For 12 long years, security forces believed they had wiped out the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Kashmir, eliminating its top leadership in a series of attacks. With its February 14 suicide attack killing 40 CRPF personnel, in one of Kashmir’s deadliest attacks ever, the terror outfit that has repeatedly brought India-Pakistan ties to the brink, has done it again.
Sheltered by Pakistan and protected by China, founder Maulana Masood Azhar — who has himself spent all of one month in Kashmir, back in 1994 — has now steered the Jaish through the 2001 Parliament attack, the January 2016 Pathankot air base attack, as well as the September 2016 Uri attack. The Jaish has introduced suicide missions to the Valley, as well as bombers driving explosives-laden vehicles, like in Thursday’s attack. In all the recent attacks in Kashmir, the Jaish is a suspect.
Its recent surge coincides with the Taliban coming forward for talks in Afghanistan, helped by Pakistan. The Jaish has close links with the Afghan Taliban, and the Kashmir attack sends a message to its negotiators, as well as the Taliban’s own men, at a time when it is seeking peace after years of war.
Security forces say the Jaish is now the third largest militant group operating in the Valley, behind the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba. But it is behind most of Kashmir’s deadly attacks in the past two years. The loss of over 40 men, including several top commanders, in the past one year has hardly dented its strength.
Police records show 56 militants in its ranks in the Valley, most of them Pakistanis (33, compared to 23 locals). Twenty-one of these militants (19 of them foreign) operate in the three districts of North Kashmir. South Kashmir has around 35 Jaish militants, 21 of them locals. The Jaish is believed to have no presence in Srinagar, Budgam and Ganderbal districts in Central Kashmir.
In the re-emergence of the Jaish, police see a strategic bid by Pakistan to turn international scrutiny away from the Lashkar and Hizbul Mujahideen. Lashkar founder Hafiz Saeed is among the most wanted in US list, with a $10 million bounty on his head.
“The reason for Jaish-e-Mohammad coming to the forefront (of militancy in valley) may be due to increased and repeated international scrutiny of LeT and its chief,” a secret police report compiled by its intelligence wing last year reads. “2017 witnessed heavy losses to terrorist outfits especially LeT and Hizb as their top commanders were killed. The Pakistan based handlers… have started reviving Jaish cadres in valley and main motive of carrying fidayeen type attacks is to push security forces on backfoot in order to give some breathing space to Hizb and LeT.”
Born in Bahawalpur in Pakistan Punjab, Masood Azhar had been part of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, which fought against the Russians in Afghanistan, before entering Kashmir. In January 2000, he was among the group of militants exchanged by the Vajpayee government as part of the Kandahar hijacking.
Soon after, he is believed to have founded the Jaish. A couple of months later, the Jaish marked its arrival in Kashmir with the Valley’s first ever human bomb a 17-year-old drove an explosives-laden Maruti car to the headquarters of the Army’s 15 Corps in Srinagar. The car exploded at the gate as the school boy from downtown Srinagar panicked and pulled a trigger too early. On Christmas Day the same year, the Jaish sent a 24-year-old British citizen driving another explosives-laden Maruti car to the 15 Corps headquarters. Eleven people, including five soldiers, were killed in that attack. A profile of the bomber subsequently appeared in the Jaish’s official publication, Zarb-e-Momin.
With these attacks, the Jaish underlined its difference with the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which had refrained from suicide attacks as suicide is prohibited in Islam.
In another difference with the Lashkar, the Jaish shared an umbilical cord with the Taliban. It would continue to retain it, to the embarrassment of Pakistan, even after Islamabad came under pressure following 9/11. The Jaish’s subsequent operations threatened to push India and Pakistan to war several times. In fact, the Jaish’s suicide attack on the J&K Assembly on October 1, 2001, less than a month after 9/11, was the first attack in Kashmir — 12 years after the start of militancy — that was officially condemned by Pakistan. The Pakistan Foreign Office used the term ‘terrorism’ to criticise it. Islamabad’s hand was forced not just by the death of 23 civilians in the incident, the largest number killed in a Kashmir attack, provoking outrage, but also because the Jaish identified the suicide bomber as a Pakistani, Wajahat Hussain.
The Jaish also lost backing within the Pakistani security establishment when its members carried out two assassination bids on then president Pervez Musharraf in 2003.
In India, the security forces coincidentally gained ground against the outfit by infiltrating its ranks. In early 2004, a mole deep inside the Jaish helped the security forces hit a meeting of its entire top brass in Lolab, killing all.
For more than a decade after that, the Jaish struggled to regain a foothold in Kashmir, even as it kept losing men. In March 2011, its Kashmir chief, Sajad Aghani, was killed along with his associate Omar Bilal on the banks of the Dal Lake. Three months later, another mole helped security forces kill a Jaish commander.
Afghani was succeeded by Qari Yasir, a Pakistani, but he was killed in an encounter in Lolab Kupwara in July 2013. After Yasir, Adil Pathan became the Jaish chief in the Valley, but was killed along with associate Abdul Rehman, a Myanmarese, at Tral in October 2015. Pathan was the brother of the Jaish’s Pakistan-based operations chief, Mufti Asghar.
The Jaish tried to indigenise and formed a Kashmir group headed by a local, Altaf Baba. But in July 2013, Altaf Baba was killed, again after police received precise inputs.
In November 2015, after a long gap, the Jaish claimed responsibility for a major attack — on a Brigade headquarters at Tangdhar next to the Line of Control in Kupwara, killing a civilian. It attributed it to its ‘Afzal Guru Squad’. But both the Army and the J&K Police doubted Jaish claims.
Security forces believe what marked the Jaish revival in Kashmir was the infiltration of two of its groups, through Kupwara and Poonch, in August 2016 during the protests that followed Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s assassination.
The local commander most crucial to the Jaish revival was the Valley’s 3-foot-tall militant, Noor Muhammad Tantray alias Noor Trali. Believed to be a close associate of Jaish commander Gazi Baba, the alleged mastermind of the Parliament attack, he was arrested in 2003 for the attack, and sentenced to life in 2011. He was out on parole when he rejoined militancy. Trali was named in several major Jaish attacks in the Valley after taking over its command in South Kashmir. Sources said Trali remained in close contact with security agencies while working clandestinely for the Jaish — a fact claimed by the Jaish in a book on Trali.
In December 2017, the 47-year-old was killed in an operation in Pulwama.
Trali was replaced by Mufti Waqas, a Pakistani militant and close associate of Masood Azhar, as the Jaish’s operations chief. Waqas, according to the Army, masterminded the attack on the Sunjuwan Army camp in Jammu in February 2018, in which six soldiers were killed.
Sources said that along with Trali, Waqas was the one who organised an ‘Afzal Guru Squad’ and set up a network of local recruits. In 2017, Masood Azhar sent his own nephew Talha Rashid to work under Waqas — underlining that he was ready to shed blood of one of his own for the revival of the outfit. Rashid was killed in an encounter in October 2017.
In March 2018, Waqas was killed in Awantipora.
By then though, thanks to the local network set up by Trali and Waqas, Jaish-led attacks had returned to the Valley. Security agencies name Waqas as the brains behind the attacks at Pulwama (August 27, 2017, killing eight security personnel), on the BSF’s 182 Battalion outside Srinagar airport (October 3, 2017, killing a BSF officer), and on a CRPF training camp in Lethpora (December 31, 2017, killing five CRPF men).
The Lethpora attack was carried out by a Class 10 student and the son of a policeman from Tral, Fardeen Ahmad Khanday, and a local taxi driver, Manzoor Ahmad Baba. Fardeen was the first Kashmiri youngster to be part of a suicide squad in seven years.
By the end of 2018, the Jaish had introduced another dimension to the Kashmir conflict: sniper attacks. In October 2018, when security forces eliminated a Jaish sniper squad, its top commander turned out to be another nephew of Azhar, Usman Haider.
Through it all, the one person who has stayed out of the reach of the authorities is 50-year-old Masood Azhar.
One of the 11 children of a government school headmaster, who was highly religious, Azhar had his first brush with the Harkat-ul-Ansar (earlier called the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen) at a Karachi madrasa where his father admitted him. In his book The Virtues of Jehad, Azhar writes about this. Azhar went on to become a teacher at the madrasa, many of whose students subsequently joined the Afghan jehad, including him.
While Azhar failed to complete his 40-day military training at a Harkat camp at Yavar in Afghanistan, he still joined the war against the Russians. After he was injured, the Harkat made him head of the ‘Department of Motivation’. Azhar soon grew close to Maulana Fazlur-Rehman Khalil, the head of Pakistan’s Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI), whose religious schools nurtured both the Harkat and Taliban. Azhar became the general secretary of the Harkat and was viewed as its best orator. Through the Harkat, he became active in Kashmir.
When he did come to the Valley, in January 1994, Azhar had a brief assignment — to patch up the Harkat’s factions of Harkat-e-Jehadi Islami and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. Unlike most militants, he did not cross the LoC. Instead, he flew into New Delhi from Dhaka posing as a Gujarat-born Portuguese national, Wali Adam Issa. He checked into a hotel, and from there left for Deoband with two Harkat men from Kashmir. Later, he flew to Srinagar and met the Harkat’s top commanders, Sajjad Afghani and Amjad Bilal.
On February 10, 1994, he was held by the security forces along with Afghani at Khanabal.
The Harkat made several unsuccessful attempts to get the two out before the Kandahar hijacking, including kidnapping five Western trekkers in South Kashmir in 1995 and a jail break attempt in 1999. Afghani was killed in 1999 allegedly in a jail uprising. Azhar’s release following the kidnapping firmly established his links with the Taliban.
After his release, Azhar first tried to create a conglomerate of all jihadi groups. He finally created the Jaish out of Harkat cadre loyal to him, after differences with Maulana Khalil.
Following the December 13, 2001, attack on Indian Parliament, Delhi handed over a list of 20 men it wanted from Islamabad, with Azhar at the top. Pakistan arrested Azhar, but released him in December 2002, curtailing his activities and forcing him to stay low key.
He lost much of the goodwill within the Pakistani security establishment when he carried out an attack on the life of Musharraf on December 14, 2003. Azhar had been a vocal opponent of Musharraf for his alliance with the US following 9/11.
The Jaish hand in the July 2007 Lal Masjid episode, which saw the deadliest battle between the Pakistani army and homegrown militants since Pakistan tied up with the US post the World Trade Center attacks, further isolated it.
Though New Delhi has always wanted Azhar, the US too wants him for own reasons. The primary reason being the ‘link’ between Azhar and Sheikh Omar, who was released along with him during the Kandahar hijack and is now in jail after being given death for the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl. The US hopes to learn more about Sheikh’s involvement in financing the 9/11 attacks.
The Americans also want to find out the extent of Azhar’s links with the al-Qaeda. A former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, Abu Jandal, has recounted a “lavish” party the al-Qaeda founder threw for Azhar after his release in Kandahar.
Any international action against Azhar, however, has been blocked by China, which has refused to let him be proclaimed as an international terrorist by the United Nations. On Friday, in the wake of the Pulwama attack, while condemning the deaths of the CRPF men, it repeated this stance.