Cases against Hafiz Saeed don't mean Pakistan is cracking down on terror, it's playing the Vanishing Elephant Trick

Five thousand people were packed inside New York's Hippodrome Theatre, as Jenny the elephant was locked inside a closed box, placed on wheels high above the stage. The great magician Erich Weiss — Harry Houdini, to his legion of fans — had the box moved around, demonstrating to the audience that it had no secret exits. Then, he clapped his hands. The chains fell off the box, its door swung open: eight feet tall, and weighing more than 2,500 kilograms, the elephant had vanished into thin air.

This week, Pakistan's government announced it had filed 23 criminal cases terrorism-related figures, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba's supreme religious and political leader, Hafiz Saeed.

Islamabad's action is designed to demonstrate that it is finally cracking down on terrorists. Like Houdini’s elephant, Pakistan’s jihadists haven’t actually disappeared: they’re just being rested for their next stage appearance. Faced with sanctions from the multinational Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Islamabad is under intense pressure to show it’s cracking down on terror financing. In May, the FATF recorded “that not only did Pakistan fail to complete its action plan items with January deadlines, it also failed to complete its action plan items due May 2019”.

In the event Islamabad doesn’t meet FATF scrutiny, it could end up on the organisation’s blacklist — hitting the country’s access to international banking networks.

From the evidence so far available, there’s nothing to suggest Pakistan is in fact doing anything of the kind. LeT operatives, many of them Pakistani nationals, continue to operate freely in Kashmir. In recent months, jihadists in Kashmir have attempted two subsequent vehicle-borne bombings on Indian soldiers — evidence that Islamabad’s intelligence services haven’t been deterred by the Balakot air-strikes.

 Cases against Hafiz Saeed dont mean Pakistan is cracking down on terror, its playing the Vanishing Elephant Trick

File image of Hafiz Saeed. Reuters.

Last month, United Nations sanctions monitors said the LeT was even fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban, along with Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent and other transnational terrorist organisations.

In spite of the deep economic crisis the country faces, Islamabad’s generals think they hold good strategic cards: the United States’ efforts to cut a deal with the Taliban, they believe, give them leverage; they’re certain, moreover, that the world simply won’t risk a nuclear-weapons state going bankrupt.

Revolving door

The case of Hafiz Saeed demonstrates Pakistan’s deep links with jihadists like nothing else could: Arrested on 21 December, 2001, released on 31 March, 2001; arrested on 31 May, 2002, released on 31 October, 2002; arrested on 9 August, 2006, released on 28 August, 2006; arrested on 28 August, 2006, and released on 17 October, 2006; arrested on 31 January, 2017, released on 22 November, 2017.

Ever since January 2018, Saeed has been under house arrest — but for “activities prejudicial to public order”, not for terrorism-related criminal offences. In a 14 July, 2018 order, the Punjab government has made clear his incarceration hasn’t degraded his organisation, noting that the “Jamaat-ud-Dawah and Falah-e-Insaniat have planned to spread chaos in the country on [its leaders’] expected release”.

Friends in Pakistan’s all-powerful military — the LeT’s historic sponsors — have ensured Saeed enjoys impunity from international pressure. In 2009, testifying to Pakistan’s Supreme Court, then-Punjab home secretary Nadeem Asif announced his government didn’t have anything against him and our intelligence has nothing to detain him”. Saeed, he underlined, had never been prosecuted for his role in 26/11.

“Even if Saeed is technically not roaming the streets, the Government of Pakistan’s inability to win the legal case against him is embarrassing,” then United States ambassador Anne Patterson wrote in a cable to the State Department. “Realising the importance of Saeed’s detention, [Prime Minister Yusuf Raza] Gilani and [Interior Minister Rehman] Malik are determined to use any law or means to keep him confined to his home”.

They failed: inside months, was spearheading street mobilisations by the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, against the government. Its charitable wing, the Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation, expanded its multi-million dollar operations globally.

Old trick

History shows that that Pakistan has often made jihadists disappear off the stage when it has been under pressure. Following the India-Pakistan crisis of 2001-02, for example, military ruler General Pervez Musharraf proscribed the LeT, as well as groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed, fearing war would kill off his hopes of reviving Pakistan’s economy.

The jihadists, though, responded by turning on the Pakistan army itself. Fearing this new threat, army chief Lieutenant-General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani slowly cast off the fetters faced on the Lashkar and Jaish.

Following the Mumbai attacks of 26 November, 2008 and the Pathankot air base attack, similarly, the Pakistan government cracked down on jihadist groups—only for them to resurface when international attention had waned.

The elephant in Houdini’s act, of course, didn’t actually disappearance: A mirror placed halfway across the box, with Jenny hidden behind it, tricked the audience into thinking the space was empty.

Like all magic, the vanishing elephant trick only works if the audience is willing to be fooled. In 2009, powerful United States senator John Kerry announced he had received assurances from Kayani that the crackdown on jihadists would be “harsher than that following a raid on India’s parliament in 2001”. He didn’t, evidently, see reason to ask how the groups had resurfaced in the first place.

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2019 16:29:45 IST