LAHORE: The dreaded Maulana Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) is back in business and has restarted recruitment and fund-raising activities in Pakistan, a move timed precisely with the recent progress in the peace talks between India and Pakistan.
In December 2008, almost a week after the 26/11 terror attacks in the Indian commercial capital of Mumbai, the Pakistani authorities had placed restrictions on Masood Azhar’s movement by confining him to his multi-storied concrete compound in the Model Town area of Bahawalpur, housing hundreds of armed men. The action was taken in the wake of the Indian demand to hand over three persons to New Delhi - Masood Azhar, Dawood Ibrahim and Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. The JeM chief was wanted for his alleged involvement in the 2001 attacks on the Indian parliament.
The Indian demand was followed by Pakistani media reports that Maulana Masood Azhar had abandoned his Jaish headquarters in the Model Town and temporarily shifted his base to South Waziristan in the wake of the mounting Indian pressure for his extradition.
In the second week of April 2009, Masood Azhar was declared officially missing from Pakistan after the Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed that he was not in Pakistan and that Islamabad would not provide protection and refuge to any criminal.
But the then Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee had ridiculed Pakistan for denying the “obvious presence” of the Jaish chief, saying: “India had several times got different information from Pakistan on Masood Azhar and it was not unusual to hear such denials from Pakistani officials.”
However, well-informed militant circles say Maulana Masood Azhar has already returned to Bahawalpur and resumed his jehadi activities by reactivating the Jaish headquarters in the Model Town area. The JeM nerve center openly runs a grand religious seminary - Usman-o-Ali - where extremist interpretation of Islam is taught to hundreds of children.
International media recently expressed fears that the headquarters of the jehadi group could contain underground bunkers and tunnels, as had been the case with the Lal Masjid-run Jamia Fareedia and Jamia Hafsa schools in Islamabad, which were eventually destroyed in a massive military operation carried out by the Pakistan army in July 2007.
Critics say by allowing the Jaish Ameer to return to Bahawalpur and resume his jehadi activities, the Pakistani establishment seems to have forgotten that British-Pakistani terror suspect Rashid Rauf, who escaped from the custody of the police in Rawalpindi in 2007 while undergoing a court trial, was a close relative of Masood Azhar and had planned to blow up trans-Atlantic planes at Heathrow Airport in London way back in August 2006.
Rashid Rauf was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in the North Waziristan on November 22, 2008 along with a senior al-Qaeda leader. Even today, senior security officials concede that JeM activists are working in tandem with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani militant network in NWA in their ongoing battle against what they describe as “the forces of the infidel” on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.
The Jaish was launched by jehadi cleric Azhar in February 2000 shortly after his release from an Indian jail in exchange for hostages on board an Indian plane that was hijacked by Kashmiri militants in December 1999. Although Azhar was arrested in India in February 1994, his name first hit the headlines following the 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC 814. After being hijacked the plane was taken to Kandahar in Afghanistan, which was under the control of the Taliban at that time. The hijackers were led by Azhar’s younger brother.
Once the Indian authorities handed over Masood Azhar, Sheikh Omar Saeed and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar to the hijackers, they came to Pakistan and shortly afterwards Masood Azhar appeared in Karachi to address an estimated 10,000 people. He announced the launching of the JeM with the prime objective of fighting Indian security forces in J&K and proclaimed, “I have come here because this is my duty to tell you that Muslims should not rest in peace until they destroy India and the United States.”
Masood Azhar was the ideologue of another militant organization, the Deobandi Harkatul Ansar (HuA) that was banned in 1997 by the US State Department due to its alleged association with al-Qaeda. The HuA renamed itself as the Harkatul Mujahideen in 1998, a year after being banned.
The formation of the Jaish was widely supported by Pakistan’s top Islamic Deobandi scholars, especially Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai of the Jamia Binori in Karachi, who was known for his pro-Taliban leanings and Maulana Yusuf Ludhianvi, who was the chief commander of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan at that time. While Shamzai became the chief ideologue of the Jaish, Ludhianvi was made its supreme leader and Masood Azhar the chief commander.
In July 2005, British intelligence agencies investigating the July 7 suicide bombings in London informed their Pakistan counterparts that two of the four suicide bombers - Shehzad Tanweer and Siddique Khan - had met Osama Nazir, a JeM suicide trainer, in Faisalabad a few months before the attacks. Information provided by Nazir after his arrest revealed that Tanweer had stayed at another extremist Sunni religious school, Jamia Manzurul Islami, situated in cantonment area of Lahore and being run by its principal, Pir Saifullah Khalid, who is considered close to Masood Azhar.
In 2007, the slowing down of the India-Pakistan peace process saw renewed activity by the Jaish which re-launched cross-border offensives in Jammu & Kashmir. The group was reorganized under the command of Mufti Abdul Rauf, the younger brother of Azhar who had proved his mettle by carrying out successful militant operations inside Jammu & Kashmir.
Rauf was allegedly allowed to establish a transit camp in Rawalpindi for recruits traveling from southern Punjab to the training camp at Kohat, 40 miles from Peshawar. It was decided that Abdul Rauf would supervise the JeM training camps as the acting chief of the group while Maulana Masood Azhar would continue to manage organizational affairs while remaining underground.
However, the Jaish Ameer had to go underground in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and the subsequent Indian demand for his extradition.
ISLAMABAD: After remaining underground for a decade since being banned in 2001, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), the second largest jihadi group based in Punjab, has resumed full-scale public activity including fundraising while security agencies appear to be overlooking its ‘resurgence’.Jaish activists and intelligence officials said the group is in the process of regaining its traditional physical and financial strength which had dissipated during the ten-year ban imposed by former president Pervez Musharraf. The JeM, they added, is working on a plan to reach out to its activists who had abandoned the organisation after it came on the radar following an attack on the Indian parliament blamed on the group.
JeM is trying to consolidate avenues for fundraising, individual charity from within Pakistan and donations from Gulf states, which were partially blocked during the ban by the country’s security agencies. As a first step, an activist said, it had revived its charity, Al-Rehmat Trust, the group’s humanitarian wing once run by Master Allah Baksh, the father of Jaish founding chief Maulana Masood Azhar, till his death last year.
Maulana Ashfaq Ahmed, who is affiliated with the trust as its coordinator said from Bahawalpur, the city in southern Punjab where the organisation is based, that the charity’s fundraising was in full swing in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The trust capitalises on Masood Azhar’s name for recreating the goodwill it once enjoyed when it had fought in Afghanistan along with the Taliban before the regime was driven out of power by international forces. Government agencies have never obstructed the trust’s fundraising in either Punjab or KP, Maulana Ashfaq added. When asked why, he remarked: “You can put this question to the government and its agencies. We operate on the ground. We have a visible presence.”
Led by Azhar, Jaish is the second largest jihadi outfit in the Punjab. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is the biggest both in terms of the number of activists and infrastructure. Maulana Ashfaq said the trust’s offices were being re-established all over Punjab and KP including Jaish’s traditional strongholds in Kohat district and Hazara region. He added that fund-raising had gained momentum with the advent of Ramazan, but declined to give an approximation of the amount the charity might fetch by Eid. A younger brother of Masood, Amar Azhar (possibly his codename), was in Saudi Arabia to seek donations from rich businessmen and sympathisers in Gulf states.
Officials of law enforcement agencies in Punjab said they had never received orders for a crackdown on the trust since it was not banned by the federal interior ministry. “Provincial authorities can only ban organisations proscribed by the federal government. Otherwise, they can take us to court,” said Senator Pervez Rasheed, an adviser to the Punjab government. Additional Inspector General (Investigations) Punjab police Azam Joya said not a single case against banned organisations for raising funds was referred to provincial law enforcers in recent months.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik was not available for comment on why an organisation using the name of Jaish chief and sharing its headquarters has not been banned. KP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain also declined to comment on the trust’s activities in the province.