Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has said that Pakistan has “reactivated” the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist training camp at Balakot “very recently”. The camp, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, had been struck by the IAF in February this year. A recall of what and where this camp is; how it is placed in Pakistan’s longstanding scheme of exporting terror to India:
Balakot terror training camp
Balakot is in the Mansehra district of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, 63 km north of Abbottabad, where United States special forces killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. It is some 200 km from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, and 40 km north-west of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).
The Indian Air Force hit Jabha Top, a forested hilltop in Balakot where the Jaish-e-Mohammed had its camp. According to a dossier put together by Indian intelligence agencies, the details of which were published by The Indian Express soon after the IAF strike, the training camp was, at the time, spread over six acres, with enough space to accommodate 600 terrorist cadres.
The dossier also contained comprehensive lists of Jaish cadres who had trained in the camp, photographic evidence of militants moving around the complex, their exercise halls, ammunition dumps, and firing range, etc.
Located in terrorism central
Balakot, and indeed the entire Mansehra district, has long been central to the Pakistani security establishment’s jihadist project. The area has a very large number of mosques and madrassas, and this is where the first camps were set up to train jihadists for the Afghan war and later, for Kashmir.
Close to Balakot is Garhi Habibullah, where the Hizbul Mujahideen is reported to have a training camp. Back in 2005, the monthly Pakistani magazine Herald had published a report on the restarting of various jihadist training camps in Mansehra district after having been shut for a couple of years in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Nerve centre of Jaish activities
In his media briefing after the IAF strike, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale mentioned that Jaish chief Masood Azhar had given the responsbility of overseeing the running of the Balakot terror training centre to his brother-in-law Yousuf Azhar. Masood Azhar works by distributing the ‘portfolios’ in his sprawling empire of terrorism among the members of his family.
The Indian dossier on the Jaish contains photographs of Yousuf Azhar, and of the vehicle used by him for his daily rounds of the hilly training grounds and firing ranges at Balakot. According to Indian intelligence, the “passing out” of terrorist recruits at Balakot on April 1, 2018 was attended by Abdul Rauf Asghar, the brother of Masood Azhar.
For Jaish, an inspirational post
Balakot has great symbolic significance for the Jaish. It is the burial place of the Barelvi revivalist leader Syed Ahmed Shaheed and his associate Shah Ismail Shaheed, who were killed here in May 1831 while fighting the subcontinent’s first — albeit unsuccessful — jihad against the army of the Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
The Jaish training camp in Balakot is named after Syed Ahmed Shaheed.
Indian intelligence believes the activities inside the Jaish’s Syed Ahmed Shaheed Training Camp became more organised, and that bigger numbers of recruits came to be trained at the camp, after two nephews of Masood Azhar were killed by Indian security forces in Kashmir within the span of a year.
The first was Talha Rasheed, the son of Azhar’s brother-in-law Abdul Rasheed, who was killed in an encounter in Pulwama in November 2017, and the other was Usman Haider, Azhar’s other nephew who was killed in Tral in October 2018.
Usman Haider was the son of Ibrahim Azhar, one of the hijackers of IC-814, the hijacking that had led to the release of Masood Azhar himself from prison in India almost two decades ago.
At the time of the IAF strike, the Pakistani establishment, expecting India to retaliate for the Pulwama terrorist attack, had emptied out the Jaish’s headquarters in Bahawalpur and congregated a large number of terrorist cadres at the Balakot training centre.