- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A day after Washington placed a $10 million bounty on his head, a terrorist leader in Pakistan taunted the United States at a news conference Wednesday, as Pakistani officials asked for “concrete evidence” against a man who says he runs a charity.

“I am here. I am visible. America should give that reward money to me,” said Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, a 61-year-old engineering professor who founded the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

“America can contact me whenever it wants to. Life and death is in the hands of God, not in the hands of America,” he told reporters in the garrison city Rawalpindi, home to Pakistan’s army headquarters, the Associated Press reported.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the reward was misunderstood. The bounty was not for Mr. Saeed’s capture but for evidence that would prove him guilty of terrorism.

“We all know where he is. You know, every journalist in Pakistan and in the region knows how to find him, but we’re looking for information that can be usable to convict him in a court of law,” he told reporters.

Mr. Toner insisted that the United States is only trying to help Pakistan bring him to justice.

“It’s not to put pressure on any one government,” he said. “But we wanted to be able to provide Pakistan with the tools that they need to prosecute this individual.”

Mr. Saeed created Lashkar-e-Taiba as a Pakistani proxy to wage a terrorist war against India, which blames his group for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans. It also has ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The State Department designated Lashkar-e-Taiba, sometimes called LeT, as a foreign terrorist organization in 2001.

“There’s no question LeT conducted the Mumbai attacks,” said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the issue.

Saeed’s the boss, no matter how much he tries to distance himself from the people who do the dirty work.”

Mr. Saeed was arrested after the Mumbai attacks, but a Pakistani court exonerated him of terrorism charges in 2009. He denies any involvement.

Pakistan banned Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2002 at Washington’s insistence. But the group re-emerged under the banner of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity headed by Mr. Saeed but widely acknowledged to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Both groups have powerful backers in Pakistan’s military, in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency and among politicians. No restrictions have been placed on Mr. Saeed’s movements or public appearances.

The State Department also has offered a $2 million bounty on Mr. Saeed’s brother-in-law and Lashkar-e-Taiba’s deputy leader, Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki.

In Islamabad, a Pakistani official said his government would like evidence against Mr. Saeed and Mr. Makki.

Pakistan would prefer to receive concrete evidence to proceed legally rather than to be engaging in a public discussion on this issue,” said Abdul Basit, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Office.

This evidence must withstand judicial scrutiny, he added.

The State Department’s action has incensed Pakistan, but India has welcomed the move. The nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors have fought three wars since 1947.

“The bounty marks a clear indication of the U.S. showing that if the Pakistanis continue in their incessant demands, Washington has an Indian card to play,” said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan who is currently at the Middle East Institute.

“It has laid down a marker that we’ve had about enough of simply being on the receiving end of demands and threats, where the government and public opinion are doing the military’s bidding in shaping the relationship with the U.S.”

The bounties on Mr. Saeed and Mr. Makki threaten to further strain tense U.S.-Pakistani ties. Pakistan’s parliament is debating a reset in the relationship, which has been hit by multiple crises since January 2011.

Mr. Saeed lives in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore. With his fiery anti-U.S. and anti-India speeches, he has emerged as a galvanizing force in the Defense of Pakistan Council, an alliance of religious and extremist groups. The group regularly organizes public rallies attended by gun-toting jihadists.

Mr. Saeed is opposed to U.S. drone strikes against terrorist suspects in Pakistan and has warned of a violent reaction around the country if the Pakistani government reopens supply routes to NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan shut these routes to protest an attack by NATO on two of its border posts that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.

Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides on a visit to Islamabad acknowledged the challenges bedeviling the U.S.-Pakistani relationship but said “too much is at stake for us to turn away from each other.”

He met with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar on Wednesday.