NIA names Masood Azhar in Pulwama attack case, but incriminating evidence may not be enough to bring JeM chief to justice

The NIA's chargesheet rests on technical and material evidence to establish the link between local Jaish operatives and their handlers in Pakistan. However, if the past pattern of Pakistan's behaviour is anything to go by, the JeM chief may still evade justice

Ananya Srivastava August 27, 2020 12:17:49 IST
NIA names Masood Azhar in Pulwama attack case, but incriminating evidence may not be enough to bring JeM chief to justice

The voluminous National Investigating Agency chargesheet naming Masood Azhar and two other members of his family in the Pulwama terror attack is making headlines in India. The NIA's chargesheet, it is said, rests on technical and material evidence to establish the link between local Jaish operatives and their handlers in Pakistan. However, if the past pattern of Pakistan's behaviour is anything to go by, the NIA's 13,500 page case file may not be enough to bring the terror mastermind to justice.

Cinching evidence

When the NIA began its probe into the Pulwama terror attack in which 40 CRPF personnel were killed last year, it faced a "blind case" in the absence of any solid proof against the perpetrators.

The case posed unique challenges, such as a lot of evidence having blown to pieces in the suicide attack and seven accused being subsequently killed in encounters. However, the Central agency painstakingly used forensic tests including DNA profiling of the meagre evidence to breach the dead ends.

"It was a blind case for us. There were a lot of murmurs but everything needs to be established beyond doubt in the court of law," a senior official, who was part of the probe told PTI.

The chargesheet has named Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and his two relatives along with 16 others. Azhar's nephew, Mohammed Umar Farooq, has been named as the main conspirator of the suicide mission. According to officials, Farooq had infiltrated into India in April 2018 and was subsequently killed in one of the encounters in South Kashmir last year.

Officials said the role of conspirators which included Mudasir Ahmed Khan, Qari Mufti Yasser and Mohd Kamran came to light but all of them were killed in different encounters with security forces. After JeM spokesperson Mohd Hassan in a video claimed that his group was responsible for the attack, it was sent for forensic examination and the Internet Protocol address was traced to a computer-based in Pakistan.

"A lot of digital, forensic, documentary and oral evidence establishing a fool-proof case against the accused of this dastardly and barbaric attack has been collected," NIA Deputy Inspector General and spokesperson Sonia Narang said.

"The charge-sheet has brought on record the all-out involvement of Pakistan-based entities to carry out terrorist strikes in India and to incite and provoke Kashmiri youth," she said. Masood Azhar's video and audio recordings praising the Pulwama attack are also part of the charge-sheet.

There are also pictures and WhatsApp messages that show not only was the conspiracy hatched in Pakistan, but even the explosive used in the attack was brought from across the border in tranches between March-May, 2018. The NIA has also said it has received useful and reliable inputs from foreign investigating agencies that helped it conclude the probe.

However, if the history of terrorism crimes in India is anything to go by, a solid trail of evidence, a chargesheet or even a judgment convicting the top leadership of the notorious Pakistan-based terrorist group may not be enough to ensure justice. Unless the Pakistani leadership decides to cooperate in the probe and act against Azhar and his cohorts, the agency's case may just remain confined to the files.

Who is Masood Azhar and Pakistan's role in shielding him?

Born in Bahawalpur, he was third of 11 children of a Deobandi cleric who ensured his son received good religious education. He graduated from the Jamia Uloom Islamic madrassa, notorious for ties to the extremist Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA) that backed the proxy war against India in Kashmir, according to a previous Firstpost article detailing the operations of his mafia-style family-run terror enterprise.

Azhar was first detained by Indian authorities on terrorism charges in 1994. He reportedly bragged to his jailers that they would not be able to keep him in custody. Five years later, the world watched in horror as hijackers diverted an Indian Airlines flight to Afghanistan and held the passengers hostage, the drama ending only when Delhi agreed to release three Kashmiri militants, including Azhar.

He is now wanted in more than a dozen cases for direct link and his group is held responsible for hundreds of terror attacks in the Kashmir Valley.

Among the most notable crimes on his account are the attacks on the Parliament building and Jammu and Kashmir State Legislative Assembly complex in 2001, killing nine and eight people respectively, Pathankot terror attack in 2016, Pulmawa attack in February 2019.

Pakistan's role so far

Azhar was detained and placed under house arrest after the Parliament attack. But a court in the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore ordered his release in 2002, citing "lack of evidence".

The group struck again in 2016  on the Pathankot airbase killing seven soldiers. Azhar was again taken into "protective custody", but never formally charged.

His whereabouts remained a mystery for months, with speculation he was being kept under house arrest in Bahawalpur.

In July 2018, he addressed supporters in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Occupied Kashmir, by telephone from an undisclosed location, claiming he had hundreds of militants ready to fight to the death. The speech prompted Indian authorities to tighten security at airports in anticipation of another hijacking, AFP reported. He hasn't been directly heard from since then and Pakistan officially told the FATF in February this year that Azhar and his family are “missing.”

But media reports quote intelligence officials to claim Azhar is living under the highest security in a virtually bomb-proof house behind the terror group’s Bahawalpur headquarters at Markaz-e-Usman-o-Ali, Railway Link Road, in Pakistan.

He has three other known addresses in Pakistan: Kausar Colony, Bahawalpur; Madarassa Bilal Habshi, Bannu, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; and Madrassa Masjid-e-Luqman, Lakki Marwat in the same province, according to Hindustan Times report.

After the Pulwama attack last year, there were uncorroborated reports that the terror mastermind had been put under a house arrest. But Hindustan Times reported in June this year that he has been 'secretly released' to plan terrorist operations in Kashmir.

Pakistan, meanwhile, remains oblivious to Azhar's actions.

The fact that Azhar's release from Indian prison was orchestrated by an act of terrorism — the hijacking of a plane full of civilians — under full international glare hasn't helped India's case with Pakistan; admissions of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that "Pakistan Army created armed militants" in the 1990s hasn't helped; and neither has the public admission of Pakistan's former dictator and military chief Pervez Musharraf that Pakistan intelligence agencies used JeM to carry out attacks in India.

It is yet to be seen whether Pakistan, now faced with the sanctions from the multinational Financial Action Task Force, will act any differently. For the record, Islamabad has said it has brought seminaries linked to jihadist groups under government administration and is prosecuting key leaders for financing terrorism. In the latest move, Pakistan issued financial sanctions against Afghan Taliban members along with outlawed anti-India groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Haqqani network.

But it had also first accepted Mumbai-blast mastermind Dawood Ibrahim's hideout in the country by placing financial sanctions, but later tried to distance itself from the statement by claiming that its notifications about the 88 banned terror groups and their leaders were based on the details provided by the UN.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date:

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