An Islamist leader, who had a US$10 million bounty placed on his head this week by Washington, has been helping Pakistan de-radicalize militants under efforts to stabilize the strategic US ally, a top Pakistani counter-terrorism official said on Friday.
Hafiz Saeed, suspected of masterminding an attack by Pakistan-based gunmen on India’s financial capital Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people, including six Americans, met Pakistani government officials from Punjab Province and pledged his support for the drive, the official said.
“Hafiz Saeed has agreed with the Punjab government program of de-radicalization and rehabilitation of former jihadis and extended full cooperation,” the counter-terrorism official sais.
The counter-terrorism official said that Saeed had not been paid for his de-radicalization activities.
US officials in Washington said the decision to offer the reward under the US Department of State’s longstanding Rewards for Justice program came after months of discussions among US agencies involved in counter-terrorism.
The US$10 million figure signifies major US interest in Saeed. Only three other militants, including Taliban leader Mullah Omar, fetch that high a bounty. There is a US$25 million bounty on the head of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The announcement of a reward for Saeed comes at a time of strained ties between the US and Pakistan and is likely to increase pressure on Islamabad to take action against one of Pakistan’s most notorious Islamist leaders.
A senior police official in Punjab province, who is closely involved with investigations into militant activity, confirmed that Saeed and his supporters were helping efforts to transform militants into law-abiding citizens.
“Jamaat-ud-Dawa [JuD] were consulted and they approved the de-radicalization plan. They assured us of their intellectual input and resource materials. They also offered teachers,” he said, referring to the charity Saeed heads.
International law does not prohibit the US from paying money for information that might lead to the arrest of an alleged criminal, said Sarah Knuckey, a professor at New York University Law School.
Legal questions would arise if, for example, the US set out to arrest Saeed on the territory of another state or targeted him for killing.
“There should be more efforts to lawfully arrest and prosecute alleged criminals, instead of the use of drones strikes and targeted killings,” Knuckey said.
The bounty highlighted the divide between the US’ direct approach to tackling militancy and strategies employed by Pakistan, a nuclear-armed South Asian nation seen as critical to US efforts to pacifying Afghanistan.
While Pakistan has mounted offensives against militant groups such as the homegrown Taliban, it also contends other tactics such as de-radicalization are vital to sustaining battlefield gains.
JuD spokesperson Yahya Mujahid said the group had not participated in the de-radicalisaton program.
Hafiz Khalid Waleed, another senior JuD member, declined to comment on whether the Islamist leader had been directly assisting the government in de-radicalization.
However, Waleed said Saeed and his followers were promoting non-violence.
“Hafiz Saeed was one of the first religious leaders to denounce militancy and suicide bombings,” Waleed said. “Our schools and madrasahs [religious seminaries] are urging peace.”