ISI backing and a load of cash: Decoding the resurgence of Jaish-e-Muhammad
The terror attack on the Pathankot air base in Punjab was significant for many reasons. One, it was the first major attack on Indian soil outside Kashmir after the Mumbai attack on November 26. Second, targeting a strategic location in the country was, at best, only an attempt that was last seen during the wars of 1965 and 1971.
Perhaps, the underlining factor that sets apart the Pathankot attack from other militant attacks planned from across the border is the not-so-silent resurgence of the Jaish-e-Muhammad.
The past five years have seen the outfit hold large meetings in Pakistan, allowing the once banned organisation to raise funds for a lavish new 16-acre headquarters in Bahawalpur, charitable operations, and military training camps.
Indian intelligence agencies estimate the Jaish to have over 500 trained jihadists at its disposal. As per agencies, Jaish forms the biggest threat to India after the Lashkar-e-Toiba.
The Lashkar threat, in many ways, has allowed the Jaish to step up its activities. With world's turning a close eye on activities of the Lashkar, the Jaish has gone largely unnoticed and grown into what agencies have termed as one of the biggest jihadist organisations in Pakistan.
While the world failed to take notice of the re-emergence of Jaish, the organisation managed to revive its roots. Crucially, the resurgence hasn't been very silent and has happened right under the nose of Pakistan defence and intelligence establishments –at times, with their support as well.
A quick look at the activities that Jaish has been involved in during the past five years puts things in better context. In 2010, the Jaish put jihad veteran Maulana Ghulam Murtaza in charge of recuperating the al-Rahmat trust. The trust was once run by the father of Jaish leaders Maulana Masood Azhar and his brother Abdul Rauf Asghar. India has strong reasons to believe that the Pathankot attack was masterminded by the Azhar brothers.
The trust soon began soliciting funds in Pakistan and the Gulf monarchies, to build 313 mosques and seminaries. In 2010, a Jaish-affiliated publication claimed that the trust was paying pensions to the families of at least 850 jihadists killed or imprisoned in India, as well as in other countries.
The interesting point to note here is that al-Rahmat has continued to operate through publicly-advertised bank accounts in Pakistan. Even more blatant is the fact that Pakistan's government has issued legal permissions for Jaish-related publications to print, and to solicit advertisements.
The weekly magazine al-Qalam — in which, Pakistani counter-terrorism officials say Masood Azhar publishes under the pen-name ‘Saadi' — is openly sold, along with the daily Islam and weekly Zarb-e-Momin, dedicated to glorifying Taliban violence.
All this has happened despite a ban on the trust by the United States in November 2010 terming it as the “operational front” for the Jaish. The sanctions by the US against al-Rahmat have been followed by the United Arab Emirates.
The apparent complicity of the Pakistani government, defence and intelligence authorities in marking the resurgence of this dreaded militant outfit underlines a marked shift from the time when Pakistan had begun shutting down the Jaish in 2003. While a part of this operation was in response to Indian and US pressure following the attack on the Indian Parliament, the growing fissure between General Pervez Musharraf's military regime and the Islamists was key to Pakistani military cracking down on the organisation.
The times have definitely changed since then. With Pakistan itself a target of repeated terror strikes on its own people, it opted to heed to the need for negotiators to deal with complex scenarios.
According to a report in The Indian Express, in 2009, when jihadists took 49 hostages in an attack on the Pakistan army's headquarters in Rawalpindi, the ISI needed negotiators whom both they and the attackers trusted. “Military aircraft were despatched to pick up top jihadist leaders — among them Abdul Rauf Azhar. Masood Azhar, Indian intelligence officials believe, is also valued for his old links with the Taliban,” the report said.
The trust ISI posed in Masood Azhar has only emboldened him. He once described Osama Bin Laden as “our brother, a Muslim, the pride of the Arabs”. In fact, Jaish was allowed to vocally support Bin Laden after his death, contrary to stated Pakistani policy against the fugitive jihadist.
Following last year's attacks in Paris, Masood Azhar's pseudonymous column in al-Qalam warned the West: “If you spray bombs, do you think the children of Medina will shower petals on you?”
In an August 2015 column, he assailed Pakistan's government for “arresting Mujahideen for collecting contributions”. “They are of the view” that if financial channels of the Mujahideen are blocked, their jihad and religion would die.” The rulers, he wrote, were “infidels and hypocrites”.
The Gift of Virtue, Azhar's third book, casts the struggle for Kashmir's independence from India in much the same terms as Bin Laden did against the West. Indian rule, he argues, compromises the sovereignty over a land which they ought to rule.
Some Indian intelligence officials see a method behind this madness. Jaish, they believe, is being allowed to spill the same venom that is drawing people in Pakistan to groups like the Islamic State. The idea is to get people into the fold and then turn their guns towards Afghanistan and India.
What becomes crucial then how India places its trust in a leadership that has its hands dirty in raising and abetting the same terrorist groups it has harboured and has allowed to flourish?
Pakistan, believe experts, will be Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's biggest challenge. Needless to say, the challenge is real and will require all his tact to deal with it effectively.