Slow pace of Lakhvi’s trial exposes Pakistan’s patchy counter-terror efforts
ISLAMABAD: (Asia Times): A recent Country Report by the US State Department has censured Pakistan for its half-hearted efforts on the anti-terrorism front, giving credence to the impression that Pakistani authorities aren’t serious about prosecuting the architects of the so-called 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. The US State Department Country Report on Terrorism for 2015 titled “South Asia — a front-line region in the battle against terrorism”– has cited the slow pace of the trial of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks which had killed 165 people.
While highlighting Pakistan’s patchy counter-terrorism record, the American report has noted that the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, had been freed by the Pakistani authorities on bail in April 2015. The carnage took place on Nov. 26, 2008 when 10 fedayeen attackers of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks in Mumbai. Of the 165 people killed in these terrorist attacks, 138 were Indians and 28 were foreigners, including six Americans. Therefore, ever since the start of the trial of the seven LeT accused, Pakistan is under enormous pressure from the US to bring to justice the culprits as early as possible.
Lakhvi was mastermind
Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving attacker from Pakistan who was captured alive by the Indian security forces after the 26/11 carnage, had first named Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi as his trainer and the chief plotter of the attacks. Groaning under mounting international pressure, Pakistani authorities had subsequently arrested Lakhvi and six other LeT militants from the Muzaffarabad headquarters of the militant group, situated in the Shawai Nullah area of the capital of the Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Yet, despite an Indian demand for his immediate extradition, the Pakistan government didn’t hand over any of them to India, saying that it would hold the trial of the alleged planners on its own since all those arrested were Pakistani citizens.
On its part, an American federal court had charged [on April 21, 2011] six Pakistanis belonging to the Lashkar-e-Toiba as co-conspirators in the Mumbai terror attacks’ case, including Zaki Lakhvi, Hafiz Saeed, the then ISI chief Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha, Maj Gen Nadeem Taj and two other ISI officials — Major Iqbal and Major Samir. They were charged with six counts of aiding and abetting the murder of six American citizens. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation had then provided Pakistan with a taped conversation between Lakhvi and the 26/11 attackers when the terrorist operation in Mumbai was still on. The FBI had analysed the tape and concluded that Lakhvi was one of the speakers and the handler of the attackers. But Pakistan had refused to hand over the accused to the United States.
On Dec. 16, 2010, shortly after the issuance of the US federal court summons to the LeT leaders and the ISI officials, the Islamabad police had moved to register a murder case against the then CIA station chief in Pakistan, Jonathan Banks, who was supervising the drone campaign in the tribal areas. The complainant from North Waziristan wanted a murder case to be registered against Jonathan Banks for the killings of his son and brother in a drone attack in December 2009. Meanwhile, the US State Department informed the New York federal court that the defendants in the Mumbai terror attacks case — Ahmed Shuja Pasha and Nadeem Taj — are immune from the law suit. The State Department also pointed out that its determination was not subject to judicial review. Shortly afterwards, the US court ruled that as part of a foreign government, the ISI officials enjoyed diplomatic immunity.
Six years after the Mumbai attacks, Lakhvi was bailed out by the Pakistani trial court, while citing lack of evidence to indict him. While commenting on Lakhvi’s bail, the US State Department’s Country Report on terrorism has observed, “Pakistan is dragging its feet in the judicial proceedings of the Mumbai attacks.” The trial of seven suspects, including Zaki Lakhvi, continues eight years after the 26/11 attacks, and many witnesses for the prosecution have yet to be called by the trial court. Security concerns and procedural issues had resulted in a slow pace of the trial proceedings,” the report added.
India had wrapped up its trial of Ajmal Kasab in 2010 and hanged him in 2012 after the Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. According to Kasab’s confessional statement, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi had offered to pay his family Rs.150, 000 for taking part in the Mumbai attacks and another Rs.100, 000 after he becomes a martyr. In the US, David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani-descent LeT operative who had scouted the targets hit by the Mumbai attackers, pleaded guilty in 2010 and was awarded 35 years in 2013. The US State Department report has pointed out that “Islamabad did not take sufficient action against the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani network in 2015 and did little to deter home grown jihadi groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad which continued to operate, train, organize, and fund raise in Pakistan.”
The report noted that Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who is an UN-designated terrorist, was able to make frequent public appearances in support of the organisations’ objectives without Pakistan government raising a finger to stop him. The report underlined the slow pace of trial proceedings of the accused in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, especially Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, who is the right hand man of Hafiz Saeed and a blue-eyed boy of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Even while behind the bars at the Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, Lakhvi had been enjoying substantial freedom because of his special relationship with Pakistan’s security establishment which keeps nurturing jihadi groups to advance its so-called geo-strategic agenda in India and Afghanistan.
Fathered child in detention
The level of freedom Zaki Lakhvi used to enjoy while under detention in Rawalpindi can be gauged from the fact that he was able to father a child. In fact, passion for jihad against India has been the defining feature of Lakhvi’s life whose six-year long detention came to an end after an Anti-Terrorist Court bailed him out, citing lack of evidence. Although Lakhvi’s aides argue that some glaring legal loopholes in the case had paved the way for Lakhvi’s bail, the fact remains that one of the key reasons cited by the trial court judge to grant bail was a testimony by a school headmaster who had claimed that Ajmal Kasab was still alive and that he had recently seen him at his Faridkot village in Okara district of the Punjab province.
Kasab had been hanged by the Indian authorities on Nov. 21, 2012 in a Pune jail after being convicted. Appearing before the trial court judge, Mudassir (the witness — the headmaster of the Government Elementary School in Faridkot) had stated that Ajmal Kasab had been enrolled in his school between 1997 and 2000. The chief prosecutor in the Mumbai attack case had actually produced the headmaster to verify the record which was obtained from the school in question, where Ajmal Kasab is said to have been enrolled. During his cross-examination by the defense counsel, the headmaster abruptly took a U-turn and claimed having met Kasab only a few days ago in his village, thus shocking everyone in the courtroom. Like Mudassir Lakhvi (the witness), Zaki Lakhvi (the accused) also belongs to the Renala Khurd area in Okara. Kasab was also a resident of Faridkot in Okara.
Besides relying on the headmaster’s testimony to grant bail to Lakhvi, the trial court judge had argued in his verdict that Ajmal Kasab’s confessional statement [recorded in India and on the basis of which Zaki Lakhvi was indicted in the Mumbai attacks case] has no legal value according to Pakistani law. In his detailed judgment, Judge Kausar Abbas pointed out that the trial court has taken six years to record the statements of just 50 witnesses. He added that recording the statements of the remaining witnesses could consume ten more years. Therefore, the judge granted bail to Zaki Lakhvi while observing that the accused can’t be kept behind bars for an indefinite period, till the statements of the remaining witnesses are recorded. Kasab’s confessional statement, which is a part of the 11,200-page charge sheet filed against him, had given a full account of the role played by Lakhvi.
Though Lakhvi had refuted the Indian charge sheet as a pack of lies, the charge-sheet filed by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) of Pakistan had endorsed them by acknowledging that “Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani national arrested in India.” The FIA charge sheet stated: “You accused, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, being the chief operational commander of LeT, masterminded the Mumbai attacks. You had first received instructions and training and then imparted training in the making and use of firearms, explosives, bombs and grenades to your co-accused, Ajmal Kasab, and nine others killed in India. By your aforesaid acts of terrorism, you have disrupted trade between Pakistan and India and also disrupted normal civil life of people of the two countries. These offenses are punishable under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 as well the country’s Penal Code.”
Threats against judges
The charge sheet was filed by Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, the former chief prosecutor in the Mumbai attacks case who was shot dead in Islamabad on May 3, 2013. Zulfiqar, who had been receiving death threats for some time, was gunned down a few weeks after the prosecution witnesses had identified in the trial court some of the LeT accused as the men who had bought the boats and engine which were used by terrorists to travel to Mumbai through sea route. The Mumbai trial suffered a major blow with Zulfiqar’s assassination after which the case is moving at a snail’s pace. At least three of the seven judges who heard the case had requested to be taken off the case because of threats of dire consequences allegedly coming from Lakhvi’s close aides.
The importance of Lakhvi to the LeT’s jihadi network comes from the awe he inspires among the LeT cadres because of the fact that two of his sons had lost their lives in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir while fighting against the Indian security forces. Lakhvi’s two sons – Abu Qatal and Abu Qasim – were gunned down in the Bandipora area of Jammu Kashmir by the Indian security forces in 2003 and 2005 respectively. Before his arrest from Muzaffarabad in 2008, Lakhvi’s wife used to looks after the widows and orphans of the LeT fighters who lose their lives, in addition to other charity work due to which the group has succeeded in building a loyal cadre of fighters.
Zaki Lakhvi was born on Dec. 30 1960 to Hafiz Azizur Rahman, an Ahl-e-Hadit cleric linked to the neoconservative religious party — Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith (Wahabi). His family used to live in the Rinala Khurd area of Okara district – the same district where Mohammad Ajmal Kasab grew up. Zaki Lakhvi’s stock in the shadowy world of jihad zoomed through a marriage between his sister and Abu Abdur Rahman Sareehi, a well-off Saudi national who was reportedly viewed as a trusted lieutenant of the slain al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Sareehi had contributed a hefty amount of Rs. 10 million in 1988 for the construction of the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s headquarters in the Muridke area near Lahore. The same year (1988), Abu Sareehi founded an organisation in the Afghan Kunar Valley which recruited Afghan and Pakistani youths in the Bajaur Agency on the Pak-Afghan border, to fight against the Russian occupation forces in Afghanistan.
The organization flourished in the Kunar Valley and in the Bajaur tribal agency as hundreds of youths from Pakistan belonging to the Salafi school of thought instantly joined the outfit, besides hundreds of the Afghans. Lakhvi was one of the main trainers at the Kunar camp of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen who eventually became the chief operational commander of the Lashkar-e-Toiba upon its formal launching in 1991.
It was essentially the outbreak of insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir that indeed prompted the LeT to bring the huge Sareehi network of Wahabi Mujahideen under its patronage and make Jammu and Kashmir their new battleground. Being the supreme commander of the military operations in Jammu and Kashmir, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi’s prime responsibility was to identify young men, indoctrinate them in jihad and train them militarily for specific missions.
On April 7, 1999, almost four weeks before the first shots of the Indo-Pak Kargil conflict rang out, Lakhvi had stated in a newspaper interview that yet another Indo-Pak war was already imminent: “We are extending our Mujahideen networks across India and have carried out attacks on Indian installations successfully in Himachal Pradesh last year. To set up militant networks across India is our one target. We are preparing the Muslims of India and when they are ready, it will be the start of the disintegration of India.”
On Jan. 26, 2000, at the annual LeT congregation at its Muridke headquarters, 30 kilometers from Lahore, Lakhvi had declared that the next target of the LeT fighters would be New Delhi. On Dec. 13, 2001, the Indian Parliament in New Delhi was attacked by a LeT fidayeen squad, thus raising the grim specter of war in the Indian subcontinent. Almost eight years after the Mumbai terror attacks, little seems to have changed on the Indo-Pak front, mainly because Pakistan has failed to take to task the masterminds of the 26/11 carnage. As ties between Pakistan and India remain stalemated, security analysts believe that it would be sensible for the Pakistani security establishment to go hammer and tongs against all the terrorists, both “good” and the “bad,” without giving any preferential treatment to any of them, to effectively nip the evil of Islamic militancy in the bud.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist known for his research work on Islamic militancy and terrorism in Pakistan. He has authored several books including “Talibanization of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11,” “The Bhutto Murder Trail: From Waziristan to GHQ,” “The True Face of Jehadis” and “The Fluttering Flag of Jehad.”
(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved.)