What will happen to the thaw in India-Pakistan bilateral relations post Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore if Pakistan’s outlawed terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) is indeed behind the terror attack on the air-base at Pathankot? Nothing much will change, feel experts. The question, they say, calls for a closer look at the growing distance between JeM leader Maulana Masood Azhar and the Pakistan’s establishment, both military and civilian, in recent times.
While a clear connection between Masood — the brains behind the 2001 Parliament attack in New Delhi and the beheading of WSJ journalist Daniel Pearl — and the attack on the airbase would be established only after an NIA probe, the Indian government is not ruling out JeM’s involvement at this point. Home Minister Rajnath Singh has made this clear already. This, according to experts keeping a close eye on changing equations between terror outfits and their handlers in Pakistan, could work to India’s advantage vis-a-vis Azhar.
Alok Bansal, director, Centre for Security and Strategy, India Foundation, observed, “Though a section has claimed so, it’s not clear whether JeM is involved in Pathankot attack or not. If it is involved it’ll be better for the Indian government to pressure Pakistan government, as JeM and Masood Azhar have distanced themselves from Pakistani establishment. Even Pakistan government may take a strong step against it, and apprehend a few JeM members.”
Maybe in attacking India, JeM might not have the tacit support of the Pakistani establishment unlike in the past. “Azhar fell out of favour with the ISI after his group made an assassination bid on former President of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf. Though over the past couple of years the ISI nurtured him back to relevance, now apparently JeM has distanced itself and is closely aligning with the global terror outfit IS,” said Bansal. There are chances that the thaw between India and Pakistan may not go back to freeze mode yet, he added.
An intelligence agency source said only a thorough investigation by the NIA would reveal the real face behind the attack on Pathankot airbase. “But prima facie evidence shows that the militants who carried the assault had a connection with the JeM. They carried bags with markings of executed Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. JeM had formed Afzal Guru Squad. This squad had also made an attack recently near the Line of Control in Kashmir. Dots need to be connected,” an intelligence agency source said.
Intercept of calls made by the terrorists before the the attack shows a connection with Pakistan and also with a few top-level functionaries of JeM, he added.
“One of the call intercepts shows that a militant had spoken with Masood’s younger brother, who’s also a leader of JeM.” The sudden reactivation of Jaish-e-Mohammad has raised concerns among the Indian security establishment. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had even spoke up about the outfit and it was decided that the matter would be pursued with Pakistan.
Like the Pathankot attack, another attack with almost a similar modus operandi was carried out at a Gorkha Rifles Camp along Kalsuri Ridge in Tangdhar area near the Line of Control (LoC) in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district on 25 November, 2015. The bags recovered from the slain terrorists had the markings of Afzal Guru squad, indicating JeM involvement.
"They are from Jaish. Afzal Guru Squad was written on their bags and the ultras are perhaps trying to use the name of Parliament attack convict to garner support," Lieutenant General Satish Dua, general officer commanding (GoC) 15 Corps had said referring to the attack on Gorkha Rifles Camp.
JeM, formed in 2000, is said to be a creation of Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI. Its aim is to undermine Indian control in Kashmir and unite it with Pakistan under its own interpretation of Shariah Law.
Azhar, a citizen of Pakistan and a member of the terrorist group Harakat al-Mujahedeen (HuM), was accused of working with Al-Qaeda and of fighting against US troops in Somalia under Osama bin Laden’s instructions.