(CNSNews.com) – A Pakistani court order releasing the suspected mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack came just days after a provision linking U.S. military aid to Pakistan to its actions against his terrorist group was dropped from a defense policy bill.
The White House and State Department have slammed Pakistan over the release from house arrest of Hafiz Saeed, the U.S.- and U.N.-designated global terrorist who leads the al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Toiba/Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and is the subject of a $10 million U.S. reward offer.
Sunday marked the ninth anniversary of the attacks in India’s commercial capital, which killed 166 people, including six Americans.
“Saeed’s release, after Pakistan’s failure to prosecute or charge him, sends a deeply troubling message about Pakistan’s commitment to combatting international terrorism and belies Pakistani claims that it will not provide sanctuary for terrorists on its soil,” the White House said in a statement Saturday.
“If Pakistan does not take action to lawfully detain Saeed and charge him for his crimes, its inaction will have repercussions for bilateral relations and for Pakistan’s global reputation.”
The statement did not say what form repercussions could take, but Pakistan is a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid, including military assistance. It has also been designated, since 2004, as a “major non-NATO ally,” a status enjoyed by only a few handpicked nations.
This month, as House and Senate versions of the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) were being reconciled, a provision linking aid to Pakistan to its actions against LeT was dropped.
The provision had said that $350 million would be withheld unless the Defense Secretary certified that Pakistan was acting to disrupt safe havens, recruiting and freedom of movement of LeT and another U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO), the Haqqani Network (HQN).
Pakistan was also expected to show “progress in arresting and prosecuting” leaders and operatives of the two groups. Saeed was not mentioned by name, but he is one of the most high-profile such leaders.
When the legislation was being reconciled, the references to LeT in the Senate version were removed completely, although the provision still applies in the case of the Haqqani Network.
Media outlets in India claimed that pressure on lawmakers to drop the LeT provision came from the Department of Defense.
The Pentagon media office did not respond Sunday to queries about those claims.
The House passed the NDAA conference report on November 14. It now goes to the Senate and then to the president for signature.
The legislation authorizes up to $700 million in coalition support funding to reimburse Pakistan for activities carried out in support of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Since 2001 U.S. taxpayers have contributed more than $33 billion to Pakistan, either in direct aid or as reimbursements for counterterrorism efforts.
Ostensibly a key ally in the campaign against Islamist terrorism, Islamabad has long frustrated the U.S. and its allies by playing what critics call a “double game” – cracking down on selected terror groups while condoning, or even sponsoring, others.
Among the latter are groups whose main focus has been to end Indian control over parts of disputed Kashmir. They include LeT, which was banned under U.S. pressure months after 9/11 but continued operating, at times under the name Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), a supposed charity.
The State Department has designated Saeed’s group as an FTO under both names, LeT and JuD.
Despite its original anti-India focus, LeT has declared “jihad” on America and has attacked coalition forces in Afghanistan. In 2011 a senior U.S. military officer called it a “global threat.”
Saeed has been at large – moving about freely and even addressing mass rallies – for most of the time since the 2008 attack, despite demands by India and the Obama administration to bring him to justice.
Last February authorities placed him under house arrest and listed him under anti-terror legislation, a move attributed by some observers to concerns about the new Trump administration.
Last Wednesday a court in Lahore ordered his release.
India’s external affairs ministry condemned Saeed’s release, calling it an apparent “attempt by the Pakistani system to mainstream proscribed terrorists.”
“Pakistan has not changed its policy of shielding and supporting non-state actors and its true face is visible for all to see,” ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar told reporters.
He said India and the international community was “outraged that a self-confessed and U.N.-proscribed terrorist is being allowed to walk free and continue his evil agenda.”
The Mumbai attack took place over a 60-hour period, with gunmen attacking two hotels, a railway station, hospitals, a cinema, café, municipal facility, bank and a Jewish community center.
Days later, India handed Pakistan a list of 20 suspects topped by Saeed.
Investigators said the sole surviving gunman had confessed that the operation was planned and carried out from Pakistani territory, and said that Saeed had met with members of the terrorists as they neared the end of their preparations, saying they were blessed to be martyrs.