Why is Kashmir Jaish-e-Mohammed Leader Masood Azhar’s Favourite Hunting Ground?

Muhammad Raafi | Feb 14, 2019 | 5 min read


On May 11, 2000, a Class 12 student from Srinagar---Aafaq Ahmad---rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into the gates of Srinagar-based 15 Corps headquarters. That was the first ever suicide attack in a little over 10 years of insurgency then. The incident marked the arrival of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the same militant outfit that carried the deadliest attack in the history of Kashmir insurgency, killing at least 42 CRPF personnel on Thursday, February 14.

The face behind this Pakistan-based Islamist organisation was one of the three "dreaded" militants released in 1999 in exchange for the passengers of hijacked Indian Airline flight IC-814, Moulana Masood Azhar. The plane was hijacked in Kathmandu, Nepal and taken to Kandahar in Afghanistan. The other two militants released along with Azhar were Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.

Between 2000 and 2019, Azhar’s JeM has been behind several attacks that have brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

A senior security official says that all the major attacks perpetuated in Kashmir since 2000 can be traced to Jaish-e-Muhammad. “Fidayeen attacks are Jaish’s preferred mode of operation,” he says.

Physically weak strategically strong

Born in Bahawalpur city of Pakistan in 1968 and son of a school master, Allah Bakhsh Shabir, Azhar’s family ran a dairy and poultry farm in Bahawalpur neighbourhood.

The young Azhar, despite being physically weak to join the Afghan jihad against the Russians, went to the war front and got injured. Subsequently, he was pulled out of the unit of ‘soldiers’ and made incharge of the motivation unit of jihadi organisation Harkat-ul-Ansar due to his famous oratory skills.

In 1994, a 26-year-old Azhar travelled to India from Dhaka on a fake passport posing as a Gujarat-born Portuguese journalist. His India visit was aimed to mediate between two warring factions of Harkat in Kashmir. However, Azhar landed in the hands of Indian security agencies along with Harkat’s top commanders, Sajjad Afghani and Amjad Bilal.

Little did Indian agencies know that the militant they had nabbed 25 years ago would not only be released later but would also end up being the thorn that pricks them longest in the Kashmir insurgency.

JeM and its repeated attacks

Azhar-led Jaish has carried out several high-profile attacks in Kashmir and was also alleged of attacking Indian Parliament in 2001.

Azhar was arrested by Pakistani authorities for his alleged involvement in the Parliament attack but was released a year later after a court ruled that authorities had presented inadequate evidence against him.

In October 2001, Jaish again used a car bomb to attack the legislative assembly in Srinagar, killing at least 39 people and injuring 60 others.

In January 2002, after the US declared Jaish a “terror outfit” Pakistan banned it. Indian agencies claim that Pakistan still continues to protect the group despite international bans. Post the ban forced by the US, the group was accused of attempting to assassinate then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2003.

Azhar kept a low profile for several years until 2014 when he called for more attacks on India and the United States. He threatened to kill Narendra Modi if he came to power.

In January 2016, Jaish launched an attack on the Pathankot airbase, which led to the killing of five militants while six security personnel were killed. This was immediately followed by an attack on the Indian consulate at Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. Pakistan announced that Azhar was taken into “protective custody” but Jaish issued a statement saying nobody had been arrested.

While the United Jihad Council, a Kashmir-based amalgam of militant groups, claimed responsibility for the Pathankot attack, India blamed Jaish-e-Mohammed for the attack.

The September 18, 2016 attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri was also carried out by the Jaish. Four heavily armed militants carried out a pre-dawn ambush on the brigade headquarters in Uri, near the Line of Control, killing 19 security personnel. JeM’s Kashif Jaan, Rauf Asgar and Masood Azhar are believed to have masterminded the brazen attack.

Keeping peace process at bay

The attack led to a breakdown in India-Pakistan relations, which seemed to be a shared concern between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan’s former premier Nawaz Sharif. Multiple reports suggested that the attack was an attempt to derail the peace process meant to stabilize the deteriorated relations between India and Pakistan. The bonhomie between the Prime Ministers of the two neighbouring countries looked on track after PM Modi invited Nawaz Sharif to his swearing in ceremony and also visited the latter on his birthday by taking a sudden detour to Lahore while returning from Afghanistan.

China’s Pak-born BFF

Azhar's current whereabouts remain unknown having not been formally charged by Pakistan with a crime nor making public appearances since his detention. While India has reiterated the demand that Jaish-e-Mohammad chief, Masood Azhar, be proscribed by the UN, China again blocked the move.

China again on Friday said that as for the issue of listing Azhar as a global terrorist, “...the 1267 Committee of Security Council has a clear stipulation on the listing and procedure of the terrorist organisations”.

“China will continue to handle the relevant sanctions issue in a constructive and responsible manner,” spokesman of the Chinese foreign ministry Geng Shuang said in an apparent reference to External Affairs Ministry’s appeal to all members of the UN Security Council to list Azhar as a global terrorist.

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