How Hafiz Muhammad Saeed became one of the world's most wanted men

Late last year, a man in a white kufi hat, the emblem of jihadist chic across south Asia, paused briefly as he looked out at tens of thousands of his supporters, many waving the black flags of the Lashkar-e-Taiba as the sun set behind them.

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed had already spoken, at the December 18 rally, of the war in Afghanistan and the treachery of the Pakistani politicians who had waged it. He had promised the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir “would continue until the Indian army leaves.”

“Now my last message, brothers,” he began. “The one problem greater than all problems is this new world order and it will not be allowed. God willing, the order of Islam will prevail. God willing, we will defend Pakistan and this Pakistan of God and the Prophet, nuclear Pakistan will shine on the world map...”

“There is only one cure for America — jihad, jihad,” the crowd roared, “only one cure for India — jihad, jihad.”

The Lashkar's rise

Earlier this week, Saeed emerged as one of the five terrorists most wanted by the United States, carrying a reward of $10 million for information leading to his arrest and conviction. He now ranks alongside Al-Qaeda's chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Taliban commander Mullah Muhammad Omar as one of the world's most wanted terrorists.

In 1987, then a professor of religious studies, Saeed co-founded the Markaz Dawat wal'Irshad with Abdullah Azzam — a Palestinian-Jordanian jihadist who had, for a time, been Osama bin Laden's mentor, and whose ideas are still revered by jihadists across the world. The two men hoped, the scholar Hassan Abbas has recorded, to “revive the lost art and science of the jihad.”

Now called the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the organisation was to become what is, without dispute, the largest jihadist institution in the world: a sprawling empire that runs an unmatched network of schools, hospitals and charities.

Born to a conservative Punjab family, which he claims lost 36 of its members during its Partition journey from Shimla to Lahore, Saeed was a product of military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's efforts to place jihad at the core of Pakistan's national project. General Zia-ul-Haq appointed him to the State-run Council on Islamic Ideology; later, he was given a teaching position at Lahore's University of Engineering and Technology.

In 1990, Saeed founded the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an effort to use the lessons of the Afghan jihad as a template for defeating India in Kashmir. Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States wrote in 2005 that the Lashkar was “backed by Saudi money and protected by Pakistani intelligence services.”

A global project

From the outset, the Lashkar made it clear it was not confined to Jammu and Kashmir. In an undated pamphlet probably issued around 1999, Hum Jihad Kyon Kar Rahe Hain [‘Why We Are Fighting a Jihad'], it argued: “Bulgaria, Hungary, Cyprus, Sicily, Ethiopia, Russian Turkistan and Chinese Turkistan were Muslim lands and it is our duty to get these back from unbelievers.”

Late in 1992, as communal tension began to rise across India, Saeed assigned a trusted lieutenant the task of opening a second front — this time against India as a whole. Mohammad Azam Cheema —‘Baba' to his recruits, and like Saeed the son of middle-class Punjabi family — had first come into contact with Saeed while both men were teaching at the engineering university in Lahore.

Even as Pakistan scaled back infiltration in Kashmir — violence has fallen year-on-year since 2002 — the Lashkar's all-India offensive escalated. From then to 26/11, Lashkar-linked cells staged several spectacular attacks often in the country, often operating through Indian affiliates.

Even as the Lashkar focussed on its anti-India campaign, though, Pakistan itself began to descend into chaos. As jihadists battled Pakistani troops along its north-west frontier, and Islamabad found itself compelled by the United States to take on the terror groups it had long patronised.

Saeed never attacked the Pakistani state, but his public speeches increasingly lashed out at the west. “The Crusaders, the Jews, and the Hindus,” he said months before 26/11, “all have united against the Muslims, and launched the ‘war on terror' which is in fact a pretext to impose a horrible war to further the nefarious goals of the enemies of Islam.”

The Lashkar operatives became involved in a series of attacks, targeting western interests, in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq and in Europe. The scholar Stephen Tankel has recorded that the flow of Lashkar cadre in support of Taliban operations in Afghanistan increased steadily, while its networks helped support a number of operations in the west — among them, an attempt to bomb a transatlantic flight and target strategic infrastructure in Australia.

For much of this time, the United States did little to act against the Lashkar — but following 26/11, ramped up pressure, seeing the organisation as one of the few surviving jihadists with the infrastructure needed to stage major jihadist attacks against the west. The ISI has, however, stubbornly defended the man valued not just as a warrior against India, but a defender of the Pakistan it hopes to build.