REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- The U.S. government has set a $10-million bounty on Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the founder of a Pakistani militant group with suspected links to Al Qaeda and the alleged mastermind behind the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people.
The move could draw the ire of the country's Islamist mullahs and conservative Pakistanis who see Saeed as a powerful voice against Pakistan's nuclear arch-rival, India. It also comes at a sensitive moment in U.S.-Pakistan relations, when Pakistani lawmakers are hammering out new ground rules for a reset of the frayed alliance following errant U.S. airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border last November.
In an announcement posted on its Rewards for Justice website late Monday, the U.S. government stated that it would pay up to $10 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Saeed, who formed the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba in the 1980s and now heads up its social welfare wing, Jamaat ud-Dawa. The U.S. and India have long regarded Jamaat ud-Dawa as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba's militant activities.
The U.S. also announced a $2-million reward for information leading to the whereabouts of the man it said was Lashkar-e-Taiba's second-in-command, Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki.
The only militant leader with a Rewards for Justice bounty higher than $10 million is Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri. Other wanted figures with $10-million bounties include Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar; Yasin al-Suri, an Iran-based Al Qaeda operative; and Abu Du'a, a senior leader for the Al Qaeda in Iraq group.
How effective the reward offers will be remains to be seen. Pakistani authorities have treaded carefully in dealing with Saeed and his top deputies, banning Lashkar-e-Taiba while allowing Jamaat ud-Dawa to freely operate and amass funding. In 2008, the U.S. and the United Nations declared Jamaat ud-Dawa a terrorist organization. The U.S. declared Lashkar-e-Taiba a terrorist group in 2001.
Jamaat ud-Dawa spokesman Muhammad Yahya Mujahid denounced the reward offer as a "cheap tactic."
"The whole world knows that Hafiz Mohammed Saeed and Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki are not hiding in mountains or caves ... and their welfare and religious activities are not hidden from anyone," Mujahid said in a prepared statement. "Such unacceptable activities by the Americans will not affect Hafiz Saeed and will instead increase anti-American sentiments among millions of Muslims."
Under intense pressure from Washington, Pakistani officials placed Saeed under house arrest following the attacks in Mumbai. Among the dead were six Americans. However, in June 2009, a Pakistani court freed Saeed, ruling there was no evidence tying him to the Mumbai violence or any other terrorist act. In 2010, the the country's Supreme Court affirmed that ruling.
Before the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Pakistani authorities had arrested Saeed twice in connection with suspected ties to terrorist acts in India -- in 2001, after an attack on parliament, and in 2006 after train bombings in Mumbai that killed about 200 people. In both cases, he was put under house arrest for a short time before being released.
With the help of Pakistan’s primary spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, Saeed formed Lashkar-e-Taiba more than two decades ago to fight Indian rule in a portion of the Himalayan region of Kashmir. The U.S. and other Western governments now fear that Lashkar-e-Taiba has expanded its mission to include Western targets. Analysts say Pakistan's security establishment sees the value of Lashkar-e-Taiba as a bulwark against India and therefore maintains ties with the group, though Pakistani security officials have always denied any such link.
As part of new amalgam of Islamist religious groups known as the Defense of Pakistan Council, Saeed and his deputies have recently spoken out against the reopening of transit routes through Pakistan that NATO convoys use to ferry supplies to troops battling Taliban militants in Afghanistan. At a rally in Islamabad in February, Makki said the council's mission was to "protect Pakistan from American aggression. The whole nation is on our side."
Islamabad barred NATO from using Pakistan as a transit country for supply convoys following the deaths of the 24 Pakistani soldiers in November. Lawmakers are debating the reopening of those supply lines, but are also considering the imposition of taxes and transit fees as compensation. They have also recommended that the Pakistani government demand an end to the U.S. drone missile campaign against militants hiding in Pakistan's volatile tribal region along the Afghan border.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Mohammed Saeed attends a ceremony in Islamabad, Pakistan. Credit: Anjum Naveed / Associated Press