Importance of Balakot & Why India Was Strategic In Targeting It
A pre-dawn strike by the Indian Air Force on Tuesday, 26 February, against terror camps of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), has resulted in a propaganda war on both sides. While India caught Pakistan unawares 12 days after the Pulwama suicide bombing that killed over 40 CRPF personnel in Kashmir, Islamabad, in embarrassment, pledged retaliation at a place and time of their choosing.
One of the PAF jets was reportedly shot down by India, three kilometers within the Pakistan territory. On the other hand, Pakistan has claimed shooting down two IAF jets and arresting one Indian pilot. IAF has not issued any official statement thus far.
Yet, the bottom line has been the unprecedented non-military ‘preemptive’ strike, carefully planned by India's top security and defence apparatus on Maulana Masood Azhar's terror army. The deadliest terror organisation Indian forces have ever encountered.
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What We Know About Balakot
Intelligence sources indicate that a very close watch was being kept on terror training camps, launch pads and several seminaries used for indoctrination of youth in Balakot, Bhawalpur, Peshawar, Sialkot and few areas within Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Not only did the dossier prepared by multiple agencies in India specifically have names of the ring leaders of the JeM and their cadre, but also their National ID details, contact numbers and pinpoint locations, apart from the video and audio evidence of regular claims of terror attacks, radicalisation and training sessions.
While Balakot was in fact the very first terror training centre initiated by Masood Azhar after his release from India, several documented evidences accessed through intelligence sources indicate the extent of a free hand the Pakistani Army had given to JeM, to operate at the Jabba Top of New Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of late, yet again beginning a new cycle of a jihadist factory, to launch attacks against India in Jammu & Kashmir.
JeM’s 2018 ‘Azmat-e-Quran’ Conference
JeM, sometime in mid-2018, organised an ‘Azmat-e-Quran’ conference at JeM's training centre ‘Markaz-o-Madrassa Taleem ul Quran’ also addressed as ‘Markaz Syed Ahmad Shaheed’, at Balakot Road of Jabba, in Mansehra district, KPK, Pakistan.
Masood Azhar's closest aides and relatives, Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar (Amir and the Head of JeM Ops), Talha Saif (Head of the Propagation Wing) and Mufti Asghar Kashmiri (Head of Ops in Kashmir), addressed a mammoth gathering of approximately 10,000. In his address, Abdul Rauf announced to target Somnath temple and the land of Babri Masjid and Srinagar Assembly. He added that JeM cadres would cross mountains, sea-routes and deserts, to reach their ultimate destination of Jammu and Kashmir.
During his address, he also took names of scores of JeM terrorists killed in J&K during 2017-18. It was here that Abdul Rauf announced to avenge the killing of Talha Rasheed, who was killed by security forces in an encounter in Pulwama in November 2017, on the scale which would be larger than JeM’s avenging the killing of Afzal Guru.
He also said that JeM already had purchased weapons on 31 March 2018 for the forthcoming attack. While the grand session was underway, a video of youth training amidst jihadi slogans and jumping through giant fire rings, was also recorded.
How JeM Trains Its Cadre
Jaish, under the direct command of ISI, followed a strict military grade training discipline for its students, and equal time was divided between religious indoctrination and physical training.
The students, in the usual 40-day long training sessions, were taught extensive handling of pistols, AK-47s, LMG, rocket launchers, UBGL and grenades, besides lessons on the Quran, Hadith and physical training. The stairs of this camp were painted with flags of US, UK and Israel to develop a certain rage and hatred in the students. Situated on the banks of the river Kunhar at a distance of nearly 18 miles from Mansehra, the location was an added advantage, as it was a forested belt away from civilian population.
Intelligence agencies gather, that at any given point in time, the Balakot training camp has more than 250 terror commanders and cadres in training session, and that’s why, India's highly sophisticated airstrikes might have resulted in a high casualty for JeM, apart from crushing their biggest terror camp to ground.
Imran Khan Will Have to Douse Fire on Many Fronts
Even as hours into the strike, the Pakistani government and the Army finally accepted the strike as a ‘blatant violation by India’, after initial attempts to divert attention towards another area near LoC named Balakot, Jaish, dutifully towing the Pakistan Army narrative, also released a two minute clip of Talha Saif from his Peshawar base, indicating that there wasn't any attack or at least an impact of it on JeM.
As Pakistan now battles a perception war on global forums from FATF to UNSC and even the OIC, the Jaish presence on its soil becoming even more clear, and several eye witness accounts corroborating it, means that Imran Khan will have to douse fire on several fronts amidst economic crises, domestic political pressure for revenge, and escalation of tension across the LoC.
JeM, which had taken center stage in cross-border terror attacks in the last three years, while Lashkar-e-Taiba took a backseat, could now remain a silent spectator for a while, at a time when the world is carefully monitoring its next steps.
Yet, it would be naive to believe that JeM can't rise again with the blessings and sponsorship of the Pakistani Army and the ISI, which has already invested considerably in the group for the last two decades. While Pakistan's credibility is further deteriorating with the IAF air strikes, India will have to tighten its internal security apparatus in Kashmir, and remain even more cautious of the proxy terror factory for Kashmiri jihad hidden behind a smokescreen for now.
(Aditya Raj Kaul has a decade long experience in covering conflict, internal security and foreign policy for various national media outlets. He tweets at @AdityaRajKaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)