Ninety four for six, chasing 309: As the futility of prayer became apparent, the dented pride of India cricket fans degenerated into a tantrum, a shower of plastic bottles and Hindustani invective flying from the stands onto the manicured greens of the Delhi’s Feroze Shah Kotla stadium. The hundreds of Pakistani visitors who’d come to watch the match—among them, a slight young man with a neatly-trimmed beard, his hair parted down the middle—watched impassively. He, perhaps, was imagining another triumph, yet to come, as I have written before.
The man in the stands that March day in 2005, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s 26/11 operational head Sajid Mir, was secretly tried and convicted by a Lahore anti-terrorism court last week—part of Pakistani commitments made to extricate the country from sanctions by the multinational terror-finance watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force or FATF.
From a house in Karachi, Mir is alleged to have guided the 26/11 killing team in real-time, using a voice-over-internet connection—at one point, intervening to order the execution of a hostage, Rivka Holtzberg. Mir, investigators believe, also organised the reconnaissance operations carried out by Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley, which laid the foundations for the attack.
Even though Mir was reported to have been kept in Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) custody since 2011, Islamabad long denied knowledge of his whereabouts, as I have pointed out earlier. In 2019, the United States government noted Mir was “widely believed to reside in Pakistan under the protection of the state, despite government denials.”
The conviction of the Lashkar commander now is meant to show Islamabad is changing course. The twisted trajectory of Mir’s story raises questions about just how long it will hold to the new course.
The French connection
Few fragments have become available on Sajid Mir’s life. According to the passport Mir used to travel to India, he was born in 1976 in an ethnic-Punjabi family of Partition refugees. Mir’s father, Abdul Majid, worked for some time in Saudi Arabia, before returning to Pakistan to set up a small textile business. Following a college education in Lahore, Indian intelligence officials familiar with the case told ThePrint, Mir married the daughter of a retired Pakistan Army Maulvi, and fathered at least two children.
Then, evidence began emerging that Mir had become a central figure in a plot to set fire to the world.
Following 9/11, Willie Brigitte, a Guadeloupe-born former French naval cadet, arrived in Pakistan seeking to fight alongside the Taliban. A convert to Islam, Brigitte had become involved in neo-fundamentalist networks at mosques in Paris’ Couronnes neighbourhood, linked to the Algerian jihadist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat—today known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Brigitte ended up in a Lashkar training camp near Muzaffarabad, along with recruits from several other countries. ‘Bill,’ French judge Jean Louis Bruguiére later wrote, had two bodyguards in constant attendance. To his students, it appeared “Sajid Mir was a high-ranking officer in the Pakistani Army and apparently also was in the ISI.”
In 2003, travelling on a ticket paid for by Mir, Brigitte travelled to Australia, with orders to surveil potential targets along with Pakistan-born architect Fahim Lodhi—among them, a nuclear reactor near Sydney. French intelligence, however, had been maintaining surveillance on Brigitte, and notified their counterparts in Sydney.
Lodhi is now serving out a life sentence in Australia. Brigitte received a nine-year sentence in France, was released, and then left for the Islamic State with his fourth wife and a child—where he is believed to have been killed in fighting.
The Lashkar’s globalisation
The jihad network the Lashkar nurtured grew similar branches across the world in the years after 9/11, intelligence services soon discovered. Eleven men were convicted in the US through 2004-2005 for running a jihad network in Virginia. Four of them, it was revealed, had trained at the camp run by Mir. Omar Khayam and Dhiren Barot, responsible for bomb plots in the United Kingdom, also trained with the Lashkar. In 2004, Lashkar jihadist Danish Ahmad, a Kashmir veteran, was held in Iraq.
Exactly how Mir ended up at the centre of these networks remains unclear. Indian intelligence has no record suggesting he served in Kashmir, where the Lashkar’s military operations were overwhelmingly focussed.
From the work of scholar C. Christine Fair, it is clear that the Lashkar shared the world-view of groups like al-Qaeda. Lashkar cadre fought in conflicts from Tajikistan and Chechnya to Bosnia. In December 1998, Pakistani newspaper Jang reported that jihadists from more than 50 countries had attended a convention by Markaz Dawat wal’Irshad — Lashkar’s parent organisation.
“You can go to any jihadi frontline in the world,” the organisation bragged, “and you will find Markaz Dawat wal’Irshad mujahideen crushing the infidels and destroying the fortresses of the devil.”
Lashkar-trained jihadists kept emerging in global counter-terrorism investigations: As late as 2012, one of the three men alleged to be involved in a plot to attack Gibraltar during the London Olympics was found to have trained with the Lashkar.
Following 9/11, Pakistan’s military rulers evicted foreigners from the Lashkar’s training camps, and tamped down its operations in Kashmir. The organisation’s infrastructure, though, was untouched—and after brief periods of incarceration, its leadership was active again.
The most important Lashkar asset was the son of urbane Pakistani diplomat Syed Salim Gilani and Philadelphia socialite Serill Headley—one of the many foreigners who had arrived at its camps after 9/11. The story of just why David Headley ended up there remains opaque. There has long been credible evidence he was spying for the United States Drug Enforcement Agency: From 2001 to 2008, interestingly, American authorities ignored at least six warnings of his involvement in terrorism.
In 2005, Indian and American investigators say, the ISI provided funds for Headley to set up a cover business in Mumbai, to mount surveillance on potential targets. The visit Mir made to New Delhi the same year suggests multiple, similar missions. In the course of nine visits to India, supervised by Mir, Headley gathered the imaging needed for the Lashkar to train the killing team that carried out 26/11.
Is Pakistan serious?
Ever since it was placed on the FATF’s grey list in 2018, Pakistan has sought to demonstrate that it’s acting against the Lashkar. In February 2020, LeT chief Hafiz Saeed was sentenced to two consecutive five-year sentences on terrorism-financing charges, and received another 31-year sentence in April. His deputies, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi and Abdul Rehman Maki, have also received prison sentences, as have a string of second-rung figures—even though none of the prosecutions was directly related to 26/11.
“Even if Saeed is technically not roaming the streets, the Government of Pakistan’s inability to win the legal case against him is embarrassing,” then United States ambassador Anne Patterson wrote in a 2009 diplomatic cable. That embarrassment, Pakistan now claims to have set right.
There is some reason to suspect, though, that there’s less than meets the eye to these actions. Following his conviction in 2020, as I have noted earlier, Saeed was moved out of Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail and moved back to his white, three-storey home at 116E Johar Town—where he was targeted for assassination last year, in a bombing Pakistan alleges was carried out by Indian intelligence services. Since 9/11, Saeed has been jailed at least nine times—only to be released weeks later.
Lakhvi, for his part, was reported to have unlimited access to visitors and the internet while in prison. He was even rumoured to have fathered a child.
Even more disturbing, from India’s point of view, second-rung Lashkar commanders, like 26/11-accused military trainer Muzammil Bhat and Sajid Saifullah Jatt, remain active—running weapons and cadre across the Line of Control into Kashmir. The ISI officers named in Headley’s testimony, similarly, have never been investigated—let alone prosecuted.
The source of the Lashkar’s influence isn’t hard to understand. The organisation’s sprawling network of seminaries, schools and charitable institutions, Neil Padukone notes, means it “has replaced Jamaat-e-Islami, the original ‘Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution,’ as the centre of political Islamism in Pakistan.” The jihadist ideal wields significant support amongst both the political parties and the military.
Fearing backlash, the Pakistani state has held back from a decisive break with the jihadist movement. The Lashkar’s jihadists will stay in jail until the FATF lifts the threat of sanctions, but that is unlikely to be the end of the story. The elephant in the room remains, just hidden behind a curtain.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.