The crowd had gathered for prayer on the last Friday in January at the Jamia Masjid Usmania — it is one of three in the village of Gumtala in Pakistan Punjab — in memory of a man whose only obituary records just a single name, Tahir, killed somewhere in India and buried in a grave with no headstone. “Islam is a world power and cannot be destroyed,” the cleric who led the congregation said, “whoever tries to destroy it will be destroyed himself. He went on: “Jihad is the most important obligation of our faith.”
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For the past three months, that man — “General of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Mufti General of Jaish-e-Mohammad Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar”, as the terrorist group’s house journal al-Qalam, identifies him — has been holding similar rallies across Pakistan, openly recruiting new cadre and raising funds.
Even as Islamabad sought to signal its commitment to act against terrorism last month by detaining Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, and saying it was considering proscribing its parent political group, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Jaish has emerged centrestage on the jihadi landscape.
The Jaish is proscribed in Pakistan, and its chief Masood Azhar Alvi, Asghar’s elder brother, has been detained in an Islamabad house, after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif conceded it carried out last year’s terrorist attack at the Pathankot airbase. But on ground, the group is operating with growing impunity.
In tehsil Yazman of Bahawalpur, another report records, the Jaish ideologue Abdul Rasheed delivered a Friday sermon, where he introduced the organisation to the 400-strong congregation. The cleric spoke, it says, of the “painful story of the sufferings of the Muslim nation, and called on the people to join jihad to protect the people of the faith”. “The lecture had a strange impact on the people,” the report goes on, “and many promised to give active support to jihad.”
“Fifty people”, the report concludes cryptically, “later met to discuss hard work and organisational matters.”
Al-qalam, sold across Pakistan for a modest Rs 10 despite the ostensible ban on the organisation, provides a graphic record of just how energetic the Jaish’s recruitment campaign has become. The February 3-9 issue reports a gathering where 16 people gathered at its sprawling seminary in Bahawalpur, the Markaz Usman wa Ali, to recite 600 verses from the Quran related to jihad. The event, it says, was started by Masood Azhar, who it describes as the “Ameer-ul-Mujahideen”, or leader of the holy warriors.
Toba Tek Singh, the district of which Gumtala is a part — and famous because of Saadat Hasan Manto’s eponymous Partition-era masterpiece — has a long history of jihadist mobilisation. Jhang, birthplace of the anti-Shi’a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, with which the Jaish has had an intimate relationship, is just kilometres away. Local men from villages around the area have long fought and died with the Lashkar, Jaish and other jihadist groups.
Amjad Farooqui, a top al-Qaeda operative killed in 2004, fought with the Jaish in Kashmir. The village where he was born, Pir Mahal, is just a short distance from Gumtala; it was festooned with Jaish graffiti at the time of his funeral.
Elsewhere in al-Qalam, there are signs of an ambitious mobilisation programme at a nationwide level. The magazine has a large advertisement for a declamation contest, Ma’arif-o-Asbaaq Ghazwa-e-Ehzaab — on the blessings and lessons of a battle in 627 CE, when the armies of Muhammad, numbering some 3,000, defeated a Jewish and Arab confederation of 10,000 men with six hundred horses and some camels.
The contest, it says, will be held on February 9 in Rawalpindi and Karachi, February 16 in Mansehra, and February 23 in Muzaffarabad.
Bahawalpur itself, other reports in al-Qalam state, will host an all-Pakistan declamation contest on the Ghazwa-e-Hudaibia, or war of Hudaibia, perhaps an editorial error, since Hudaibia generally refers to a famous sulah, a ten-year peace treaty concluded by Muhammad allowing the Muslims access to Mecca.
The lead cartoon in the latest issue of al-Qalam shows contempt for peace treaties: captioned “we wish to work for peace with Afghanistan: government”, it shows the United States directing artillery fire at Pakistan, using a soldier called Ashraf Modi, a combination of the names of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Even though the Lashkar-e-Taiba has been the most visible face of anti-India jihad since 26/11, the Jaish has authored several of the most complex and high-profile attacks in recent months: at Pathankot and Nagrota, in both cases demonstrating knowledge of gaps in base defences. The Lashkar, by contrast, has managed only one spectacular attack, on Uri, where the high fatalities it secured took place by luck — poor fuel storage by Indian troops — rather than design.
The Lashkar has instead focused its attentions on mass mobilisation, holding rallies across Pakistan on Sunday to mark Kashmir Day under a label it used since 2009, the Tehreek-e-Azaadi-Kashmir, or movement for the liberation of Kashmir.
Experts say the long leash given to the Jaish could be part of a deliberate strategy by the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. “The Jaish is is not as publicity-oriented as the Lashkar,” notes scholar Ayesha Siddiqa, “and has over years managed to stay aloof from popularity contests among the jihadis ,which is why it has managed to acquire the reputation of being India and Kashmir focused.”
Though the organisation’s attack on Parliament House in Delhi brought India and Pakistan to the edge of war in 2001-02, and it was placed on the United Nations Security Council’s 1267 list of terrorist groups, China has blocked New Delhi’s campaign to have Jaish chief Masood Azhar subjected to sanctions.
From history, there’s at least some reason to suspect that Jaish’s revival might have consequences for Pakistan itself: protected by the ISI, even after its role in hijacking Indian Airlines flight IC-814, the organisation later turned on military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, and by his own account was involved in attempts to assassinate him.
Mati-ur-Rahman Arain, Muhammad Haroon Akbar Khan and Muhammad Tayyab were all listed in Punjab Police records for 2011 as Jaish-e-Muhammad operatives involved in an attack on a Pakistan Air Force bus, as well as other strikes.
However, the Jaish has disappeared from more recent lists of terrorists maintained by the Punjab Police in Pakistan: a sign that Masood Azhar is believed to have purged his organisation of anti-Pakistan jihadists.