Little ado about Qari Saifullah Akhtar’s arrest

A big catch goes unnoticed

It is amusing to see the international media report the capture of Baitullah Mehsud’s two-bit spokesman as a headline story and if at all, somewhere towards the end of the page, mention that Qari Saifullah, the allegedly late Mr Mehsud’s “close aide” had also been taken into custody. Amusing because if the Qari Saifullah who was apprehended in Islamabad is really the Qari Saifullah Akhtar as he appears to be, then he’s really a big fish. A bigger fish than Mr Mehsud himself.

Mr Akhtar is the leader of Harkat-ul-Jihad-Islami, an organisation that is the link between al-Qaeda, Mullah Omar’s Taliban and the Pakistani military establishment. His curriculum vitae is long and varied and ranges from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, to carrying out terrorist attacks in Jammu & Kashmir, to attempting to topple the Pakistani government, to helping Mullah Omar first fight the Northern Alliance and then the United States. More recently, he has been accused of attempting to assassinate Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and of carrying out the attack on the Islamabad Marriott in 2008. Did we mention he believes that he is “a Khalifa who has the traits of both Syed Ahmed Shaheed and Ahmad Shah Abdali”—a religious ideologue and warrior rolled into one?

You would think that such a man’s arrest should make headlines in Pakistan and elsewhere. So far, it hasn’t. Three of Pakistan’s biggest English newspapers have brief reports about his capture and four-day judicial remand. The Pakistani authorities do not seem too keen to play it up, perhaps because they are unsure whether they’ll have to let him go for—you guessed it—the lack of evidence. Yet what Pakistan does with Mr Akhtar important. “If the United States yet again proves unable to ensure Akhtar’s prosecution,” a senior Union Home Ministry official told The Hindu’s Praveen Swami, “we have almost no reason to expect there will be credible action against anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.”

Given the state he was found in—badly injured in a drone strike—Mr Akhtar’s ‘arrest’ is probably going to save his life. It is pertinent to ask whether his arrest was motivated by a desire to bring him to justice, or merely restore him to his health.

Update: At least according to one source, Mr Akhtar was ‘arrested’ a month ago.