ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani militant accused of directing deadly attacks in neighboring India on Tuesday dismissed a U.S. decision to put a bounty of $10 million on his head as misdirected.
The reward is for "information leading to the arrest and conviction" of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who founded the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba with alleged Pakistani support in the 1980s to pressure archenemy India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. The U.S. also offered up to $2 million for Lashkar-e-Taiba's deputy leader, Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, who is Saeed's brother-in-law.
Saeed, who has denied involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 160 people, said the U.S. announced the reward because of his demonstrations against reopening supply lines through Pakistan to NATO troops in Afghanistan.
"We are organizing massive public meetings to inform the nation about all the threats which Pakistan will face after the restoration of the supplies," he told The Associated Press in a mosque in Islamabad.
"With the grace of God, we are doing our work in Pakistan openly. It is regrettable that America has no information about me. Such rewards are usually for those who live in caves and mountains."
The bounty offers could complicate U.S.-Pakistan relations at a tense time. Pakistan's parliament is debating a revised framework for ties with the U.S. following American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November. Pakistan closed its supply lines to NATO troops in response.
Pakistan banned the group in 2002 under U.S. pressure, but it operates with relative freedom under the name of its social welfare wing Jamaat-ud-Dawwa – even doing charity work using government money.
The U.S. has designated both groups foreign terrorist organizations. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts say Lashkar-e-Taiba has expanded its focus beyond India in recent years and has plotted attacks in Europe and Australia. Some have called it "the next al-Qaida" and fear it could set its sights on the U.S.
The reward marks a shift in the long standing U.S. calculation that going after the leadership of an organization used as a proxy by the Pakistani military would cause too much friction with the Pakistani government.
The U.S. State Department describes Saeed as a former professor of Arabic and engineering who continues "to spread ideology advocating terrorism, as well as virulent rhetoric condemning the United States, India, Israel and other perceived enemies." It also noted that six of the 166 people killed in the 2008 attacks in the Indian city were American citizens.
A Pakistani-American, David Coleman Headley, pleaded guilty in a U.S. court to helping Lashkar-e-Taiba plan the Mumbai rampage targeting a hotel and other sites.
While there was no single incident or development that caused the U.S. to act now, the group has developed a more anti-Western agenda in recent years, with Westerners among the victims of the Mumbai attack, for example, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition to discuss classified matters.
The group made itself a target the U.S. could not ignore, by slowly expanding its lower-level working relationships with the Taliban, al-Qaida, and other militant groups, the official said.
The official said the Pakistani military had kept the group from achieving any high level coordination with al-Qaida as part of Pakistan's "attempts to constrain the group while preserving it as a reliable proxy."
Saeed's role in the group is to "provide strategic guidance to the group and delegates the details to his trusted commanders," making him a key target, the official said.
The 61-year-old Saeed operates openly in Pakistan from his base in the eastern city of Lahore and travels widely, giving public speeches and appearing on TV talk shows. He has been one of the leading figures of the Difa-e-Pakistan, or Defense of Pakistan Council, which has held a series of large demonstrations in recent months against the U.S. and India.
The reward for Saeed is one of the highest offered by the U.S. and is equal to the amount for Taliban chief Mullah Omar. Only Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as al-Qaida chief, fetches a higher bounty at $25 million.
The bounties were posted on the U.S. State Department Rewards for Justice website late Monday.
Pakistani defense analyst Hasan Askari-Rizvi said the move against Saeed could be payback for his recent demonstrations against U.S. drone strikes and allowing NATO supplies meant for troops in Afghanistan to travel through Pakistan.
Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna welcomed the U.S. announcement, saying it would signal to Lashkar-e-Taiba and its patrons that the international community remains united in fighting terrorism.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, which means Army of the Pure, belongs to the Salafi movement, an ultraconservative branch of Islam similar to the Wahhabi sect – the main Islamic branch in Saudi Arabia from which al-Qaida partly emerged. Lashkar-e-Taiba and al-Qaida operate separately but have been known to help each other when their paths intersect.
Analysts and terrorism experts agree that Pakistan's intelligence agency, known as the ISI, is still able to control Lashkar-e-Taiba, though the ISI denies it.
Associated Press writers Nirmala George in New Delhi and Matthew Lee and AP Intelligence Writer Kimberley Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.