The history and allegiances of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the terrorist group allegedly responsible for the Pathankot airbase attack, may explain why Islamabad could find it easier to help New Delhi with the investigations — and, in the process, ensure that the recently resumed dialogue process doesn’t slip into a freeze similar to the one after 26/11.
In the spring of 2000, a 17-year-old schoolboy from downtown Srinagar, Afaq Ahmad, blew up an explosives-laden Maruti at the gate of the 15 Corps HQ in the city. The Valley’s first human bomb marked a new phase in the militancy, and made the deafening announcement of the arrival of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, formed weeks earlier by Maulana Masood Azhar, one of the terrorists released in exchange for the passengers and crew of IC-814 in Kandahar on the last day of 1999. Later, on Christmas Day 2000, a 24-year-old British cadre of the Jaish blew up another explosives-laden Maruti, again at the 15 Corps HQ gate. The bomber was subsequently profiled in the official Jaish publication, Zarb-e-Momin, putting Kashmir on the map of international jehad.
The tactics of Azhar’s group were different from the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s, which, while carrying out fidayeen attacks, avoided suicide missions due to the strong sanctions in Islam against suicide. Unlike the Lashkar, the Jaish shared an umbilical cord with the Taliban, and went against the Pakistani army after 9/11 changed the narrative in the region. Subsequent Jaish operations in India were so brazen that they threatened to push the two countries to war several times, and repeatedly put Islamabad in a spot.
The Jaish’s suicide attack on the Legislative Assembly in Srinagar soon after 9/11 was, in fact, the first attack in Kashmir that Pakistan officially condemned — the Islamabad Foreign Office actually using the word ‘terrorism’. Twenty-three local residents who had nothing to do with police or security personnel were killed, the most in a single attack until then, triggering across-the-board outrage in the Valley. The Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility within hours, and in an unusual step, identified the suicide bomber as Wajahat Hussain, a Pakistani national.
Jaish’s problems with the Pakistani establishment went out of hand after its members were found involved in two attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharaf in 2003. Members of the group were also involved in the 2007 Lal Masjid episode, which led to a weeklong operation by the Pak army against militants in the heart of Islamabad.
As it faced heat in Pakistan, the group lost ground in Kashmir. In early 2004, Indian intelligence agencies used a mole deep inside the Jaish to organise a meeting, in Lolab, of the group’s entire Kashmir brass, and killed them all. The Jaish struggled for years to get a foothold in Kashmir after that, and the J&K Police and other security agencies were able to consistently foil its plans. Sajad Afghani, the group’s Kashmir chief, was killed along with his associate Omar Bilal at Foreshore Road on the banks of Dal Lake in March 2011 — and four months later, a mole inside the Jaish created an opportunity for security forces to kill a group of Lashkar commanders along with one Jaish commander. The Jaish was subsequently seen as the militant group most infiltrated by security agencies in the Valley.
Afghani’s successor Qari Yasir, a resident of Pakistan’s Swat valley, was killed in July 2013 in Lolab, and was succeeded by Adil Pathan. Pathan was killed along with an associate, Abdul Rehman alias Chotta Burmi, a Burmese national, at Tral in October 2015. Pathan was the brother of the Jaish’s Pakistan-based operations chief Mufti Asghar, and a close associate of Gazi Baba, the alleged mastermind of the 2001 Parliament attack. Pathan had returned to Pakistan after Baba was killed in August 2003, but had returned to the Valley in 2012.
The Jaish had also tried to form a separate Kashmir group headed by a local Kashmir militant called Altaf Baba. But Altaf, who was a close associate of Sajad Afghani, was killed in July 2013 in Pulwama, again after the police received a pin-pointed input on his location. Currently, police sources say, only about five Jaish militants are active in the Valley, all in Kupwara. The group claimed responsibility for the November 2015 attack on the Tangdhar Brigade headquarters near the LoC, in which three militants were killed, but the Army and J&K Police rejected the claim.
Maulana Masood Azhar was born in Bahawalpur on July 10, 1968, the son of Allah Bakhsh Shabir, the headmaster of a government school. Azhar had 11 siblings — six sisters and five brothers — and the family ran a dairy and poultry farm in Kaunsar Colony in Bahawalpur.
In his book, The Virtues of Jehad, Azhar said his father had Deobandi leanings, and had admitted him to Karachi’s Binori madrassa, where, upon completion of his education, he became a teacher. Leaders of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, the renamed Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, enjoyed great influence at the madrassa, whose principal suggested that Azhar take part in a jehad training course in Afghanistan.
But Azhar was physically weak, and is said to have failed to complete his 40-day military training at a Harkat camp at Yavar in Afghanistan. But he joined the war against the Soviets nonetheless, and was injured. The Harkat then appointed him head of the department of motivation, in which capacity he started editing the Sada’e Mujahideen in Urdu and the Sawte Kashmir in Arabic.
He became close to Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil, head of Pakistan’s Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI), whose seminaries had nurtured and created both the Harkat and the Taliban. Azhar became the Harkat’s general secretary, and its best orator. He remained busy with the Harkat, the JUI’s pre-Taliban military wing, which introduced foreign cadres, especially Afghan war veterans, into Kashmir.
In his mission of ideological motivation, recruitment and fundraising, Azhar visited Zambia, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and the UK. His meeting with Mufti Ismail of a Southall mosque resulted in his visiting Mongolia and Albania. He also visited Nairobi, Kenya.
In January 1994, Azhar flew into New Delhi from Dhaka as a Gujarat-born Portuguese national, Wali Adam Issa. He checked into The Ashok, moved to Hotel Janpath, and then left for Deoband with two Harkat men from Kashmir. He subsequently flew to Srinagar and met Harkat commanders Sajad Afghani and Amjad Bilal in the Lalbazaar area of downtown Srinagar. South Kashmir was then a hub of Harkat activities, and Azhar, along with Afghani, went to Anantnag to meet their men. On February 10, security forces nabbed Afghani and him in Khanabal.
The Harkat made several unsuccessful attempts to get them out of jail. The Al Faran kidnappers of the five Western trekkers in South Kashmir in 1995 demanded their release. A jailbreak was attempted and foiled. Azhar was finally released along with Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar in the wake of IC-814.
Azhar’s links with the Taliban were cemented during the hijack drama. In an article, From Imprisonment to Freedom, written soon after his release, Azhar said that he was greeted by Maulvi Mohammad Akhtar Usmani, the Taliban Kandahar corps commander. After an attempt to create a conglomerate of all jehadi groups failed, Azhar formed the Jaish, bringing together the Harkat cadre loyal to him.
After al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States changed the dynamics of the Kashmir militancy, the Jaish went against Pakistan’s interests in Kashmir. The October 1, 2001 suicide bombing of the Srinagar Assembly, in which 38 people were killed, was seen as the Jaish’s protest against Musharraf’s U-turn on the Taliban after 9/11. After the Parliament attack, India sought 20 most wanted from Pakistan — and Azhar topped the list. Pakistan arrested him, but released him in December 2002 — he was, however, forced to curtail his activities and stay low-key. After a suicide attack targeted Musharraf on December 14, 2003, a crackdown followed, and the Jaish soon disappeared from the militancy scene in Kashmir.
For all these years, Azhar hasn’t been allowed to move out of his home. Why would the Jaish be allowed to return to centrestage again? Where was this fresh attempt to push India and Pakistan towards hostility scripted? The answers to these questions are not clear yet. What is clear though, is that for Islamabad, Jaish is not the same as Lashkar.