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IDSA COMMENT

Pakistan, Masood Azhar and Terrorism

May 15, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a surprise visit to Pakistan and met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on December 25, 2015 in an attempt to improve bilateral relations. But within a week, India-Pakistan relations lurched towards a crisis when India blamed the Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM/Jaish) for the attack on the Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Pathankot on January 2, 2016. As part of its response to this renewed act of terror, India put forward a proposal in February 2016 in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to designate Maulana Masood Azhar, the head of the JeM, as a terrorist under the aegis of the UNSC 1267 committee.1 China intervened on Pakistan’s behest and placed a technical hold on India’s move to label Azhar as a terrorist in March 2016 and again in October 2016. It subsequently used its veto power to block the proposal in December 2016, a day before the end of the technical hold.2 China again employed a technical hold and blocked a proposal put forward by the US, UK and France on January 19, 2017 to designate Azhar as a terrorist.3 This technical hold is valid for six months (till June 2017) and can be extended again for three months. After that, China will have to resort to the use of its veto to block the proposal.

Why does Pakistan want to prevent Masood Azhar from being designated as a terrorist? Even Pakistanis are raising this question, as evident from an editorial in a leading newspaper The Nation titled ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People’.4 It is not in Pakistan’s interest to label Azhar as a terrorist due to the domestic and regional (South Asia) security strategy of Pakistan. Azhar, the commander of the JeM, is invaluable for Pakistan’s military-security establishment. He is an Islamic ideologue, an excellent orator and a brilliant recruiter of jihadis. He has been engaged in an array of jihadist activities – from planning terrorist attacks to mobilising funds for jihad, among others. He has authored numerous books and is a prolific jihadist writer.5 Additionally, he is a skilled negotiator and administrator.6 Given these traits, Pakistan tried desperately to get Azhar released from Indian prison after his capture in Khanbal, Kashmir in 1994.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made by Harkat ul-Ansar (HuA) to free Azhar. The terrorist group Al Faran7, whose relationship with HuA is not exactly clear, kidnapped six Western trekkers in 1995 to seek his release. Several unsuccessful jail breaks were also attempted. He was released along with Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Omar Sheikh in 1999 in exchange for the safe release of the passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC-814.8 Subsequent to his release, Azhar broke away from HuA and established the JeM. Azhar also developed close relations with Al-Qaeda and Taliban which further increased his importance for the military-security establishment. In the attack on the Indian Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif on January 3, 2016, JeM terrorists left messages stating that the attack was to avenge the death of Afzal Guru. According to Bruce Riedel, Pathankot and Mazar-e-Sharif attacks were organised by Jaish.9 An Indian diplomat avers, ‘There’s no coincidence to the fact that the attack on the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif took place at the same time as Pathankot. Someone was making a point’.10 This illustrates Azhar’s close links with the Taliban.

JeM, along with Lashkar–e-Taiba (LeT), was responsible for the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.11 JeM had been absent in Kashmir since 200612 but it has now returned to the place where it became infamous as the most dreaded foreign terrorist organisation. Since 2011, it seems that there is a concerted attempt by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to revive JeM.13 However, according to Indian security agencies, ISI has been trying to revive JeM since 2014.14 The regrouping of Jaish’s cadres coincided with the hanging of Afzal Guru - one of the co-accused in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, in 2013.15 On January 26, 2014, Azhar delivered a venomous anti-India tirade at a rally in Muzaffarabad and extolled the people to avenge Afzal Guru’s hanging.16 Its recent activities in Kashmir started in 2014 when three JeM militants were killed in Sopore in northern Kashmir. Jaish militants were also killed by security forces in May, June and September 2014 and approximately ten were arrested till October 2016.17 In November 2015, the Indian Army also repulsed a major suicide attack on the Gorkha Rifles camp in Tangdhar. Jaish claimed responsibility but Indian security forces have rejected the claim.18 The security forces were alarmed when they recovered bags with the inscription ‘Afzal Guru Squad’ from the dead terrorists.19

JeM is being revived for three plausible reasons. First, Jaish is no longer on the list of terror organisations maintained by Punjab Police in Pakistan. This indicates that Jaish and Masood Azhar have purged all the anti-Pakistan jihadis from the organisation.20 After General Musharraf’s decision to ally with the US in the ‘global war on terror’ and act against the Taliban, a majority of the leadership in Jaish became disgruntled with Pakistan’s military establishment for abandoning their Deobandi brethren. Jaish splintered into different groups or factions and attacked the Pakistani state. Two assassination attempts on Musharraf in December 2003 were traced to Jaish. In 2007, Jaish was also involved in the log jam between the Pakistan army and the jihadists who had occupied the Lal Masjid in Islamabad.21 In 2011, according to Punjab Police records, Muhammad Haroon Akbar Khan, Mati-ur-Rahman Arain, and Muhammad Tayyab (Jaish operatives) were listed as terrorists whowere involved in terrorist strikes in Pakistan, including an attack on the Pakistan Air Force bus in 2011.22 In the aftermath of the assassination attempts, Jaish was banned. Masood Azhar and Jaish were forced to maintain a low profile and their activities were restricted to Bahawalpur.23 However, in 2008, Jaish’s activities were revived and focused on Afghanistan, although Azhar himself maintained a low profile.

Second, JeM is being revived under Azhar’s leadership by the ISI since 2011 (if not earlier) to rehabilitate ‘the good terrorists’ who had joined the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or the Punjabi Taliban. Prior to operation Zarb-e-Azab in 2014 against the TTP, Pakistan’s intelligence and military agencies tried to convince elements in the TPP to cease their fight against Pakistan’s military-security establishment and either re-join Jaish to wage jihad in Kashmir or to fight in Afghanistan to aid the Taliban. Thus, the revival of Jaish is also a strategy of transforming the ‘bad terrorists’ into ‘good terrorists’ and ensure that their guns do not attack Pakistan.24

Third, LeT, which is loyal to the ISI, has come under intense global scrutiny. Hafiz Saeed, the head of the LeT, was declared a global terrorist on December 17, 2008 after the Mumbai attacks on November 26, 2008. He was forced to change the name of LeT twice— to Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD) and then to Tehreek Azadi Jammu and Kashmir. Hafiz has been placed under house arrest and his actions restricted by the Nawaz Sharif government. This resulted in the waning of Saeed’s influence.25 The link between the LeT and the military-security establishment in Pakistan has also become so perceptible that the military-ISI leadership needs the JeM to create a ‘deniable proxy’.26 At the same time, the ISI also wants to reduce its dependence on LeT. According to a senior Indian intelligence official, ‘the big difference is that the Lashkar is being watched by the world, and the Jaish isn’t’.27 Jaish is openly holding rallies, recruiting cadres and raising funds in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It also seems that Azhar is outside the realm of Prime Minister Sharif’s authority.28

Masood Azhar has close links with religious organisations, radical political parties such as Jamiat-i Ulema i-Islam Fazlur Rehman faction (JUI-F) and numerous terrorist organisations operating in Pakistan such as Sipah e-Sahaba, Lashkar e-Jhangvi and Harkat ul-Mujahideen. JeM is also a member of the United Jihad Council (UJC). UJC, which is sponsored by the ISI, is an umbrella organisation of 13 to 16 militant outfits that operate in Kashmir.29 There are concerns in Pakistan that if the military-security establishment is unable to prevent Azhar’s designation as a terrorist, the host of terrorist organisations may turn their guns against the Pakistani state and might also hurt Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. This will increase domestic turmoil and worsen the security situation in Pakistan. After the Pathankot attack in 2016, in an article in al-Qalam using his pseudonym ‘Saidi’, Masood warned the Pakistan government on taking action against Jaish. He pronounced that action against Jaish will not be good for the peace, security, unity and integrity of Pakistan.30

The revival of Jaish illustrates that Pakistan continues with its dichotomy of ‘good terrorist’ and ‘bad terrorist’ and fosters state-sponsored terrorism directed against India. Although it has suffered and continues to suffer from terrorism emanating from its soil, Pakistan will continue to utilise terrorism as an instrument to advance its geo-strategic agenda in South Asia. The aim of Pakistan’s military-security establishment is to execute a perpetual war against India and across South Asia. The resurgence of Jaish is a bad omen for India. India should continue its efforts to get Azhar designated as a terrorist under the UNSC 1267 Committee, till such time it becomes difficult for China to bail out Pakistan on this issue.

Dr. Raj Verma is Assistant Professor, School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University, and Visiting Fellow at IDSA.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.