounty on Saeed.
“President Barack Obama’s election symbol was a donkey and his government is acting like one. They have no evidence against Hafiz Saeed and are scrambling to make up stories,” he told Reuters.
Pakistani officials say Saeed, who Western officials suspect of links to al Qaeda, has the right to move freely because he has been cleared by Pakistani courts of a range of accusations.
Saeed abandoned the leadership of the LeT after India accused it of being behind an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. But his charity is suspected of being a front for the LeT.
He denies any wrongdoing and links to militants.
Over 1,000 of Saeed’s supporters protested against the bounty on Friday.
Saeed agreed to support de-radicalisation because he felt that former militants should find jobs and re-join mainstream society, said the counter-terrorism official, who has been at the forefront of efforts to fight militancy in Punjab.
The counter-terrorism official, who engineered the project, said 200 former militants had participated this year in Punjab, including some from Saeed’s group.
Another 100 will be completing the programme by June.
Saeed, a former professor of Islamic studies at an engineering university, appeared at a press conference on Wednesday in Rawalpindi and taunted the United States.
Saeed lives near a park and a mosque in a non-descript villa with a policeman stationed outside in Lahore.
Some of his bodyguards wear olive camouflage vests while others are dressed in dark traditional shalwar-kameez, baggy shirt and trousers. Clutching AK-47 assault rifles, a few are positioned on his rooftop watching the street.
Saeed enjoys armed protection from the state because of his “new thinking”, sources said.
“Al Qaeda or factions from the Pakistani Taliban may want to kill him,” said one of the sources, adding India may want to target him as well.
Asked if the reward would anger Saeed’s followers and undermine de-radicalisation efforts, he said: “There is resentment but I hope the programme won’t be affected.”