ISLAMABAD - Wearing a long beard and an afghan hat on top of his curly black hair, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed makes it clear he doesn't like giving interviews. In his traditional salwar kameez robe, he adjusts his little round glasses and suspiciously gauges the journalist in front of him.
Saeed is officially speaking as the president of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa charity, which is the public face of the Islamic organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, literally “Army of the Righteous” in Urdu).
Before being able to meet him, you first need to get past the human wall of young fighters in military jackets and kaffiyehs, who carry kalachnikovs and would readily give their lives for their leader. Such tight security might appear disproportionate for a man who claims to simply be a humanitarian official.
When asked, most of these young men will openly admit to how they have returned from the disputed province of Kashmir, where they fought against the Indian army. Implicitly, it is a confession to being a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Indeed, the man they venerate is considered the founder of this terrorist group, blacklisted by the U.S. Department of State since the audacious Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 that targeted several high-end hotels, including the famous Taj Mahal Palace, and a café popular with tourists. The death toll of 166 people included 28 foreigners.
Since 2012, The United States has been offering $10 million to anyone who would provide information leading to the arrest of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. The chances of him being brought to justice, however, would appear to be quite low. The 64-year-old is not even hiding. “I come and go as I wish. If the Americans want to come and get me, they have my address. My fate is in the hands of God, not in those of the United States.”
Marching for Bin Laden
From its creation in 1981, the primary goal of Lashkar-e-Taiba has been to fight the Indian enemy in Kashmir. Mentioning the conflict prompts an immediate reaction. Indeed, he loses his temper right away.
"We are fighting for the freedom of our Muslim brothers. These men and women have been subjected to the attacks of the Indian government since 1947. It must stop. We need to set them free.” Even if he refuses to comment, it has been confirmed that several training camps have been set up in the area to train new fighters. The largest of these camps, located near the Kashmiri capital Muzaffarabad, is said to be managed by Talha Saeed, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed's son, who is also listed as a terrorist by the United States.
A few days after the Mumbai attacks, facing international pressure, the Pakistani army led several operations to destroy these training camps. However, some are still in activity.
At the moment, Lashkar-e-Taiba is all but getting out of Kashmir, says Abdullah Ghaznavi, spokesman for the organization. “Our fight for Kashmir’s freedom will go on. It is our central objective.”
Other camps may have also been settled near the Afghan border, in the Khyber tribal region. Evidence of this was found in 2010, when the American army received a warning that Lashkar members were fighting alongside the Taliban in the Nangarhar province, on the other side of the Pakistani border.
When asked about jihad, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed strokes his long black beard for a few seconds. As he speaks, his voice gets louder. “All Muslims have to join us, we will teach them the real meaning of jihad. The time to fight has come. Experts and journalists are still wondering why the United States are falling apart. The only real explanation is precisely our jihad.”
His words sound like a threat. Saeed has never made a secret of his affinities with Al-Qaeda. Far from it. In May 2011, after Osama Bin Laden was killed, he led a major rally in Lahore, during which several thousand people shouted anti-US slogans and hailed the terrorist leader as a martyr.
In order to give himself legitimacy, Saeed has been setting up a network of hospitals and schools, through his charity organization Jammat-ud-Dawa. Asked about it, he suddenly relaxes, and a sincere smile finally appears on his face.
“Today, we have created 16 islamic institutions, 135 schools, an ambulance service and several mobile clinics,” he boasts.
Saeed seems happy to talk about his involvement in helping people and teaching young Pakistanis. These are laudable ambitions in a country where education and health are gravely underdeveloped. However, this help is considered by many as a mere smokescreen, as the schools may be closer to recruitment centers for Lashkar-e-Taiba’s activities than real educational models.