IN the hours after he learned that a nephew had been shot dead in a remote Kashmir village, Masood Azhar Alvi began writing a strange elegy to violent death: “The martyr’s sins are forgiven when the first drop of his blood falls”, he wrote, “and he is spared the agony of the grave, the terrors of the day of judgment; he is married to seventy two virgins; his family granted God’s mercy. His head wears a crown of honour, any one of the gems studding it more valuable than all this world”.
This week’s killing of teenage jihadist Talha Rashid in an encounter at the village of Aglar Kandi, near Pulwama, has been seen as evidence that Azhar’s Jaish-e-Muhammad is emerging, again, as a significant actor on Kashmir’s jihadist stage. The data show it isn’t — its competitors, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, remain the principal forces waging the Kashmir jihad.
But Talha Rashid’s death helps understand the real significance of the Jaish. For years now, it has functioned as the hard core of the Kashmir jihad, focussing on dramatic operations like the attacks on Parliament House and the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in 2001, the Indian diplomatic mission in Mazar-e-Sharif, and the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot last year.
Each of its major operations has had strategic consequences for India-Pakistan relations, in ways that those of other terrorist groups haven’t. Now, with Kashmir’s jihadists battered by the highest numbers of fatalities they have suffered since 2010, its role is more important than ever.
The story of the young jihadist killed in Aglar Kandi features this week in the Jaish’s weekly magazine, al-Qalam, in an article published alongside Azhar’s thoughts on martyrdom. Talha Saif, Azhar’s kin and close aide, records that Rashid approached him last year, saying his parents had granted him permission to join the jihad in Kashmir. They had, however, imposed one condition: that Rashid first quality as an alim, or religious scholar, before he left — a sign, possibly, that the young man had little interest in his faith before then.
“I won’t study this year, and instead spend it getting myself fit through training,” the young jihadist begged Talha Saif. “Then, I’ll come back at the end of the year, study a bit, and pass the exam.”
Early this year, intelligence sources say, Talha Rashid was despatched across the Line of Control as part of a group of around two dozen Jaish — a squad chosen to stage periodic fidayeen operations, to shore up the morale of local jihadists. The men, mainly in their mid-20s, and sometimes veterans with past records in Kashmir, have carried out some of the most high-profile actions this year — among them, an attack in Pulwama that claimed the lives of eight police personnel, and a strike near Srinagar airport.
“I could argue with Rashid,” Talha Saif wrote, “but not with his honest tears. He only wanted martyrdom”.
Talha Rashid’s trajectory contrasts, in some respects, with that of his chief. The child of a cleric — one of five sons and six daughters — Masood Azhar dropped out of school after class 8, and joined the Jamia Islamia seminary in Karachi. He studied uninterrupted until 1989, graduating as an alim. Later, Azhar was sent to train at the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s camp in Yawar, Afghanistan, but he could not complete the 40-day course as he was overweight.
In the years that followed, Azhar travelled the world, raising funds from Somalia to the United Kingdom, before his arrest in India in 1994. Freed from prison in return for the lives of passengers on the hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814 at the end of 1999, he went on to found the Jaish — now housed in a sprawling, 10 acre campus in Bahawalpur.
Hard data on the Jaish’s presence in Kashmir do not exist — but figures that are available suggest that expanding its base there isn’t one of the organisation’s priorities. Between January 1 and October 31 this year, 182 terrorists have been killed in Jammu & Kashmir, including 102 foreign terrorists. Sixty nine of the foreign terrorists could not be identified because no identifying particulars were recovered. Twenty one, however, were conclusively identified as members of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and 12 of the Jaish. Last year, no killed terrorist was identified definitely as Jaish; the Lashkar, by contrast, lost 13 men. In 2015, both groups lost six each.
In South Kashmir, the heartland of the Jaish campaign, only 11 of the terrorists killed so far this year belonged to Jaish — even though for the group itself, this has been its worst year in terms of casualties in over a decade. Last year, Jammu & Kashmir Police figures show, the corresponding numbers were five out of 35; in 2015, eight out of 34; and in 2014, two out of 23. No Jaish militant was among the 10 each killed in 2013 and 2012; in 2011, they were three out of 18.
For the most part, the group operates through the Hizb, using the mainly ethnic Kashmiri group’s networks to facilitate the logistics needed to stage fidayeen strikes. Hizb field commanders like Riyaz Naikoo, Saddam Padder and Altaf Kachru have all collaborated with the Jaish, although the group maintains a distance from their cadre.
Khalid Tantray, a Tral resident sentenced to life imprisonment in 2003 and released from prison on parole in 2015, is believed by Kashmir-based intelligence officials to be among the few ethnic Kashmiris entrenched in the Jaish.
From the point of view of Pakistan’s intelligence services, the Jaish is a crucial tool. Ever since 26/11, the Lashkar — and its ties to Pakistani intelligence — have been under intense international scrutiny. As it now nudges the Lashkar leadership into becoming a pro-army Islamist political force, the value of the Jaish as an instrument of covert warfare has increased for the intelligence establishment.
Since 2010, the Jaish has worked hard to attract cadre like Talha Rashid — young men who, unlike the Lashkar’s rank-and-file, often have a rigorous religious education and hail from families with long jihadist traditions. Emerging from years of repression under General Pervez Musharraf — who sought to shut down the group after it challenged his efforts to make a deal with India on Kashmir — the organisation purged leaders who had flirted with al-Qaeda, and set about rebuilding its infrastructure.
Ghulam Murtaza, a veteran jihadist, was given charge of the al-Rahmat Trust, a charity once run by Allah Baksh, the father of Masood Azhar. The trust began soliciting funds in Pakistan and the Gulf monarchies to build mosques and seminaries. In 2010, a Jaish publication said the trust was paying pensions to the families of at least 850 imprisoned or killed jihadists.
Last year, The Indian Express revealed that Jaish cadre were openly raising funds in Karachi, even though the organisation has been banned since 2002. Its leaders have also been speaking at functions held to commemorate cadre killed in Kashmir, urging new recruits to volunteer to fight.
After the Pathankot Air Base attack last year, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to rein in the Jaish by placing Masood Azhar under what was called “protective detention”. The effort failed — the Jaish’s patrons in the Pakistan military have made sure no prosecution against the perpetrators has taken place.
Few believe that is going to change any time soon.