After Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility for the Pulwama terrorist attack, that left at least 37 CRPF personnel dead, the spotlight has yet again shifted to its chief Maulana Masood Azhar and his renewed calls for “jihad against India”.
JeM has been behind most major attacks on the Indian security establishment over almost the last two decades, including the Uri and Pathankot attacks in 2016.
A senior officer of the J&K Police told ThePrint: “There is very little doubt that JeM is the strongest among all militant groups operating in J&K. While Lashkar-e-Taiba may be more visible, JeM has managed to get more support in Kashmir.”
India has repeatedly called for sanctions against the Jaish leader and has failed in its bid to enlist him as a “global terrorist”.
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Azhar, who was released by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in December 1999 in exchange for the release of the passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814, had emerged from years of seclusion to call for "jihad against India” in 2014.
Since then, as this Hindustan Times report points out, Azhar has openly called for resumption of the so-called “holy war” against India.
While addressing a rally at Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2014 over the phone, Azhar had made his intentions clear.
“There are 313 fidayeen in this gathering and if a call is given, the number will go up to 3,000,” he was quoted as saying at the time.
Death of Azhar’s Nephews
Thursday’s attack, however, could have been more personal to Azhar than his calls for a “holy war”.
On 3 January, The Print had reported quoting sources in the security establishment that Azhar had personally recruited Afghan war veteran and terrorist Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, to avenge the killing of his nephews by Indian forces.
Ghazi is an expert in Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the sources said, and is one of the JeM’s main trainers in PoK.
He is said to have infiltrated into Jammu and Kashmir on 9 December and is believed to be hiding in south Kashmir’s Pulwama region, the report added.
Usman Haidar, Azhar’s nephew, was killed by security forces following a day-long encounter at Tral in Pulwama on 30 October 2018. He was a wanted sniper and is believed to have been behind the spate of attacks on security forces in the Valley.
In November 2017, Talha Rasheed, Azhar's other nephew, was killed in an encounter alongside two other known terrorists in Pulwama. Security forces had also recovered a US-made M4 rifle, one AK-74 (type of AK-47) and a pistol from the encounter site.
Meanwhile, another report, in DNA, quotes sources as saying Azhar’s brother Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar could be the main conspirator behind the attack.
Inputs received by the agencies also suggest the JeM had been rebuilding its network in south Kashmir over the last three months, the report adds.
Pak Establishment’s Support
The Pulwama attack has yet again raised questions over the role of the Pakistan spy agency ISI in JeM’s rise, a former CIA analyst and South Asian expert has said.
“The self-proclaimed involvement of JeM in the attack raises serious questions about the role of the ISI in supporting the masterminds of this operation.”Bruce Riedel, former CIA analyst, told PTI
The terrorist attack, which has direct footprints inside Pakistan, poses the first major challenges to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, said Riedel, who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institute think-tank.
Many in the Indian security establishment have also long held the view that JeM’s resurgence could not have been successful without aid from the Pakistani establishment.
“Considered close to the Pakistan Army brass and the ISI, Azhar has been carrying on his anti-India activities from inside Pakistan with impunity,” The Print report adds.
This backing, of the Pakistani establishment, dates right back to his rally in PoK in 2014. Experts had said back then that such a massive gathering couldn’t have been organised within PoK without the sanction of Pakistan’s all-powerful military.
Azhar’s comeback, as the Hindustan Times report says, was followed by an increase in fund-raising and recruitment by the terror outfit in Pakistan’s Punjab province.
The organisation is also known to reach out to wealthy Pakistanis to raise funds for its activities.
A Firstpost report from June 2017 had revealed that JeM was in the process of secretly building a 15-acre complex on the outskirts of the city of Bahawalpur – five times the size of its existing headquarters.
The complex, the report said, could be used to train thousands of youth as militants.
JeM’s Expanding Footprint
The terror outfit has been expanding its footprint on the Valley by escalating its efforts to radicalise and recruit youth into militancy using technology.
The fact that Thursday’s attack was carried out by a 22-year-old youth who had joined militant ranks just a year ago can attest to this.
Adil Ahmad Dar, accused of carrying out one of the deadliest terrorist attacks the state has ever witnessed, lived just 10 kilometres away from the attack spot in Gundibagh.
In a video that surfaced online following the attack, Dar – seen dressed in tactical gear, holding rifles while seated in front of a JeM banner – said that he had prepared and waited for this moment (the Pulwama attack) for a year.
This, and other videos like it on social media, are often used to radicalise youth to recruit them. “He was highly radicalised and joined JeM while he was a student,” a police source had said.
The general officer commanding-in-chief of the northern command, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, had said recently that Pakistani forces have been using social media to mobilise support among the youth of Jammu and Kashmir to stir them towards militancy.
"Radicalisation is not only a concern in India but a global concern," Lt Gen Singh had told PTI.
A report in The Economic Times also reflected on how the security forces in Kashmir were coming across increasingly sophisticated militants that are “equipped with smartphones loaded with software that mimic popular social media and make the user difficult to track.”
Such operatives, indoctrinated and trained by Pakistan, are now using high-end technology including self-destructing software, encrypted messaging and tailor-made video calling applications, the report added.
China & India’s Azhar Stand at UN
China has, on several occasions, made clear its position on India’s request to list Azhar as a global terrorist by the UN, and said it will decide on the issue on the "merits of the matter".
These merits, however, have always been vague and Beijing has repeatedly blocked New Delhi’s attempts to list him as a “global terrorist” at the UN Security Council.
The most recent effort was blocked after the Pathankot air base attack of 2016. India proposed to designate Azhar as a terrorist under the aegis of the UNSC 1267 committee in February 2016 but China intervened at the behest of Pakistan, placing a “technical hold” on the move in March, October and December 2016.
Vivek Katju, former India diplomat who dealt with Pakistan, told The Indian Express, “After today’s attack, the Chinese prevarication on Masood Azhar reveals their dichotomous approach on terrorism, and it once again demonstrates that when it comes to terrorism, the Pakistani tail wags the Chinese dog.”
With inputs from Hindustan Times, The Print, DNA, Indian Express and PTI)