Erich Weiss — Harry Houdini, to his legions of fans — then had his assistants move the box around, demonstrating to the audience that it had no secret doors or exits. Then, he clapped his hands, the chains fell off, and the doors swung open: Jenny, almost three metres tall and weighing 2,500 kilograms, had disappeared.

The attempted assassination of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed in Lahore on Wednesday has exposed the Pakistani intelligence services’ own version of the magic trick — the vanishing jihadist.

Fifteen months ago, in February 2020, Saeed was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms of five and half each, for financing terrorism. Later, in November, he was sentenced to two more five-year sentences, which he was to serve concurrently.

The judge also ordered the seizure of Saeed’s properties, and imposed an additional sentence of six months for his membership to a proscribed group. Minutes after Wednesday’s bombing near his home in Lahore’s Johar Town, though, the United Nations-sanctioned terrorist was evacuated under escort from his own home by the Punjab Rangers — with police following up to confiscate local residents’ closed circuit camera systems, in an effort to sweep up the evidence.

The assassination attempt failed, but it’s blown open the story of how Pakistan hid the man responsible for the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, and a trail of slaughter running from Afghanistan to the Maldives.

No Official Admission Saeed Was Present In House

Forty kilograms of military-grade explosive packed with ball-bearings, hidden inside a car, went off at a police picket some 150 metres away from Saeed’s home, at the end of a lane leading off from the main road.

The bomb exploded just as members of the multinational Financial Action Task Force (FATF) were to begin a meeting in Paris to consider removing Pakistan from its so-called ‘Grey List’— a watchlist that mandates additional surveillance of international banking transactions involving the country.

Islamabad was scheduled to demonstrate, in response to FATF demands, that its terror financing investigations and prosecutions are effectively targeting United Nations-designated terrorists. Prime Minister Imran Khan warned, last year, that failing to do so — and thus risk being placed on the FATF ‘Black List’— could shatter Pakistan’s economy.

The conviction of Saeed — and his aides Abdul Rehman Makki, Zafar Iqbal, and Yahya Mujahid — was intended to be the showpiece of Pakistan’s case. Western governments had welcomed Saeed’s conviction, saying it demonstrated a new resolve in Pakistan’s fight against terrorism.

“Today’s conviction of Hafiz Saeed and his associate is an important step forward — both toward holding Lashkar-e-Taiba accountable for its crimes, and for Pakistan in meeting its international commitments to combat terrorist financing”, United States state department official Alice Wells had said.

Following the February conviction though, Saeed had been quietly moved out of Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail and moved back to his white, three-storey home at 116E Johar Town, which was designated a sub-jail.

Indian intelligence officials claim he received several visitors, including the military commander of the 26/11 attacks, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi.

For years, Pakistani authorities had repeatedly arrested Saeed on terrorism-related charges — generally in response to crisis with India — only to release him within weeks or months. Saeed was arrested on December 21, 2001, and then released on March 31, 2001; arrested on May 31, 2002, released on October 31, 2002; arrested on August 9, 2006, released on August 28, 2006; arrested on August 28, 2006, and released on October 17, 2006; arrested on January 31, 2017, and released on November 22, 2017.

“Even if Saeed is technically not roaming the streets, the government of Pakistan’s inability to win the legal case against him is embarrassing,” then United States ambassador Anne Patterson wrote in a diplomat cable to the State Department.

“Realising the importance of Saeed’s detention, [then-Prime Minister Yusuf Raza] Gilani and [Interior Minister Rehman] Malik are determined to use any law or means to keep him confined to his home,” she asserted.

Finally, in January 2018, Saeed was placed under house arrest, for “activities prejudicial to public order”, and was rearrested in 2019, prior to his conviction. The terrorist’s conviction, world leaders were told, signalled Pakistan’s commitment to break with its jihadist proxies.

Video taken by local residents, shows how savagely the veil was pulled off that claim. The bomb tore through some 40 adjoining buildings, blowing out walls along a 750-metre stretch and destroying parked cars.

Two bodies — one alleged to be of a Lashkar cadre — can be seen in the footage. Over a dozen people were seriously injured. Saeed himself, however, seems to have been unharmed. Inam Ghani, Punjab’s Inspector-General of Police, admitted that the attack targeted a “high-profile personality”, and claimed that the presence of a police picket on the road prevented “a major loss”.

There has been no official admission Saeed was present in the house, but the fact that there was a police picket blocking all public access to the road is of obvious significance.

Foreign Hand?

Talking to the media, Ghani blamed a “foreign hand” for executing the bombing. In recent months, Pakistan has blamed India for multiple terrorist attacks. In this case, though, the Research and Analysis Wing is far from a possible suspect. Even though the Lashkar did not carry out major terrorist strikes in India after Saeed’s release, evidence exists that it has been active in other regional theatres of conflict.

In a 2020 report, the United Nations expert group monitoring sanctions against the Taliban and al-Qaeda reported that it facilitated the “trafficking of terrorist fighters into Afghanistan, who act as advisers, trainers and specialists in improvised explosive devices”.

The sanctions monitoring group also said the Lashkar was “responsible for carrying out targeted assassinations against government officials and others”.

Saeed’s son, Talha Saeed, narrowly escaped assassination in a bombing on Lahore’s fringes in 2019. At least seven other Lashkar supporters were critically injured in the attack. The bombing, targeting a religious meeting at the Jamia Masjid Ali-o-Murtaza on Muhammad Ali Road in Lahore’s Township neighbourhood, was earlier described by Pakistan as an accidental gas cylinder explosion.

For the past several years, India’s Research and Analysis Wing is believed to have slowly escalated the tempo of covert operations against jihadist groups inside Pakistan, targeting training camps, key field commanders and logistics facilities. There’s no evidence RAW had anything to do with Wednesday’s strike — but should it be involved, the attempted assassination of the Lashkar leader would mark a significant step up in lethality and reach.

Exactly how the Lashkar and its patrons in the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate might respond is unclear. The Lashkar has the demonstrated capacity to stage complex suicide-attacks and bombings inside Kashmir.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, is, however, believed to be leading secret negotiations with India on an end to the crisis in Kashmir. Retaliatory attacks in Kashmir would, clearly, damage the effort.

Islamabad’s options will, moreover, be constrained by the embarrassment of having to explain to the FATF why a convicted terrorist — still sought by both the United States and India for his role in 26/11 — was living at home, instead of prison.

For the moment, the West is unlikely to step up pressure on Pakistan to act: General Bajwa’s help is key to reining-in Taliban jihadists in Afghanistan, and ensuring that the country’s fragile government survives the withdrawal of United States troops.

Even though the assassination attempt missed Saeed, it may have hit its intended target: General Bajwa’s claims to sever the country’s links with jihadists, and taking Pakistan on a new strategic course, will be treated with even greater scepticism than before.