On December 31, 1999, Masood Azhar, a top commander of Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), was released in exchange for passengers of IC-814 flight hijacked by Pakistani militants. Azhar returned to Pakistan, but not to HuM.
Instead, he set up a new militant outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), whose audacious attacks brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war on more than one occasion.
Azhar, 50, was born in Bahawalpur, in Pakistani Punjab. One of 11 children of a government school teacher, his family ran a dairy and poultry farm in their native city.
His father, a disciple of Deobandi school of thought, sent Azhar to a seminary in Karachi. After completing his course, the young man went on to teach at the same madrassa, where he had his first brush with militants, who were part of the “jihad” in Afghanistan.
Azhar and many students of the madrassa also went to Afghanistan to fight. In their book ‘The Meadow’, authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark write that Azhar was once injured in a friendly fire in Afghanistan when he left the camp to relieve himself and forgot to utter the pass code on his return.
Azhar was sent back to Karachi. Recognising his oratory skills, he was appointed head of HuM’s ‘Department of Motivation’ – seen as the terror group’s best orator, he rose to become its general secretary.
After withdrawal of Russian forces from Afghanistan, HuM focussed on Jammu and Kashmir. In 1994, Azhar entered India on a Portuguese passport, disguised as a businessman to attempt a patch-up between different HuM factions.
Unlike most militants, he did not cross the LoC. Instead, he flew into New Delhi from Dhaka, posing as a Gujarat-born Portuguese national under the fictitious name Wali Adam Issa. He checked into Ashoka Hotel and later moved to Janpath Hotel, from where he left for Deoband with two HuM men from Kashmir. He flew to Srinagar and met Harkat’s then chief in the Valley, Sajjad Afghani.
In February 1994, Afghani was taking Azhar to a mosque in south Kashmir to deliver a Friday sermon when their car broke down. They took an auto-rickshaw, which was stopped by the Army in Anantnag. Both Azhar and Afghani were arrested after a brief chase.
While Afghani was a big catch for the security agencies, they didn’t know much about Azhar. Azhar’s arrest, however, rattled HuM in Pakistan. In less than a year, Harkat planned his release.
In October 1994, four foreign tourists were kidnapped from New Delhi and the abductors sought the release of 10 militants, including Masood Azhar. The plot failed and Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani origin, was arrested.
In July 1995, Al Faran kidnapped five foreign tourists from Kashmir and demanded release of Azhar in return. In 1999, Afghani planned a jailbreak by digging a tunnel inside Kotbalwal jail in Jammu. While Azhar failed to escape through the tunnel, Afghani was killed while trying to escape.
Several months later, Harkat militants hijacked Delhi bound IC 814 – 180 passengers and crew were on board — and took it to Kandahar, Afghanistan, then under the Taliban’s control. The hijackers initially demanded release of 35 militants jailed in Kashmir, including Azhar, a ransom of $200 million and Afghani’s exhumed body. They later scaled down the demands to release of Azhar, Kashmiri militant commander Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar and Omar Saeed Sheikh. On December 31, Azhar, Mushtaq and Sheikh were taken to Kandhar and released by the government in exchange of the passengers.
After returning to Pakistan, he set up JeM. Just a couple of months on, JeM marked its arrival in J&K with the Valley’s first ever human bomb when 17-year-old Afaq Ahmad drove an explosives-laden Maruti car to the headquarters of Army’s 15 Corps in Srinagar. On Christmas Day the same year, the militant group sent a 24-year-old British citizen driving another explosives-laden Maruti car to the entrance of the 15 Corps headquarters. Eleven people, including five soldiers, were killed in the attack.
On December 13, 2001, Jaish fidayeen stormed Parliament Complex in New Delhi. After a fierce gunfight, five Jaish attackers, six Delhi Police personnel, two Parliament security service personnel and a gardener were killed. The attack brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war and the stand-off on the border continued for several months.