Low-key condemnation of 11/26 mastermind Sajid Mir shows Pakistan’s vague terror crackdown

NOTinety four for six, chasing 309: As the futility of the prayer became apparent, the flayed pride of Indian cricket fans erupted into a tantrum, a rain of plastic bottles and flying Hindustani invective bleachers on the manicured greens of Delhi’s Feroze Shah Kotla. stadium. The hundreds of Pakistani visitors who came to watch the game – among them a thin young man with a well-trimmed beard, his hair parted in the middle – watched impassively. He, perhaps, imagined another triumph, yet to come, as I have already written.

The man in the stands that day in March 2005, Lashkar-e-Taiba 26/11 operational chief Sajid Mir was secretly tried and convicted by a Lahore anti-terrorism court last week – as part of pledges by Pakistan to get the country out of sanctions. by the multinational terrorist finance watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force or FATF.

From a home in Karachi, Mir reportedly guided the 26/11 execution team in real time, using a voice over internet connection – at one point intervening to order the execution of a hostage, Rivka Holtzberg. Mir, according to investigators, also organized the reconnaissance operations led by Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley, which laid the groundwork for the attack.

Even though it has been reported that Mir has been detained by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) since 2011, Islamabad has long denied knowledge of his whereabouts, as I pointed out earlier. In 2019, the United States government noted that Mir was “widely suspected of residing in Pakistan under state protection, despite government denials”.

The Lashkar commander’s condemnation now aims to show that Islamabad is changing course. The twisted trajectory of Mir’s story raises questions about how long she will hold the new course.

Pakistani Sajid Mir, mastermind of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai

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The French connection

Few fragments have become available on the life of Sajid Mir. According to the passport used by Mir to travel to India, he was born in 1976 into an ethnic Punjabi family of refugees from partition. Mir’s father, Abdul Majid, worked for a time in Saudi Arabia, before returning to Pakistan to set up a small textile business. After graduating from university in Lahore, Indian intelligence officials with knowledge of the matter told ThePrint that Mir married the daughter of a retired Pakistani army Maulvi and fathered at least two children.

Then evidence began to emerge that Mir had become a central figure in a plot to set the world on fire.

After 9/11, Willie Brigitte, a former French naval cadet born in Guadeloupe, arrived in Pakistan to fight alongside the Taliban. Converted to Islam, Brigitte became involved in the neo-integrist networks of mosques in the Couronnes district of Paris, linked to the Algerian Salafist Jihadist Group for Preaching and Combat, now known as Al- Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Brigitte ended up in a Lashkar training camp near Muzaffarabad, along with recruits from several other countries. “Bill”, French judge Jean Louis Bruguière later wrote, had two bodyguards constantly present. For his students, it emerged that “Sajid Mir was a high-ranking officer in the Pakistani military and was apparently also part of the ISI”.

In 2003, traveling on a ticket paid for by Mir, Brigitte traveled to Australia, with orders to survey potential targets with Pakistani-born architect Fahim Lodhi, including a nuclear reactor near Sydney. French intelligence, however, had maintained surveillance of Brigitte and informed their counterparts in Sydney.

Lodhi is currently serving a life sentence in Australia. Brigitte was sentenced to nine years in prison in France, was released, and then left for the Islamic State with his fourth wife and a child, where he is believed to have been killed in action.

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Globalization of Lashkar

The jihad network that the Lashkar nurtured developed similar branches around the world in the years after 9/11, intelligence agencies quickly discovered. Eleven men were convicted in the United States until 2004-2005 for leading a jihad network in Virginia. Four of them, it was revealed, had trained at the camp run by Mir. UK bomb plot leaders Omar Khayam and Dhiren Barot also trained with the Lashkar. In 2004, Danish jihadist Lashkar Ahmad, a Kashmir veteran, was detained in Iraq.

It is unclear exactly how Mir ended up at the center of these networks. Indian intelligence has no record to suggest he served in Kashmir, where Lashkar’s military operations were heavily concentrated.

From the work of researcher C. Christine Fair, it is clear that the Lashkar shared the worldview of groups like al-Qaeda. Lashkar cadres have fought in conflicts ranging from Tajikistan and Chechnya to Bosnia. In December 1998, the Pakistani newspaper jang reported that jihadists from more than 50 countries attended a convention organized by Markaz Dawat wal’Irshad – Lashkar’s parent organization.

“You can go to any jihadist frontline in the world,” the organization boasted, “and you will find Markaz Dawat wal’Irshad mujahideen crushing the infidels and destroying the strongholds of the devil.”

Lashkar-trained jihadists have consistently cropped up in global counter-terrorism investigations: Until 2012, one of three men suspected of being involved in a plot to attack Gibraltar during the Olympics from London had trained with Lashkar.

After 9/11, Pakistan’s military rulers expelled foreigners from Lashkar’s training camps and slowed its operations in Kashmir. The organisation’s infrastructure, however, was intact and after brief periods of incarceration its leadership was once again active.

The Lashkar’s most important asset was the son of gracious Pakistani diplomat Syed Salim Gilani and Philadelphia socialite Serill Headley, one of the many foreigners who arrived at its camps after 9/11. The story of why David Headley ended up there remains opaque. There has long been credible evidence that he was spying for the United States Drug Enforcement Agency: From 2001 to 2008, interestingly, US authorities ignored at least six warnings about his involvement in terrorism.

In 2005, according to Indian and American investigators, the ISI provided funds to Headley to set up a cover business in Mumbai, to mount surveillance on potential targets. Mir’s visit to New Delhi in the same year suggests multiple similar missions. During nine visits to India, overseen by Mir, Headley gathered the footage needed in Lashkar to form the kill team that carried out 11/26.

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Is Pakistan serious?

Since its inclusion on the FATF gray list in 2018, Pakistan has sought to demonstrate that it is acting against Lashkar. In February 2020, LeT leader Hafiz Saeed was sentenced to two consecutive five-year terms for financing terrorism, and received another 31-year sentence in April. His deputies, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi and Abdul Rehman Maki, were also sentenced to prison, as were a series of second-tier figures, although none of the prosecutions were directly related to 11/26.

“Even though Saeed technically does not roam the streets, the Pakistani government’s inability to win the case against him is embarrassing,” US Ambassador Anne Patterson wrote in a 2009 diplomatic cable. embarrassment, Pakistan now claims to have fixed it.

There are, however, reasons to suspect that there is less to these actions than meets the eye. Following his sentencing in 2020, as I noted earlier, Saeed was moved out of Kot Lakhpat prison in Lahore and returned to his three-storey white house at 116E Johar Town – where he was the target of assassination last year, in a bombing in Pakistan. allegations were carried out by the Indian intelligence services. Since 9/11, Saeed has been imprisoned at least nine times, only to be released a few weeks later.

Lakhvi, for her part, reportedly had unrestricted access to visitors and the internet in prison. He was even rumored to have fathered a child.

Even more troubling, from India’s perspective, second-tier Lashkar commanders, such as military trainer Muzammil Bhat and Sajid Saifullah Jatt, accused of 11/26, remain active – circulating weapons and cadres to across the Line of Control into Kashmir. Likewise, the ISI officers named in Headley’s testimony were never investigated, let alone prosecuted.

The source of the Lashkar’s influence is not difficult to understand. The organization’s vast network of seminaries, schools and charitable institutions, notes Neil Padukone, means that it “replaced Jamaat-e-Islami, the original vanguard of the Islamic revolution, as center of political Islamism in Pakistan”. The jihadist ideal enjoys significant support both within political parties and the army.

Fearing a backlash, the Pakistani state has refrained from breaking definitively with the jihadist movement. The Lashkar jihadists will remain in prison until the FATF lifts the threat of sanctions, but that is unlikely to be the end of the story. The elephant in the room remains, just hidden behind a curtain.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.