The carnage is dreadful to see at the bombing site. Worse are the gloating headlines of major newspapers in Pakistan. One of those is headlined “Freedom fighter launches attacks, 44 of Occupying Force killed in J&K”. The article goes on to quote a Jaish-e-Mohammad source who denies the group was behind the attack. The fact that such sources are readily available to the media itself gives the lie to the claim that the JeM is banned in Pakistan.
JeM’s activities are hardly a secret in Punjab, where passersby will point out its headquarters in Bahawalpur. Its leader Mazood Azhar is the son of a school headmaster and hails from a large family. Azhar started his career through the efforts of Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, who was then directing the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a group operating with foreigners of various nationalities in Afghanistan. Azhar was later asked to concentrate on Jammu and Kashmir, and sent on a visit. He was arrested in 1994 attempting to enter through Bangladesh and incarcerated.
However, he was not in prison for long. He was one of the main terrorists released after the IC-814 hijacking in 1999. Azhar thereafter addressed a huge gathering in Karachi, flanked by his own heavily armed security detail. Pakistan’s Zahid Hussain reported this to the authorities, who accused him of “hallucinating” . Clearly, Azhar had hit gold. The JeM was started immediately thereafter, and soon launched its first major attack on Parliament in 2001.
Following the attacks of 9/11 and General Pervez Musharraf’s capitulation to the United States, a section of the group turned on the Pakistani Army and installations in revenge for what was seen as a betrayal.They even targeted Musharraf twice, with some support from within the Pakistan Army. Rumour has it that Indian agencies got to hear of it, and warned Musharraf. By 2004 however, Azhar had ‘cleansed’ the organisation of such elements, and the group was back as a Kashmir directed terrorist force.
However, the original Afghan connection remained. Azhar’s family was part of the then Taliban government: the connection served him well. Hundreds of his group cadres were trained in Afghan camps, giving them a degree of lethality that Kashmiri groups like Hizbul Mujahideen could not claim. The fact that the planner of the attack Abdul Rashid Ghazi is an explosive expert with fighting experience in Afghanistan shows the link endures to deadly effect.
Despite all this, the JeM was thoroughly written off in Kashmir by Indian Army operations after many of its major leaders were killed. On 9 February, 2013, Afzal Guru the main accused in the attack on the Indian Parliament was hanged, an act that was opposed by many of our liberals and which gave Azhar a golden opportunity to regroup. By 2014, JeM was back with a bang in Pakistan. Reports abounded of a sprawling complex, complete with riding classes and martial arts at Bahawalpur.
The 2016 Pathankot attack by well-trained fidayeen attackers followed. What was significant was not the attack itself, however well executed. The point was that the fidayeen attack followed immediately after Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropped in unexpectedly into Pakistan to greet then prime minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday. Someone somewhere in Rawalpindi took fright. The JeM had clearly become a trusted instrument of the establishment, more so because the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was far too much in the public gaze.
In 2018, Firspost reported that the JeM was building another giant facility close to their original camp. The huge 15-acre complex could hardly be overlooked, nor the funds raised by JeM leaders kept a secret. It seemed the group was flexing its muscles under the new dispensation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. After all, his election slogans in Punjab were on the side of the extremist causes. This included punishment for blasphemy, the non-Muslim status of Ahmadis, and other such issues. Worse, Imran's party accepted support from no less than Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, the patron who raised Azhar from penury to his present status. Over the past year, JeM’s profile in Kashmir has only risen, with not only cadres coming in from Pakistan, but also the very real power of Azhar’s eloquence on videos distributed through online portals and other platforms.
There is still much to the Pulwama attack that is unclear. Adil Ahmad Dar, the young suicide bomber, had barely a year’s tenure in JeM before he became cannon fodder. His cousins lasted just months. This is a repetition of other young lives, and must constitute as point one in terms of counter-terrorism. Get the youth back on your side with imaginative measures that have been set aside for nearly a decade. The second point is that none of these youngsters would have had the clout to get hold of even half of the reported 350-kg explosives used in the attack.
The fact is that explosives are extraordinarily difficult to source even for hardened groups like LeT. That’s the trail that should be followed and quickly. There may be more where that cache came from. Point three is that the JeM or Pakistan can only claim victory if India delivers it. And Indian politicians sniping at each other are doing just that.
A video from Farooq Abdullah stands out as an example of what not to say, particularly when the whole nation is baying for blood. Point four arises from this call for revenge. The ‘do something’ lobby dominating television discussions need to ponder whether a diminishing defence budget and a divisive debate on Rafale is helping in delivering the desired strength, keeping in mind that another ‘surgical strike’ could be followed by open war.
Make no mistake. No enemy will take on a force that is overwhelmingly superior in terms of delivering punishment. If JeM attacks, it is because the Pakistanis are convinced that India will not risk a war. There is, of course, another covert course of retaliation that could effectively take the josh out of JeM. But that’s a discussion for another day.
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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2019 16:23:51 IST