Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are engaged in showboating again, each side raising the temperature to make the other blink. India hoped that escalating tensions would force Pakistan to punish militant groups based in its territory. The pressure has worked to some degree as Islamabad ordered arrest of 44 Jaish-e-Mohammed members (JeM, meaning “Army of Mohammed”), the group India has accused of carrying out an attack in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14. The suicide attack took place in Pulwama, just south of state capital Srinagar, killing more than 40 Indian paramilitary troopers.
Masood Azhar, who is the leader of JeM and writes a regular column under the pen name Saadi in his organization’s weekly journal Al-Qalam (“The Pen”) didn’t seem to take India’s upping the ante — demonstrated through a strike on February 26 against one of the JeM madrassas — seriously. He said in the issue of February 28:
India’s brain is not working. They are trying to threaten us. But are their threats making us scared? Certainly not. In fact, their threats encourage us. Their threats do the same trick as public appreciation does for a poet reciting his poetry.
The dossier that India has given to Pakistan implicating Masood Azhar and his organization in acts of terror in Indian-administered Kashmir is based on such pronouncements. In the past 10 years, India has tried four times to get the UN to declare Azhar as a terrorist, an effort checkmated by China on Pakistan’s insistence. A senior journalist Muhammad Ziauddin recently tweeted: “Is Masood Azhar of JeM dearer to the state of Pakistan than Pakistan itself?”
Azhar is deeply plugged into the Pakistan military’s intelligence setup, or at least those parts of it with which he shares an appreciation of the need for the Islamic world to have a strong center to provide protection to Muslims all over the world. Azhar is for the Deobandi jihadis what Lt. General Hameed Gul (former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI who was part of the Afghan jihad of the 1980s) was for the ISI – an inspirational figure who is well connected in the jihadi world and resolutely believes in Ghazwa-e-Hind (the battle for a definitive conquest of India) and the ultimate crusade against all non-Muslims. The relationship between certain segments of the intelligence agencies and the JeM is based on a common value system and not merely a tactical need for each other.
An Education in Jihad
The son of a primary school teacher, Allahbaksh Sabir Alavi, Azhar was inspired to jihad by his older brother Ibraheem Azhar, who fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s. It was he who took Azhar in 1988 to Afghanistan. Unlike his older brother, Masood Azhar was never a fighter but an ideologue and an inspirational orator. Before his trip to India, where he got arrested in 1994, Azhar had traveled to various countries including the U.K. inspiring youth to jihad. While in jail in India, he started tn write on the subject of jihad.
While Azhar has written over two dozen books, his seminal work is Fatah-ul-Jawad, a book published in two volumes of 2,000 pages each. The book presents jihad according to his interpretation of the Quran. Pakistani scholar Tariq Rahman, in his recently published book Interpretations of Jihad in South Asia, has summarized Azhar’s views on fighting a holy war, which emphasized the need to fight all colonial players and concepts including the United States and capitalism. The JeM leader is of the view that individuals do not need approval from the state to engage in jihad.
Caught Between America and the Taliban
Azhar was never involved in takfir (condemning other Muslims as non-Muslim and hence liable to be killed), nor got into a confrontation with the state. This is despite the popular notion that JeM had hostile relations with the Pakistani state during the mid-2000s due to his involvement in the December 2003 terrorist attack on the then-president and army chief of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf.
In interviews with me for my research on JeM, senior members of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the Punjab province’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) claimed that Azhar had provided handlers for Musharraf’s attacker. However, Azhar did not get involved in the later confrontation between the clerics of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) and Musharraf.
One way of looking at this seeming estrangement is from the lens of the larger upset inside the armed forces in the wake of an American attack on Afghanistan after 9/11. The Pakistani army’s years of engagement with the Afghan jihad, continuing as they did even after withdrawal of the Soviet troops, had made the army increasingly dependent upon various militant groups to achieve its internal and external objectives. Links between the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence and the militants grew ever stronger. Many militant groups and leaders were resentful of the overtures made by Musharraf to the United States and India in the form of crackdown upon jihadi groups. Like many other jihadi leaders, Masood Azhar was put under detention in late 2001 under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO).
By the beginning of the 2000s, the relations between segments of the military and jihadis were more than two decades old. This relationship explained why senior military commanders like Lt. General Mahmoud, who was head of the ISI at the time of 9/11, were divided between helping the United States and saving the Taliban. Musharraf himself wrote in his book In the Line of Fire that Mahmoud played a double game. He encouraged Musharraf to agree to the U.S. demand of aligning with them in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, and at the same time helped Taliban leader Mullah Omar to secure himself against an American attack. Unsurprisingly, Osama bin Laden was eventually found Pakistan’s cantonment town of Abbottabad.
Heroic Return to Pakistan
Masood Azhar traveled to Srinagar in 1994. Arrested by Indian police, he spent five years in jail. Indian investigators claim he told them, “You people will not be able to keep me in custody for long. You don’t know how important I am for Pakistan and the ISI. You are underestimating my popularity. The ISI would ensure that I am back in Pakistan.”
Some members of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), a Deobandi jihadi network that Azhar and his brothers were a part of, hijacked an Indian airliner IC-814 en route from Kathmandu to New Delhi in December 1999. They had the plane diverted to Kandahar, where they successfully negotiated the release of three men incarcerated in Indian jails: Omar Saeed Sheikh, Mushtaq Zargar, and Masood Azhar. The HuM is also the organization that trained Maulana Asim Umer, the present head of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
On his return from India in December 1999, Azhar got a hero’s welcome from jihadi groups and intelligence agencies. In one of his columns in Al-Qalam he once wrote that the IC-814 hijack had avenged Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war that liberated East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. He cashed upon his popularity to announce his organization in March 2000. Interestingly, I have seen death certificates for martyrdom issued by the JeM in 1999, indicating that the organization existed in some premature form even before 2000.
Friends Like Osama bin Laden
Azhar raised the initial capital from inspiring businessmen and other people. But a bigger source of funds was Osama bin Laden. JeM members, who remember bin Laden fondly, claim that he helped the JeM buy some of HuM’s infrastructure like madrassas, mosques, and training camps. The Balakot madrassa, which India claims to have bombed on February 26, was one of the assets the JeM bought from the HuM. It was at this seminary that Azhar spent most of his time after the crackdown by the Pervez Musharraf government on jihadi organizations after 9/11.
The links between al-Qaeda and the JeM are even deeper, going by the close relationship that Masood Azhar has had with al-Qaeda members like Omar Saeed Sheikh and Rashid Rauf. Sheikh, a British-Pakistani, was converted to extremism by Azhar during the latter’s visits to the U.K. in the early 1990s. He was arrested in India in 1994 for his involvement in kidnapping foreign tourists in Indian-administered Kashmir. On his return from India, Sheikh remained close to both Azhar and members of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. He was one of the few who attended to Azhar during the latter’s gallbladder surgery carried out in a private hospital in Bahawalpur in 2002. Rashid Rauf, another British-Pakistani and member of al-Qaeda, is considered the mastermind for the 2005 London bombings. He was married to one of Azhar’s six sisters.
Nothing But Jihad
Azhar designed his organization to be focused primarily on jihad. For instance, he ensured that, unlike the HuM, sectarian divide did not get in its way. That is not to say it is tolerant of Shias. Jaish’s attitude reflects a state-like pragmatism. It is only in the last one year that JeM publications have become critical of Iran, or become vocal against the Ahmadiyya.
Despite building a welfare wing, the Al-Rahmat Trust, the JeM did not follow Lashkar-e-Taiba’s path in developing social and welfare work as an important secondary activity.
When asked why the JeM did not preach to rid society of drugs and prostitution, a close aide of Azhar replied that the Jaish did not want to get distracted from its core function of freeing the Muslim world from the clutches of non-Muslims. He also mentioned an incident when, during a private discussion, Masood Azhar confronted an army general against the latter’s suggestion that the military was thinking of disengaging from supporting militant organizations.
The JeM’s jihad will not end until the entire world converts to Islam. It has focused on developing among its members a deeper understanding of an Islamic war, which is why its initial training sessions focus on proselytizing about jihad. Unlike the past when jihadi groups randomly picked up people and sent them for military training, Jaish has improvised on the method. Candidates have to go through rigorous ideological training before they are selected for military training and then combat.
According to a JeM member, the outfit spends approximately a million Pakistani rupees, which is equivalent to $10,000 to create one fully trained and honed jihadi. They produce 15-20 of them every year. JeM recruits from government schools as well.
Law Unto Itself
The JeM’s influence in Bahawalpur has remained unchallenged. A 2007 report by the Special Branch of the Bahawalpur police suggests that the patronage of intelligence agencies makes it difficult for law enforcement to take any action against the militant outfit.
Junior police officials have often cribbed about their seniors turning meek during meetings with Jaish jihadis. Perhaps the only time that the local police ever acted against the JeM was in 2001. On January 25, 2001, the Bahawalpur police arrested some Jaish members for hijacking a private transporter’s bus and manhandling his men. A police case was filed (report No. 35/2001) under Section 395 (punishment for dacoity) of the Pakistan Penal Code was registered. As a result, 29 JeM men were arrested. The Jaish reacted by barricading the local police station with a hundred men, some of whom were armed, and damaged public property. Azhar made a speech warning the government not to divert the attention of his men from the jihad in Kashmir, otherwise “rivers of blood will flow” inside Pakistan itself.
The threat worked as the ISI intervened and defused the situation by asking the police officer to release the arrested Jaish men. To add insult to the police force’s injury, the police officer who had registered the case was transferred to another city after three months.
On the rare occasion when Azhar was arrested in December 2001 he was not treated like an ordinary prisoner. This was soon after the India Parliament attack. In March 2002 he was shifted from Mianwali jail to Bahawalpur and even given a monthly stipend of 10,000 rupees. His sympathizers in intelligence protected him again in 2004 from arrest by the Punjab CTD.
Thanks to the patronage of intelligence agencies, successive governments were unable to contain the JeM. In the words of the former Punjab Home Minister Rana Sanaullah, “We can’t touch these organizations because these are controlled from somewhere else.”
Azhar’s links across the jihad and intelligence spectrum make it difficult for anyone to take a decisive action against him. There is perhaps also the sense that the tension will pass. The United States needs Pakistan far too much at this stage to force the latter to make a clean break from its jihadis.
Ayesha Siddiqa is a PhD and research associate in War Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.