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Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar's writings put paid to Pakistan's claims of ban on terror groups

New Delhi: He was too close to deadline for the airstrikes targeting his empire to merit more than a footnote. “I was writing this column late at night,” Maulana Masood Azhar Alvi wrote, “When news of India’s bombing came in. I will say more on this later, god willing, but for now, this: there has been no damage. India’s leaders are dishonest.” India’s threats, he went on “intoxicate us like the applause of the audience does a poet: an intoxication more powerful than alcohol.”

Twice, Azhar, the head of the terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), has brought nuclear weapons-armed India and Pakistan to the edge of full-blown war; thrice, Pakistan’s government has incarcerated him and promised to shut down his jihadist enterprise.

 Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhars writings put paid to Pakistans claims of ban on terror groups

File image of Masood Azhar. AFP

Now, in the wake of India’s airstrikes on the JeM’s complex in Balakot, Islamabad has once again vowed to dismantle the cleric’s empire of hate: but the odds are low that the 5 March crackdown will play out any differently from the past.

Still alive and kicking

From the JeM’s own words, it’s clear its operations didn’t end on 22 February, when the Punjab government announced it was taking over the group’s two main complexes in the city of Bahawalpur. Fawwad Chaudhury, Pakistan’s information minister, also announced that day that the government was committed to implementing the country’s National Action Plan against terrorism, which calls for strict action against proscribed groups.

In between the words and the reality, the Jaish’s literature shows, there’s considerable distance. Indeed, the Jaish makes no effort to echo official Pakistani claims that neither the organisation or its chief have links to terrorism.

For example, the weekend newspaper Al-Qalam’s 1 March issue reported 48 participants have been engaged in the Daura Siyasa, a course where participants are taught “knowledge of Islam, the history of Islam, and knowledge of jihad.” “The course,” the newspaper stated, “Is devised by the emir of the mujahideen, Maulana Masood Azhar, and is conducted under his directions by teachers who have received instruction from him.”

There is also evidence, in the newspaper, that recruitment activity continued apace. Preacher Illyas Qasmi, for example, held a meeting at Bahawalpur’s Chak 86, to invite his audience to “the Quran, namaaz and jihad.” “When we come to understand, from the Quran, the way of jihad in the path of god, we will discover a new honour and courage,” the preacher promised. Five people, Al-Qalam stated, responded to this speech by agreeing to join the group.

Indeed, the newspaper showed similar Jaish meetings were held across the country in the wake of the Pulwama suicide bombing. At one meeting, held in Rahim Yar Khan district’s Sadiqabad, Maulana Mujahid Abbas had this message for prayer congregants: “Muslims, the task before us now is to be prepared to die alongside our Kashmiri brothers, and tell the Hindus that we will not rest until the flag of Islam flies over their entire country.”

Speaking in Mardaan, preacher Qamar-ul-Zamaan told his audience “we are enjoying victory in Afghanistan today because of the blessings of the blood of martyrs.” “The day is not far,” he promised, “When similar news will come from Kashmir, and the Hindu tyrants will be brought in chains by the mujahideen before their emir.”

Lying low?

From Azhar’s lead article in Al-Qalam, it is clear he had been anticipating at least some official action against the organisation: just as there were in the wake of major terrorist attacks in 2018, 2008, and 2001.  “From the day Pakistan joined America and NATO’s war,” he wrote, “Things have been fragile. The rulers of our times committed a terrible sin, and have refused to repent. It is because of this sin that an evil, impure and cowardly country like India is able to subjugate and threaten us.”

“If only you would follow the path Islam has set for you there would be no room for this to happen,” Azhar wrote, addressing Pakistan’s rulers. “The answer is simple: our sights must be focused on the afterlife.”

Following the publication of Al-Qalam this weekend, a Jaish-linked Telegram feed complained that “the Government of Pakistan has turned out to be just like that of Pervez Musharraf. It has returned India’s pilot, and is now making plans to target the people of faith, by seizing their institutions and incarcerating them.”

“Be prepared for your union with your creator,” it went on. “Be prepared to migrate. At any time, you can be called: be ready.”

In spite of the tone, though, there’s no evidence the Pakistan government is any more serious than it was during the past crackdowns of 2002, after 26/11 and post-Pathankot. The reasons lie in the intimate ties between the Jaish, and Pakistan’s military.

Intimate allies

In the wake of 9/11, the Jaish came under enormous stress, as General Pervez Musharraf’s government found itself confronting the jihadist movement in Pakistan. In late 2001, Maulana Abdul Jabbar, the Jaish’s overall military commander, began pushing for attacks on Western targets in Pakistan. Azhar described his challenger as a “sectarian terrorist”, but many young jihadists broke ranks with the Jaish, to join more radical Al-Qaeda linked groups.

In 2002, faced with the risk of all-out war with India, General Pervez Musharraf banned the Jaish: a ban that still stands. There was more bad news for the jihadist, too. Evidence emerged of Azhar having mentored British-born Al-Qaeda jihadist Rashid Rauf. Investigations into the 2005 London bombings showed key perpetrators, notably Mohammad Siddique Khan, trained at camps linked to Azhar, and were inspired by his writings.

In the wake these events, former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lieutenant-General Javed Ashraf Qazi told Pakistan Parliament that the country “must not be afraid of admitting that the Jaish was involved in the deaths of thousands of innocent Kashmiris [and] bombing the Indian Parliament.”

General Musharraf’s pro-United States policies, though, spawned a new cohort of anti-Pakistan jihadists. Testifying before the official inquiry into the attack which claimed Osama bin-Laden’s life, former ISI chief Lieutenant-General Shuja Pasha lashed out at Musharraf for caving in “so promptly and so completely to the to the United States demands that Shamsi airbase was given to them for drone strikes against people in Pakistan”.

Inside the ISI, General Pasha’s views were widely held. In 2009, jihadists took 49 hostages in an attack on the Pakistan Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi. The ISI needed negotiators who both they and the attackers trusted. Military aircraft were dispatched to pick up top jihadist leaders: among them Masood Azhar’s brother, Abdul Rauf Alvi.

For the hawks, these events were a compelling case for bringing Azhar back from the cold, and creating a loyalist group of jihadists: an organisation that could wean away cadre from Al-Qaeda linked groups, and direct them towards the State-backed jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Jaish, interestingly, was allowed to vocally support Bin Laden after his death: in defiance of stated Pakistani policy against the fugitive jihadist. In one eulogy, Masood Azhar described him as “our brother, a Muslim, the pride of the Arabs”. Rauf was even more explicit, attacking Pakistan’s political leadership for allowing a man “who gave his whole life for Islam to be martyred in Pakistan”.

“The Americans have spilled Osama Bin Laden’s blood”, Rauf warned. “And they will pay for it”.

Large parts of the Jaish leadership’s speeches, interestingly, make the case for jihad worldwide: not just against India. Following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, Masood Azhar warned the West: “If you spray bombs, do you think the children of Medina will shower petals on you?” Fifty years old this summer, Azhar is entering his sunset: overweight and diabetic, he underwent gall-bladder surgery a decade ago. His empire of hate, though, is nowhere near its sunset.

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Updated Date: Mar 05, 2019 17:47:42 IST