“Jaish-e-Muhammad is an Islamist group based in Pakistan that has rapidly expanded in size and capability since Maulana Masood Azhar, a former ultrafundamentalist Harkatul Ansar leader, announced its formation in February . The group’s aim is to unite Kashmir with Pakistan.”
This is how the April 2001 annual report Patterns of Global Terrorism, released by Counter-Terrorism Division of the US State Department, described Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM). Later that year, the outfit orchestrated two of its biggest attacks.
In October 2001, it bombed the legislative assembly of the Indian-administered Kashmir, killing 30 people. In December, JeM militants attacked the Indian parliament, which resulted in a tense political standoff between Pakistan and India.
“Harkatul Ansar (HuA), or Harkatul Mujahideen (HuM) as it was also known, was an offshoot of the ‘Army of Islam’ that operated during the Zia era,” says a former security official. The proxy battalion received training in famous Pakistani madrassas, and was believed to have the backing of the military.
Masood Azhar was a leader of the HuM in the 1990s, when he is believed to have fought along with Al Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen. He was arrested in India after suspicions about his activities in Kashmir, and was one of the three leaders New Delhi was asked to set free after an Indian plane was hijacked and taken to Afghanistan in December 1999.
“The banners had Delhi’s Red Fort painted on them”
Following the attack on the Indian Parliament, the US State Department listed JeM as a foreign terrorist organization. Masood Azhar was arrested by the Pakistani authorities in December 2001, but the Lahore High Court deemed the arrest unlawful a year later. He was released.
In 2002, JeM was on the list of militant organizations outlawed by the Gen Pervez Musharraf regime. The group was believed to have been involved in two attempts to assassinate Musharraf the next year. It was also suspected of involvement in the abduction and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
After years of silence, Jaish-e-Muhammad returned to the limelight earlier this month. Indian intelligence claimed that the group was behind the Pathankot attack initiated on New Year’s Eve. Indian security agencies cited recorded telephone calls that traced to Bahawalpur, with a ‘Seraiki-speaking’ militant talking to his mother about embracing martyrdom.
Reports of the Jaish relocating to Bahawalpur had started emerging in 2008, immediately after the Mumbai attacks in which the group was believed to have been involved. “Paintings on the city’s walls started proclaiming the return of Jaish-e-Muhammad in 2009,” says a professor at Bahwalpur’s Islamia University. “The banners were very India-centric, and had Delhi’s Red Fort painted on them.”
“Afzal Guru’s hanging triggered JeM’s comeback”
“The first time I heard about the Jaish creating a huge madrassa outside Bahawalpur was six or seven years ago,” a police official said. “It was supposed to be separate from the renowned madrassa in the centre of the city.”
The Islamia University professor believes the total number of madrassas has multiplied since Bahawalpur became the Jaish headquarters. “They run in thousands now, easily. Many of them are affiliated with the Jaish,” he says. “This increase is coupled with Jaish-e-Muhammad’s activities on the western front and collaboration with Al Qaeda.”
Journalist Aoun Sahi says the JeM has been very active in Afghanistan since the 2008 Mumbai attacks. “They have claimed responsibility for a lot of attacks in Afghanistan in their publications,” he says. “When Osama Bin Ladin was killed, a leader of the group led his funeral prayers in absentia. JeM takes pride in close links with Al Qaeda.”
Masood Azhar has been writing Urdu columns under a pseudonym, Afzal Sahi says, and his tribute to Bin Laden after he was killed was “very emotional.”
“He even criticized the Pakistani government in his columns. In fact, in his last column before he was detained by the Pakistani authorities, he said that the he was a man of Jihad and being arrested would not stop him.”
The detention was part of a crackdown in Bahawalpur that followed the terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase in India. “JeM offices are being traced and sealed,” the Prime Minister’s office said on January 13, two days before the scheduled talks between Indian and Pakistani National Security Advisors. It said the Pakistani government “wants to send a team of special investigators to the Pathankot air base in India for further investigation.” The talks have since been postponed, with both sides agreeing to reschedule them ‘very soon’.
On January 13, there were reports citing officials that Masood Azhar had also been detained. The claim was refuted the next day, when the Pakistani Foreign Office said that it was “unaware of any such arrest.” Then, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah confirmed that Azhar was in fact under ‘protective custody’.
Aoun Sahi says the Jaish is a member of the United Jihad Council (UJC) – the Kashmiri separatist group that officially claimed responsibility for the Pathankot attack. It is also closely linked to other militant organizations, he says, with some of its members simultaneously being members of the Sipah-e-Sahaba – a rare phenomenon among militant groups.
Jaish-e-Muhammad’s return may be closely linked to the hanging of Afzal Guru in Kashmir, Aoun Sahi believes. On January 26, 2014, Azhar addressed a huge rally in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir via telephone. Thousands attended the rally to pay tribute to Afzal Guru, who was hanged by the Indian authorities in February 2013 over involvement in the December 2001 attack.
“Azhar condemned India severely,” Sahi recalls. “He even criticized Pakistan.”
“Afzal Guru’s hanging has triggered Jaish’s comeback. Revenge is the clear motivation behind the Pathankot attack. After he was hanged, the JeM leadership had said they would storm into India to avenge his death.”