Hafiz Muhammad Saeed: 'Do I look like a terrorist?'

The banned Islamist militant organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba has been branded 'the next al-Qa'ida'. In a remarkable encounter in the Pakistani city of Lahore, the group's founder tells Robert Fisk he runs a charity, not a feared network which has Western targets in its sights

For America, the European Union and India, he is the most wanted man in Pakistan, the founder and leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the "Army of the Righteous", blamed for the mass killing of 188 civilians, 54 of them women and children, in Mumbai in 2008, for three assaults on Delhi, for the deaths of 211 civilians in a 2005 train bombing also in Mumbai, and last month's suicide attack on Indians in Kabul.

His "army" has been banned as a "terrorist organisation" by the US, the EU, the UN Security Council, Russia, India, Pakistan and Australia. But when Hafiz Muhammad Saeed walks into the bedroom-cum-office of a small suburban house in Lahore, he is all smiles, a white cap on his head, his straggling black Salafist-style beard spreading over his white gown, urging me to eat the biscuits and apricot-topped cream-cake lying on the glass table between us.

He smiles; he occasionally laughs; he wearily takes off his thick-framed brown glasses and lays them on the bed; he talks of the need to "liberate" all of Kashmir, and he produces copious files to show me that the Lahore High Court could not prove he was a violent man, let alone the leader of the "Army of the Righteous". Indeed, he says, he is merely the leader of a charitable organisation, the Jama'at-ud-Da'wah – the "Group of Preaching" – one of the largest welfare NGOs in Pakistan, with 2,000 offices and a reputation as an earthquake and flood relief agency.

For so hated a man, Saeed seems easy-going. I am the first western journalist to meet him. But a tall man with deep-set, dark eyes – presumably a bodyguard – does not bother to search me as I enter the building. Is Saeed over confident? Or is he relying on the two uniformed Pakistani policemen at the entrance, one holding an AK47 assault rifle, the other standing behind a belt-fed machine gun mounted on a pile of sandbags. Are they there to guard against him as a potential enemy of the state – or to protect him? Saeed spends much of the time – when not eating lunch on the floor beside me – sitting on the bed in his office, raising his voice to drown out the air conditioner thumping away in the corner.

"Soon after the Russians evacuated and lost the war in Afghanistan, there were different movements that started in Kashmir – 12 different organisations started at that time, 1990," he says. "Lashkar-e-Taiba was one of those organisations that joined the struggle for the independence of Kashmir. We had so many people and we found the people from Lashkar-e-Taiba were honest and more hard-working than others."

But was Saeed not in Afghanistan? "From the very beginning," he replies, "we were strongly against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan – we thought the people of Afghanistan had been occupied. We supported them and supported the people who were fighting against the occupation and the occupiers. Yes, I went to Afghanistan, I visited to see the situation for myself. But I did not belong to the fighters – I went there because I supported them. We believe that Lashkar are justified in their fight for freedom (in Kashmir). And just like we believe that the Russian occupation (of Afghanistan) was not justified, we believe that the Americans and Nato must leave."

And did he not meet Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan? "Some time in the 1980s, I saw him during the Haj (at Mecca in Saudi Arabia). I saw him only once. I was close to him during the prayers. We greeted each other. It was very simple. It was very brief. There was not much talk."

It all sounds like an admission that Saeed was indeed a Lashkar leader, until he interrupts my questions. "This is one of the biggest falsehoods – that I was said to be the founder," he says angrily. "This is the result of Indian propaganda. The Lahore High Court thoroughly investigated this accusation and they found it was not true. Before 2001, the Pakistan government used to refer very openly – politically and morally – to all those organisations that were fighting for the independence of Kashmir. They included Lashkar-e-Taiba – they had offices here and in Multan and Islamabad. On 12 January 2002, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other organisations, including Jaish-e-Mohammad (the "Army of Mohammad"), were banned. We continued to work under the banner of Jama'at-ud-Da'wah – our organisation is not banned and we are still working under the same name."

It sounds a bit like the old Sinn Fein line: that Sinn Fein is a political movement while the IRA is an armed resistance – and never the twain shall meet. But Saeed is aware of the bruising he has had at the hands of journalists and US members of Congress. Earlier this month, Newsweek described Lashkar – "virulently anti-Jewish ... rabidly anti-Hindu" – as "the next al-Qa'ida", quoting the director of US national intelligence Dennis Blair as saying that Lashkar was "placing Western targets in Europe in its sights".

The US State Department "anti-terror" official Daniel Bergman called Lashkar "a truly malign presence in South Asia." The chairman of the US House of Representatives subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, Gary Ackerman, announced that "this bunch of savages needs to be crushed. The LeT is a deadly serious group of fanatics. They are well-financed, ambitious and, most disturbingly, both tolerated by and connected to the Pakistan military."

Saeed plays this for what it's worth. "You have come to see me because I am in the news everywhere, I am in Newsweek and talked about in the US Congress. But the majority of these ideas come from Indian propaganda. They make me out to be the biggest and most evil terrorist. These people you talk about as evil – no court tried them. No evidence was ever put against them. There was no investigation – nobody was ever tried in the courts in Pakistan. I was tried here six times – each time they decided I was not a terrorist. The last court never tried to put evidence against me."

At this point, an aide enters and hands me four bound files on the Jama'at's charitable works, records of the Lahore court hearings against Saeed and a glowing biography of the man himself. It is perfectly true that Saeed's men did rescue Kashmir earthquake victims in 2005, sometimes arriving on scenes of carnage before the Pakistani authorities. Jama'at claims to have rescued 183 victims alive, treated more than half a million survivors in its field hospitals, and clothed more than 12,000 more.

The High Court documents make grimmer reading. They record the evidence of the Lahore Police District Co-ordination Officer – acting, it seems, on evidence from the UN – that he was "satisfied that certain desperate and dangerous persons are moving at large (in Pakistan), instigating and brain-washing the youth to undertake undesirable activities ... and assisting the incitement of hatred and contempt against different segments of the society". Defence lawyers publicly recognised that Saeed was being accused of the Mumbai massacre and links to Al-Qa'ida.

Saeed raises his voice when he talks about these accusations. "We are Pakistanis and our organisations work under the law of Pakistan," he says. "Even though we try to abide by Pakistani law, there have been such serious allegations that I was put under arrest. A lot of people who live round my house were arrested. My movements were restricted. My freedom of speech was restricted. All these limits have been put on me because of the pressure of foreign governments. It isn't important that I happen to be a Pakistani citizen. I did not violate any Pakistani law. I am restricted only because India wants me to be restricted."

But Saeed now feels triumphant. "The Pakistan government has been in court against me and it lost its case against me. There are two cases still in the Lahore High Court. They are allegations about the Mumbai attacks – that I was involved. There have been six cases. One is now in the Supreme Court. The Americans and the Indians, they want us to fight with our government. They are very close to the Pakistani establishment. But we strongly believe we should not fight against the Pakistan authorities."

So who is Saeed? He was born during the bloodshed of Partition; his parents were fleeing north to the new state of Pakistan. Now a professor at the Engineering University of Lahore and formerly chairman of the Department of Islamic Studies, he says he visited Britain in 1995, lecturing on Kashmir and violations of UN resolutions at Islamic centres in London, Birmingham and Rochdale. He is the father of two daughters and a son.

There's a cringe-inducing paragraph at the beginning of his own official CV which needs to be reproduced in full to appreciate the vanity of a man internationally accused of mass murder. "Professor Saeed," it says, is "Teacher. Guide. Philanthropist. Humanitarian. Advocate of tolerance, freedom of thought and worship and high moral values. Can't stand for [sic] religious fanaticism, acts of violence, oppression and the killing of the innocent, armless [sic] people, whosoever." The mistaken use of "armless" for harmless comes as a bit of a shock.

His own explanation to me is only a little less full of self-regard. "I am a simple Muslim and I happen to be head of Jama'at-ud-Dawah and my mission is to educate people about Islam and tell them that Islam is a religion of peace," he preaches. "I try to follow Islam and people should know the true peace of Islam.... We speak about the rights of people. We do not shut our eyes to Kashmir and Palestine and we speak about the rights of Muslims wherever we are. We don't just speak about the religion..."

When I asked if Lashkar had issued a "fatwa" against Pope Benedict XVI for his criticism of Islam in a speech at Regensburg, the angry reply made no distinction between Lashkar and the Jama'at – nor between the Pope's remarks and the Danish newspaper which published cartoons vilifying the Prophet Mohamed. "We were very strong in showing our reaction to that statement (of the Pope). We announced it to be the biggest insult to our Prophet Mohamed. We mobilised people and staged a huge protest... When someone insults the Prophet, we take it very seriously. We believe in the sanctity of every prophet. When Jesus was insulted in India, we condemned it. Is it justified that you insult our Prophet?... Do you think it is for 'freedom of expression' that they published those cartoons? When we [sic] respond – and if there is, unfortunately, violence – then we are 'terrorists' and extremists. What have the European governments done to stop this? It could lead to violence and extremism. Europe is playing with the emotions of Muslims."

Saeed has bought into the widely discredited Pakistani version of the Mumbai slaughter: that the killings were part of an internal Indian insurgency. "Soon after the Mumbai attacks", Saeed said, "there was an organisation called the Deccan Army which claimed responsibility. But within no time, India blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba and India did not even pay attention to the claim from the Deccan Army. This 'proof' was not accepted by the (Pakistani) court. They found there was no evidence for the claims against us... Soon after the Mumbai attacks, we called a press conference. We said we were not involved. We condemned this."

But what of the surviving Mumbai attacker, Ajmal Amir Kasab, who said he worked for Lashkar-e-Taiba? There is a pause. Saeed speaks slowly. "He has been giving different stories ... In court, he gave this statement. He has been saying so many things – we do not know. Do you think that it is fair that you base everything on this man who is in custody?" Perhaps Saeed notices that I am not impressed.

"In order to understand, you have to realise the precise situation between India and Pakistan. There is a deep conflict. India has been trying to support the separatists in Baluchistan. There are so many insurgencies going on in India itself, dividing and separating the country. Kashmir has been fighting for freedom.

"We support Muslim peoples. What will happen in the future? I have some expectations. Afghanistan is a free country, free of every foreign occupier. Pakistan should be free from foreign influence. Kashmir will be independent. We expect this Muslim area will have freedom – and free rights. I'm talking about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Do you realise this region contains the largest Muslim population in the world, with 500 million Muslims?"

I ask Saeed the same question I once asked Osama bin Laden. Is he frightened he will be assassinated? He has obviously thought about this. "I truly believe that my life and my death are in the hands of Allah. As long as he wishes me to be alive – and to continue with my mission – I am in his hands."

Bin Laden would have been a bit smarter than this. Bin Laden did not conceal his anger, explained precisely his intention to destroy America, and always carried an AK-47 during interviews. In Lahore, it was the policemen outside who carried guns and Saeed who constantly announced his peaceful intentions.

The Americans believe that in Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Pakistan has created a Frankenstein's monster. Perhaps. But Saeed is no Bin Laden.

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