Three years after he surprised the security establishment by seeking “revenge” for the execution of Afzal Guru at a large rally in Muzaffarabad, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar has emerged as possibly the biggest threat in the jihad against India by Pakistan-based groups.
At the time when he addressed the rally by phone on January 26, 2014, little had been heard from Azhar for several years. The JeM, however, had continued to operate largely unfettered despite being banned by Pakistan, recruiting in its heartland in Punjab and raising funds across the country.
And while the Indian security establishment and government had largely focussed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its founder Hafiz Saeed in the quest for justice after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, there are some who now believe Azhar poses a more potent threat.
This is the man whose group has been blamed for last year’s brazen attacks on Indian military facilities at Pathankot and Nagrota that killed nearly 30. And while Saeed has continued to speak to the media even after being put under house arrest, Azhar has kept a low profile, writing occasional columns under the pen name “Saadi” in JeM’s publications and focussing on the Kashmir issue to motivate cadre.
Despite reports that Pakistan had placed Azhar in “protective custody” after the JeM was blamed for the Pathankot attack, security sources said this had not, in any way, affected his activities.
Security analysts believe it is more “cost effective” for Pakistan’s security establishment to use a proxy such as Azhar, who formed the JeM after he was freed by India with two other jihadi commanders for the passengers of an Indian Airlines flight that was hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in 1999.
They point out that Azhar, unlike Saeed, has not been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council committee on al-Qaeda and Islamic State and is thus under less scrutiny from the world order after severing links to groups that are perceived as threats by the West.
“Azhar is not vocal, he doesn’t address rallies. He also doesn’t take a role in politics like Saeed, who is active in the Defa-e-Pakistan Council. Instead, he focusses on recruitment, indoctrination and is considered a major asset by the Pakistani intelligence set-up,” Animesh Roul, executive director of the Society for Study of Peace and Conflict, told Hindustan Times.
“And China has been doing Pakistan’s job of protecting Azhar,” he said, referring to the repeated blocking of efforts by India and the US to get the JeM chief banned by the al-Qaeda and Islamic State committee of the UN.
Azhar’s comeback followed several years spent in the “doghouse” after elements in the JeM were found to be involved in two attempts to assassinate former military ruler Pervez Musharraf within a space of 11 days in December 2003, said Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management.
“For some time, the JeM had no role in operations. There was a purge within the organisation and the JeM has again been given an operational line,” he said.
But Sahni also believes that groups such as the JeM and LeT have no capacity of their own to operate and only act at the behest of the Pakistan’s security establishment. “The US is no longer paying much attention to the activities of these groups at a time when they sought to portray their operations in Kashmir as a localised freedom struggle,” he said.
Kashmir is the leitmotif of the JeM’s campaign in recent months. Articles on its website, Alqalamonline, are replete with references to Kashmir and calls for the Pakistan government to back the movement in the Indian state.
In a piece written to mark Kashmir Solidarity Day on February 5, Azhar’s confidant Talha Saif contended Pakistani leaders were not openly backing the Kashmir issue as they were fearful of the Donald Trump administration that “is implementing India’s agenda”. Last year, Azhar himself argued in an article that the ceasefire on the Line of Control should be “cancelled” and jihadi groups let loose by Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir and river waters issues.
The JeM has also continued its fundraising, soliciting donations through its website, publications and pamphlets, with the money being used for projects such as a new madrassa spread over 10 acres in Bahawalpur.
Organisations that track terror financing have reported that the group has also invested in legal businesses, including real estate and commodity trading. Azhar’s brother Abdul Rauf Asghar plays a key role in these activities. “Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar and (Hizbul Mujahideen chief) Syed Salahuddin remain the triumvirate in jihadi operations against India. As long as Pakistan continues to have a policy of ‘good and bad’ militants, they will pose a threat to India,” Roul said.