Conviction of Hafiz Saeed just before FATF review has raised eyebrows. Is the terror infrastructure under dismantlement, or is it a tactical ploy?
The Court Judgement
Pakistan’s anti-terrorism court or ATC has convicted Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Muhammed Saeed to eleven years prison for terrorism financing. Saeed was convicted and sentenced on two counts last year and awarded six months for membership of a “Proscribed organisation” and another five years for a charge related to “illegal property”.
Symbol of the Deep State
The Pakistani deep-state has over the years propped up many leadership icons who propagate the Wahabi version of Islam calling for an international jihad against all non-believers, especially the US, Israel and India. Under state patronage, these prominent figures have had the run of the land, unperturbed by international calls for their arrest and prosecution.
Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, the founder of Lashkar -e Taiba (LeT) and Azhar Masood, the founder of Jaish e Mohammad(JeM), are the two most prominent ones. While Hafiz Saeed is a UN-designated terrorist, Azhar Masood has been narrowly escaping this designation thanks to China’s veto. In 2012, the US announced a $10 million bounty on Hafiz Saeed. The 70-year-old maintains that he is not involved in the terror attacks and he simply heads the JuD, an Islamic social-welfare organisation.
Over the years, Saeed and his group charities have entered mainstream politics under a plan backed by the Pakistani army to integrate militants into the society. The JUD fielded a political part named Mili Muslim League (MML) in the 2018 general election but failed to win any seats.
Under FATF Scanner
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is an international watchdog that aims to combat money laundering, terrorist financing and other threats to the international financial system. Interestingly, the Pakistani court judgement has come just a few days before the FATF review meeting on the 16th of February. Pakistan is presently on the grey list of the FATF. The FATF has a 27-action point checklist of which Pakistan claims to have fulfilled 22.
Pakistan has figured on the grey list in 2008, again from 2012 to 2015, and most recently since 2018. The global watchdog’s regional body- Asia Pacific group (APG) examined Pakistan’s performance on key issues related to terror financing and money laundering at a two-day preliminary meeting in Bangkok last year. Pakistan faces the risk of being blacklisted this year. Apart from freezing bank accounts and seizing property, Pakistan has done little against the terrorist organisations active from its sovereign territory.
Implications of the Blacklist
Pakistan's economy is already suffering from a balance of payment crisis, and the new IMF funded austerity measures. Pakistan cannot afford to lose new capital and investment at this juncture. According to Schwemlein of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Pakistan’s failure to convince FATD could result in the FATF issuing calls to international banks and financial institutions to review their investments in Pakistani entities. This could jeopardise Pakistan’s $6 billion rescue package with the IMF.
India has been leading the international call for Pakistan to act against all those involved in terror attacks of Mumbai and Pathankot. Pakistan had arrested and detained seven people in 2009 but released them soon citing lack of evidence. India has remained sceptical of the current move as Hafiz Saeed has been arrested several times before. Indian authorities have stated that this sentencing is a part of Islamabad's "long-pending international obligation of Pakistan to put an end to terrorism." The US has welcomed the conviction as an important step for Pakistan's commitment to combat terror financing.
India holds the vice chairmanship of the FATF and is pushing for Pakistan’s blacklisting. Pakistan already has the explicit support of China (the current Chairman of FATF), Turkey and Malaysia, but it needs a total of 12 votes to come out of the FATF grey list. Countries like Australia and France will decide based on the plenary session in Paris from 16th - 21st Feb.
The conviction is based on vague grounds and Hafiz Saeed’s record of “financing terror” groups. This does not hold good when there is considerable evidence that he was the mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The members of FATF are not blind to the fact that the conviction is on a relatively minor count rather than on his role as the chief architect of one of the most violent terrorist excesses ever seen in history. With India pulling its own weight, it is unlikely that Pakistan will get out of the grey list, although it may get yet another reprieve from being put in the blacklist along with N Korea and Iran.
Evidently, Pakistan is unwilling/ unable to take concrete action against the kingpins of the terror infrastructure created by its deep state over the last four decades. However, international pressure over the years has been increasing. On Pakistan’s part, some movement to avoid being blacklisted is presented before every FATF review to pacify the international community. FATF should not be fooled by this apparent smokescreen.
A lot more needs to be done before Pakistan can be certified as free from being a state sponsor of terror. Hafiz Sayed is not the only terrorist operating out of Pakistan. There are nine other UN-designated terrorists in Pakistan who need to be brought to justice.
While there may be a criticism of FATF for its slow approach, its listing does raise the red flag with international financial institutions and ratings which a country, especially one begging for loans in the international market, can ignore at its peril. Not surprisingly, Pakistani leaders and bureaucrats have been desperately seeking support for blocking inclusion in the blacklist and making cosmetic efforts to show their sincerity. This is a departure from the past when terror financiers felt immune from international scrutiny.