The government in Pakistan seems to have rolled the dice again. While an anti-terrorism court in Lahore has sentenced Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed to 11 years in jail, the Imran Khan government has claimed innocence over any knowledge of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar’s whereabouts with the hope that the Financial Action Task Force will still clear Pakistan’s name from the grey list.
More than any other time, there is a higher expectation that Pakistan will be able to get off any negative categorisation during the ongoing evaluation by the Paris-based group, which concludes its meeting Friday. Technically, Pakistan has made some progress in strengthening its counter-terrorism financing system. Moving large amounts of money in or out of Pakistan is no longer easy.
Islamabad went a step further to meet the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s expectations by convicting Hafiz Saeed, who also founded Jamaat-ud-Dawa, of illegal financing and using the money to procure property that was then used to propagate terrorism. The last four pages of the court judgment sentencing Hafiz Saeed and his co-convict Zafar Iqbal to 11 years have been doing the rounds. It is expected to impress the FATF and the rest of the world that Pakistan has moved ahead. The sentencing takes care of one of FATF’s observations that Pakistan had not taken any action against terror outfits and individuals.
The Lahore court’s decision has got many international observers excited. They see it as a move forward, even if a small one. There might be a different opinion on the judgment if the entire court order was available. Interestingly, both the prosecution and defense have kept the 27-page decision close to their chests. The media, which in any case is afraid of the state, does not seem eager to raise objections either. However, reading the order would certainly disabuse anyone of the notion that a substantive step was undertaken.
What’s in the court order?
The complete court order that I was able to access and read indicates Islamabad’s willingness to take risks based on its understanding of the FATF. It is not seen entirely as a technical mechanism but as an instrument of power politics. This means there is an expectation that playing a favorable role in the US-Taliban peace agreement will bring dividends, such as the removal from the FATF’s grey list. Indeed, that there exists a tension between the technical and political side of the FATF is not just Pakistan’s understanding; India had a similar confusion when it kept demanding restrictions on Pakistan hoping that political pressure from New Delhi would matter to the world.
The fact is that Pakistan will benefit if the FATF becomes a political tool because it will then be possible for Pakistan to silently negotiate with key political powers without bringing about technical changes in its system of cash flows.
Reading the 27-page judgment, it seems quite clear that the Imran Khan government or the security establishment does not intend to keep Hafiz Saeed incarcerated for long. The judge seems to have deliberately and forcibly given a sentence despite the actual evidence against Hafiz Saeed being weak. The prosecution promptly provided revenue records and utility bills for a smaller madrasa in Mandi Bahauddin in central Punjab to prove that Hafiz Saeed and Zafar Iqbal indeed have links with the madrasa and belong to a proscribed organisation.
One could argue that this is not a big deal as such evidence could be dug out from many years ago. On the other hand, substantive evidence that could nail Saeed down permanently was never provided. The defence lawyer’s main plea was the absence of hard evidence. Police inspector Sikandar Hayat, on whose complaint the case was lodged in the anti-terrorism court, could not bring any credible evidence.
Keeping the door open for reprieve
Historically, cases against certain terror suspects are deliberately kept weak to provide them relief later on. It is not necessarily the court’s fault but that of the prosecution. This particular court decision is as haphazard as the announcement of Masood Azhar’s disappearance with his entire family. Notwithstanding the questionable disappearance from a crowded area, one wonders why he would.
Unlike Hafiz Saeed, the United Nations has not demanded Azhar’s arrest, nor is there any case registered against him in Pakistan. This was either in anticipation of future pressure or to make it easy for friends like China and Turkey to argue in Pakistan’s favour during the FATF meeting. If he has fled the country or is untraceable, then it will require a lot of pressure on Pakistan to sniff him out. A longer disappearance would help in cutting him lose strategically. If the FATF agrees to the explanation, then Masood Azhar could remain in hiding and carry out operations as and when the need arises.
What makes JeM chief bigger than Saeed
Masood Azhar is trickier to deal with than Hafiz Saeed. Not that the latter’s JuD has any less access to various state institutions in Pakistan, but Azhar has deep linkages with the defence forces. He was given a free hand to preach and make inroads into the Pakistani military establishment. According to a retired senior police officer of the civilian Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), when intelligence agencies began investigating the second ‘Jhanda Chichi’ Rawalpindi attack on Pervez Musharraf in 2002, the inquiry had to be hurriedly closed out of fear that ‘they might have to sack the entire Air Force’. Although an exaggerated expression, it says a lot about Azhar’s contacts.
Moreover, his JeM is a Deobandi militant outfit that has penetrated at various levels of the state. For example, Tableeghi Jamaat, which mainly proselytizes, is a door opener for Deobandi militants. During my series of researches conducted in the past few years, I was amazed to find that a majority of Deobandi militants were inspired by Tableeghi Jamaat. Despite the pressure, the JeM has shunned all suggestions at going mainstream. Azhar insists on sticking with his jihad business. His close aides have a favourite story from a few years ago, when the JeM leader had purportedly snubbed a senior general’s suggestion to draw down in Kashmir. It’s not that Masood Azhar has greater agency than Hafiz Saeed but just that the two, by their nature and structure, are different kinds of beasts.
Over the years, the JeM and the LeT have integrated themselves into the military thinking, especially owing to the perception of an increasing gap between the Indian and Pakistani militaries. Saeed and Azhar are those who may never be abandoned, punished or allowed to surrender unless the slowly evolving nuclear deterrence framework – post-Uri and Pulwama-Balakot – makes it imperative for sub-conventional operations to be abandoned entirely. Such a development is not currently visible. Given the weakness of the Lahore court judgment, Hafiz Saeed is likely to get relief from the higher courts. At least the case will be allowed to hang until the FATF problem gets resolved. This shows that nothing has changed materially in India-Pakistan relations. Moreover, if the Taliban is allowed to become part of the government in Kabul, Afghanistan, then the moral pressure on Pakistan to abandon its home-grown jihadis may reduce.
Some liberal analysts believe that the Pakistani military will eliminate its terror assets one day. Principally, this can happen but its likelihood in the short to medium term is minimal. Meanwhile, the utter and managed silence in Bahawalpur and elsewhere in Pakistan will make it even harder to sense the reality.
Ayesha Siddiqa is Research Associate at SOAS, University of London and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets as @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.