“I move about like an ordinary person — that’s my style,” said Saeed, a burly 64-year-old, reclining on a bolster. “My fate is in the hands of God, not America.”
Saeed is the founder, and is still widely believed to be the true leader, of Lashkar-e-Toiba, the militant group that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, in which more than 160 people, including six Americans, were killed. The United Nations has placed him on a terrorist list and imposed sanctions on his group. But few believe he will face trial any time soon in a country that maintains a perilous ambiguity toward jihadi militancy, casting a benign eye on some groups, even as it battles others that attack the state.
Saeed’s very public life seems more than just an act of mocking defiance against the Obama administration and its bounty, analysts say. As American troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, Lashkar is at a crossroads, and its fighters’ next move —whether to focus on fighting the West, disarm and enter the political process, or return to battle in Kashmir - will depend largely on Saeed.
At his Lahore compound — a fortified house, office and mosque — Saeed is shielded not only by his supporters, burly men wielding Kalashnikovs outside his door, but also by the Pakistani state. On a recent evening, police officers screened visitors at a checkpoint near his house, while other officers patrolled an adjoining park, watching by floodlight for intruders.
His security seemingly ensured, Saeed has over the past year addressed large public meetings and appeared on prime-time television, and is now even giving interviews to Western news media outlets he had previously eschewed.
He says he wants to correct “misperceptions”. During an interview with The New York Times at his home last week, Saeed insisted that his name had been cleared by the Pakistani courts. “Why does the United States not respect our judicial system?” he asked.
During that stretch, his group was focussed on attacking Indian soldiers in the disputed territory of Kashmir - the fight that led the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate to help establish Lashkar-e-Toiba in 1989. But that battle died down over the past decade, and Lashkar began projecting itself through its charity wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which runs a tightly organized network of hospitals and schools across Pakistan.