Pakistan’s furtive sentencing of Mumbai attacks mastermind Sajid Mir yet again exposes its duplicitous approach to terrorism
Belated reports in the Pakistani media this past week about the alleged arrest, the secret trial, and the unexplained sentencing of Sajid Mir, the mastermind of the dastardly Mumbai attacks of 2008 in which 166 people were murdered by 10 terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), raised more questions than it answered. The only direct answer it gave was, quite evidently, directed at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), on whose grey list Pakistan has been since 2018. Islamabad’s persevering economic woes over the past few years have only become more severe, and that has meant that getting out of the grey list has become an existential imperative for it. The desperation to get off the list, more than any other reason, is what pressured Rawalpindi to allow the prosecution, even if sham and on obscure grounds, of one of its most important and most closely protected terrorist assets. To the extent that the Pakistani military establishment was eventually constrained to own up to all its lies about it having no knowledge of Mir, and then its subsequent claim that Mir was dead, the pressure from FATF did yield some results and was thus entirely justified.
Even if on the face of it the news of Mir’s conviction was positive and welcome, under the surface the opaqueness with which it happened came across as incredibly fishy. Moreover, as will be elaborated upon later, Mir was sentenced not for his role in planning and directly supervising the Mumbai terror attacks, including ordering the killing of individuals, for which he was being sought by the United States (US), India, and several other countries, but for some unknown, unexplained, and obscure terror financing matters. His sentencing, therefore, certainly will not bring relief or closure to the families of the victims of the Mumbai attacks, and it surely must not be accepted as the end of the Mir saga by countries that lost citizens in the gruesome carnage. The FATF reportedly decided earlier this month to remove Pakistan from its the grey list after an inspection visit by a FATF delegation this autumn, and Mir’s conviction would have been an important component that encouraged such a decision. Whether that is the correct decision only time will tell, but what is well known and has been reiterated repeatedly is that Rawalpindi’s deceit and subterfuge on terrorism has fooled a world driven primarily by narrow and fleeting self interests enough times in the past to suggest that as soon as the FATF pressure has subsided, Pakistan will more likely than not go back to its merry old ways of promoting terrorism and protecting terrorists.
Sajid Mir’s key role in the Mumbai attacks and other international terrorist projects of the LeT, a widely recognized terrorist asset of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has been dwelt upon at length in several earlier EFSAS papers and publications. The Pakistani daily Dawn summarized Mir’s life as a terrorist in a 25 June article in which it wrote that “Mir’s association with LeT and Hafiz Saeed dates back to 1994, when he was just 16. He then rose in the terrorist outfit’s ranks and became associated with its international operations wing. Reports show that he remained the deputy chief of LeT’s international operations, but others suggest that he even at some point led that unit. He is said to have enjoyed direct access to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who was the chief of all terrorism operations. Experts say he also got linked up with Al-Qaeda while conducting international operations”.
Mir’s name started featuring on the international terrorism landscape as early as 2002, when he attempted to make large military equipment purchases from the US with the help of his Virginia-based accomplices. However, that project came to an end when the FBI arrested 11 people in what became to be known as ‘Virginia Paintball Jihadi’ case. Ten of them were jailed. Mir then turned towards Australia. In 2003 he planned attacks in Australia with the help of a French national, Willie Brigitte, and an Australian, Faheem Khalid Lodhi, for Australian troop presence in Afghanistan. Lodhi was convicted by an Australian court in June 2006 of planning acts of terrorism and handed down 20 years in prison, while Brigitte, who was deported to France in 2003, was convicted by a French court to nine years in jail.
Dawn added that the Lahore-born Mir then started on the Mumbai project, for whose planning and executing he was mostly known. In November 2008, a group of 10 LeT attackers who sailed from Karachi hijacked an Indian fishing boat, killed its captain and took a rubber dinghy into Mumbai. They then systematically attacked high-end hotels, a train station, a hospital and a Jewish community center over the course of three chaotic days. Their actions were directed by phone by handlers in Pakistan, prominent among whom was Mir. From a house in Karachi, Mir guided the LeT team in real-time, using a voice-over-internet connection. At one point, he intervened to directly order the execution of a hostage, Rivka Holtzberg. The Mumbai attacks left 166, including 26 foreign nationals, dead and brought nuclear armed India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
Mir later claimed to have spent two years carrying out reconnaissance and scouting targets in Mumbai, which he reportedly did with the help of David Coleman Headley, the American terrorist who is currently serving a 35 years sentence in the US for his involvement in international terrorism. Mir had himself secretly toured India in 2005, where he went as a cricket fan to watch a match between the cricket teams of the two countries. On that occasion he remained in India for about 15 days. Later in 2009, Mir collaborated with Headley on an aborted plan to attack a newspaper office in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Mir was designated a terrorist by the US, which lost 6 citizens in Mumbai, and was indicted in 2011. He was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Under its Rewards for Justice Program, the US offered up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Mir. Even though Mir was reported to have been kept at a safe location under the protection of the ISI since 2011, Islamabad persistently denied knowledge of his whereabouts. In 2019, the US government noted that Mir was “widely believed to reside in Pakistan under the protection of the State, despite government denials”. The US Country Reports on Terrorism for 2020 said, “Pakistan did not take action against other known terrorists such as JeM founder and UN-designated terrorist Masood Azhar and 2008 Mumbai attacks ‘project manager’ Sajid Mir, both of whom are believed to remain free in Pakistan”. Further, in 2021, a report by the US State Department said that while Pakistan had taken some steps to counter terror, it still had not stopped operations of terrorists like Mir.
Pakistan, which had as recently as December 2021 declared Mir to be “dead”, miraculously found the terrorist and arrested him on 21 April 2022, just a month before the FATF meeting in Berlin that was to decide on Pakistan’s retention on the grey list. In an unbelievably speedy trial completed just three weeks after he was arrested, an anti-terrorism court in Lahore convicted Mir on 16 May on terror-financing charges and sent him to Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail to serve three consecutive sentences totaling fifteen and a half years. According to a report in Pakistan’s Geo News, officials said that Mir was tried and convicted “quietly” given the sensitivities around the case. In the sentencing order, “Sajid Mir”, also known as “Sajid Majeed Chaudhury”, was sentenced to three terms under Pakistan’s Anti-Terror Act (ATA, 1997), including six months for being a member of the proscribed organization LeT, eight years for providing financing and property to the organization, and another seven years for knowingly providing support to the organizations for terrorist activity. He was also fined a total of Pakistani rupees 420,000 (approximately $2,000). The court documents provided no details of Mir’s involvement in terror financing, but the judge in the special anti-terrorism court reportedly said, “Keeping in view the prosecution evidence and circumstances of the case, the court is of the view that the accused is not entitled to any leniency and sentences must be severe”. Mir’s conviction came just three days before a meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on 19 May in New York, where they discussed Pakistan’s grey listing at the FATF.
The speed and the surreptitious nature of Mir’s trail raised a lot of suspicion and doubt among security experts. Even the Pakistani daily Dawn was taken aback. It wrote, “It all happened so quietly that no one came to know about such an important court verdict in such a high-profile case, except for a very brief report in one of the newspapers, which too could not attract attention. His detention, which apparently took place in later part of April, was also kept away from media’s prying eyes. Pakistani authorities, it should be recalled, had in the past claimed he had died, but Western countries remained unconvinced and demanded proof of his death. This issue rather became a major sticking point in FATF’s assessment of Pakistan’s progress on the action plan late last year. This was where things finally started moving in Mir’s case leading to his ‘arrest’”. The daily also wrote, “As Pakistani officials ticked items off their to-do list for submission of report to Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on the implementation of the action plan for getting out of its ‘grey-list’, something that strengthened their case was the conviction and sentencing of top Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist Sajid Majeed Mir”. Another Pakistani publication, The Nation, on 25 June quoted a top Pakistani officials as revealing that “This (Mir’s conviction) was a major demand by FATF for Pakistan to get out of the grey list”.
There was no immediate comment from India about Mir’s sentencing, possibly because the arrest, conviction and sentencing have not been formally announced by Pakistan. New Delhi, as also the kin of those killed in the Mumbai attacks, would, however, be justified in believing that the actions taken so far by Islamabad have done little to address their concerns regarding Pakistan’s failure to prosecute the Pakistan-based planners and masterminds behind the assault on India’s financial hub. They would point out that Mir was convicted for being a member of the banned LeT, raising funds for the group, and providing funds for terror activities, and not for his major role in the Mumbai attacks. The harsh reality is that Mir is yet to be tried or convicted for his substantial role in the Mumbai attacks, for which he was identified as having recruited and trained the LeT attackers, carried out reconnaissance operations, and directed the killings of innocents. As Sameer Patil, senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) put it, “The arrest of Sajid Mir doesn’t mean much for India as the charges for which he has been arrested are not those for which India is demanding accountability. Mir was clearly involved in the planning and execution of the Mumbai attacks and his sentencing doesn’t cover this dimension of his activities”.
It is notable that media reports have suggested that after the farcical conviction of Mir, Pakistan has also given a commitment to the FATF that it would act against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar and his brother Rauf Asghar for terror financing before the visit of the FATF team to Pakistan for the on-site visit mentioned earlier. The two terrorist leaders have apparently already been taken into custody. Just as in Mir’s case, the Pakistani military establishment had earlier taken the stand that it had no idea of where Masood Azhar might be located. It will be interesting to watch how Azhar’s trial plays out.
It is highly likely that the show that Pakistan is putting on to squeeze out of FATF’s clutches will only be transient. In Pakistan’s case, there is little reason to believe that even the sham actions that have been taken against terrorists such as Mir will be allowed to continue after the FATF moves on to fresh money launderers and terrorist financers in other parts of the world, leaving Pakistan in its wake. Tactics such as undoing terror convictions and freeing militants through appeals before higher courts have often been used by the country’s military establishment. As security experts have pointed out, both Mir and LeT founder Hafiz Saeed had been convicted and jailed in the past, only to be allowed to appeal before a higher court, where their conviction was held illegal, leading to their release. Actually, since 9/11 Saeed has been jailed at least nine times, only to be released weeks later. Cases of convicted terrorists such as Saeed and Mir being moved to their homes from the prisons where they are required by law to serve out their sentences are also common.
Pakistan’s intrinsic and deep reliance on terrorism as State policy will almost certainly manifest itself again after the FATF winds down its latest chapter in Pakistan; exactly when and in what form and shape are the only questions that remain unanswered.