By Azaz Syed and James M. Dorsey
Muhammad Hafez Saeed, the recently detained UN and US-designated global terrorist and one of the world’s most wanted men, plans to register his group, Jama’at-ud-Dawa (JuD), widely seen as a front for another proscribed organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), as a political party in Pakistan, according to sources close to the militant.
The move comes days after Mr. Saeed and several other JuD leaders were put under house arrest in a bid to fend off potential steps against Pakistan, including inclusion on President Donald J. Trump’s list of countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States, and punitive steps by an Asian money laundering watchdog.
In a further effort to fend off pressure, Pakistan’s State Bank, the country’s monetary authority said it had installed a long overdue automated system to detect money laundering and terrorism financing.
The announcement followed last year’s freezing by the bank of the accounts of 2,000 militants – a move described by both analysts and militants as ineffective because those accounts were not where militants keep their assets.
Meanwhile, the State Department, in a hint of a possibly tougher line towards Pakistan. refused in recent days to issue a visa to Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, an Islamic scholar who is deputy chairman of Pakistan’s Senate and a member of parliament for Jama’at-i-Islami (F), a political party with close ties to the Taliban. Mr. Haideri was scheduled to travel to New York to attend a meeting of the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) at the headquarters of the United Nations.
In response, Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani announced that the Pakistani parliamentary body would ban its members from travelling to the US unless it received an explanation for the refusal. The US embassy in Islamabad has so far refrained from explaining the decision.
JuD sources said its transition to a political party was in part designed to stop cadres from joining the Islamic State (IS). They said some 500 JuD activists had left the group to join more militant organizations, including IS. They said the defections often occurred after the Pakistani military launches operations against militants in areas like South Waziristan.
Writing in Dawn, Pakistani security analyst Muhammad Amir Rana argued in favour of allowing JuD to transition into a political party. A “major challenge for the state is how to neutralise groups that once served its strategic purpose. The most practised way in a post-insurgency perspective is to reintegrate them into mainstream society,” Mr. Rana wrote.
“The state can freeze their assets, shut down their charity and organisational operations, put their leaderships under different schedules of anti-terrorism laws, try their leaders in courts of law, and, in the worst case, strip them of their nationality. But will this eliminate the problem?” Mr. Rana added.
JuD’s application, which since Mr. Saeed’s arrest has suggested that it would be operating under a new name, Tehreek-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir (Kashmir Freedom Movement), a practice frequently adopted by militant groups with government acquiescence, would however in the minds of Western officials and analysts and some Pakistanis test the sincerity of a recent Pakistani government crackdown on militants. JuD is believed to have close ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence. A JuD leader said the group would register with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) under its own name rather than under a new one.
Mr. Saeed is believed to be among others responsible for the 2008 attacks on 12 targets in Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, a train station, a café and a Jewish centre. Some 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. The US government has a bounty of $10 million on Mr. Saeed for information leading to his capture. Mr. Saeed, who was once a LeT leader, has since disassociated himself from the group and denied any link between JuD and LeT.
A JuD leader said that the group might wait with registration with the ECP and let the current focus on the group fade away. “We have decided to go in the politics. However, we’ll let the current phase evolve after having been put on the government’s watch list before registering,” the leader said.
JuD sources said the decision to go into politics and register with the ECP was taken days before last month’s crackdown on the group.
Some analysts believe that JuD would have to get a court order to be allowed to register given that its designation by the United Nations and the United States bans it from conducting business as normal, including performing financial transactions. ECP registration requires providing audited accounts.
JuD sources said the group has $19 million in assets that were in accounts of local officials of the group in various districts in the country.
JuD is believed to be the largest militant group in Pakistan. General John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told Congress last week that 20 of the 98 groups designated by the United States as well as “three violent, extremist organizations” operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"That is highest concentration of violent, extremist groups in the world,” Gen. Nicholson said.
Gen. Johnson was speaking amid mounting pressure on the Trump administration to adopt a tougher position towards Pakistani support of militants from a chorus of voices that include the military, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, and influential Washington-based think tanks.
“JuD is the biggest non-state actor in Pakistan. It has the largest infrastructure in the country,” Mr. Rana said in an interview. JuD is believed to have 100 offices across Pakistan. A JuD leader said the group had trained more than two million cadres and employs 12,000 people.
Azaz Syed is a prominent, award-winning Pakistani investigative reporter for Geo News and The News. He is the author of the acclaimed book, The Secrets of Pakistan's War On Al.Qaeda
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa