Unlike Osama bin Laden, who kept a low profile in his hideout in Pakistan, the founder of a militant group that has ties to al Qaeda and American blood on its hands routinely speaks before tens of thousands of Pakistanis and incites hatred against the United States.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced a $10 million bounty on Hafiz Mohammad Saeed in a move that likely will further strain its tense relationship with Pakistan.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group founded by Mr. Saeed, carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans. U.S. and Indian officials say Mr. Saeed helped plan those attacks.
The State Department designated Lashkar-e-Taiba a foreign terrorist organization in December 2001, and the United Nations slapped sanctions on Mr. Saeed in 2008.
Ayesha Siddiqa, an Islamabad-based political analyst, questioned the timing of the State Department’s announcement and said it would add more stress to the U.S.-Pakistani relationship.
“Unlike Mullah Omar, who is an Afghan national, … Hafiz Saeed is a Pakistani national,” Ms. Siddiqa said in a phone interview. “It is a different ballgame.”
Mullah Mohammed Omar is the leader of the Afghan Taliban, which attacks U.S. forces in Afghanistan from safe havens in the Pakistan border area.
The bounty on Mr. Saeed had been in the works for “quite a number of months,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
“These things are somewhat complicated to work through all of the details. So the announcements were only able to be posted when the process was complete,” she added.
The U.S.-Pakistani relationship hit bottom after the arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis in January 2011 on charges of killing two Pakistanis in the eastern city of Lahore; the death of al Qaeda leader bin Laden in a U.S. commando raid in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad in May; and a NATO attack on Pakistani border posts in November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides is expected to arrive Wednesday for meetings in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
Mr. Saeed has whipped up opposition to strikes by unmanned U.S. drones on terrorist suspects in Pakistan. A Pakistani parliamentary committee also has demanded that the drone strikes be stopped, but the Obama administration considers the drones effective tools in the war against terrorists.
Ms. Siddiqa said the big question now is what the Obama administration will do next.
“Is there going to be a repeat of May 2?” she said, referring to the U.S. commando raid on bin Laden’s hideout. “Or will Pakistan face sanctions if Saeed makes more public appearances?”
The State Department on Tuesday said Mr. Saeed and his organization “continue to spread ideology advocating terrorism, as well as virulent rhetoric, condemning the United States, India, Israel and other perceived enemies.”
Not hiding in caves
Mr. Saeed is a frequent speaker at public meetings organized by the Defense of Pakistan Council, an alliance of religious and extremist groups. Anti-U.S. rhetoric runs rife, and armed jihadists are among the audience at these meetings.
Mr. Saeed’s whereabouts is no mystery. The 61-year-old engineering professor lives in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s most populous Punjab province. His home in the city’s southern Johar Town neighborhood is routinely guarded by police. On Tuesday, armed volunteers helped beef up security.
Mr. Saeed lashed out at the United States in an interview with Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
“We’re not hiding in caves for rewards to be set on finding us,” he said. “We are addressing hundreds of thousands of people daily in Pakistan. I believe either the U.S. has very little knowledge and is basing its decisions on the wrong information being provided by India or it is just frustrated.”
India has issued an Interpol arrest warrant for Mr. Saeed because of his role in the Mumbai attacks. In 2009, the Lahore High Court cleared Mr. Saeed of terrorism charges.
After the State Department put Lashkar-e-Taiba on the U.S. terrorist list, Pakistan banned the group in 2002. However, the group re-emerged under a new name, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, purportedly a charity. Mr. Saeed heads Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is not banned in Pakistan.
In April 2008, the State Department designated Jamaat-ud-Dawa a terrorist organization. Eight months later, the United Nations did the same.
‘A strategic role’
“It is not that he hasn’t been arrested because we don’t know where he is,” said Stephen Tankel, an assistant professor at American University and author of “Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.”
“This [bounty] may be designed to get the security establishment [in Pakistan] to put Hafiz Saeed back in the box,” he added.
Mr. Tankel said Mr. Saeed “retains a strategic role within” Lashkar-e-Taiba.
A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the issue, said Mr. Saeed provides “strategic guidance to the group and delegates the details to his trusted commanders.”
Lashkar-e-Taiba follows the austere Wahhabi strain of Islam common in Saudi Arabia. It also has lower-level working relationships with the Taliban, al Qaeda and other militant groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The $10 million bounty puts Mr. Saeed in the same league as the one-eyed Mullah Omar. Only al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri commands a larger reward, with $25 million offered for information leading to his arrest.
The State Department also is offering up to $2 million for information leading to the location of Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, Mr. Saeed’s brother-in-law and Lashkar-e-Taiba’s second in command. Mr. Makki helped raise funds for Lashkar-e-Taiba and was already the subject of U.S. sanctions.
Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa have powerful backers in Pakistan’s military, its Inter-Services Intelligence agency and among politicians.
“It’s no secret many in Pakistan consider [Lashkar-e-Taiba] an important tool in their country’s national security kit,” said the U.S. official. “The relationship is complicated by Pakistan’s attempts to constrain the group while preserving it as a reliable proxy.”
India has been Lashkar-e-Taiba’s traditional target, but the group has developed a more anti-Western agenda in recent years.
“The group has dipped its toe in the jihad against the U.S. and its allies outside South Asia, but it is far from fully committed to it,” Mr. Tankel said.