Jaish-e-Mohammad in Focus
Daily Times, July 2, 2007
Eight terrorists belonging to the much-metamorphosed jihadi militia Jaish-e Muhammad have been arrested in Lahore. The police have confined their list of offences which range from the killing of Christians in Pakistan to carrying out terrorist acts in Afghanistan for the Taliban against the international NATO-ISAF forces. The group was located in Quetta and one can speculate that the “lead” on the terrorists with half a decade old Pakistani charges against them must have come from Afghanistan.
The eight men are believed to have been behind an attack on a missionary school near Murree in 2002, killing six; and a grenade attack on a church in Taxila four days later, in which four nurses were killed — a poor man’s answer to the invasion of Afghanistan. One of the terrorists had a bounty on his head of one million rupees. The group had in their possession material for making bombs and large quantities of arms and ammunition. The group confessed to being members of Khudam al-Furqan, the name a splinter from Jaish assumed after Jaish was banned in 2002.
Pakistan is now in the process of dismantling and eliminating — at times under duress — the proxies it had launched in the name of “freedom wars”. The jihadi underworld developed under several names, the most well known being Jamiatul Ansar which emerged as the most blood-thirsty terrorist group in Indian-occupied Kashmir in the 1990s. When the world woke up to its indiscriminate savagery targeting people not directly connected with the “freedom struggle”, it splintered and assumed different identities, one of them being Harkatul Mujahideen, led from the Deobandi seminaries in Pakistan.
Harkat came to be a close associate of Osama bin Laden and accompanied him to Sudan when he took his Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan because of mujahideen infighting. One leader of Jaish, Maulana Masood Azhar, rose as an agent of Al Qaeda with the ability to raise funds all over the world. In 1993, Al Qaeda was involved in the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in Somalia while performing duties under UN auspices, about which Osama bin Laden was to boast later. While in disguise in India, Masood was captured and imprisoned. Another operative of Al Qaeda, Umar Sheikh, was also captured in New Delhi.
In 1999, an Indian civilian aircraft was hijacked after take-off from Nepal by a group of terrorists led by Masood’s brother, Ibrahim. The plane was taken to Afghanistan where the Taliban, recognised by Pakistan as a regime, arranged for a swap of Indian passengers with the two Al Qaeda terrorists, Umar and Masood. After their release, both came to Pakistan and began operating freely. Umar came to Lahore and Masood went to the most powerful seminary in Pakistan, Jamia Banuria, from where he later started issuing threatening statements against President Pervez Musharraf when the jihad was bottled up after 2003.
In the pre-9/11 days the Pakistani establishment was still upbeat about its proxy wars and did nothing to catch the terrorists, which aroused suspicion in many quarters about the 1999 hijack. Both the terrorists then struck targets that hurt Pakistan’s national interests in the post-9/11 period. Umar Sheikh arranged to kill an American journalist Daniel Pearl and is today in prison in Pakistan appealing against his death sentence. But Masood’s career has continued to be turbulent. After 2001, he not only took on General Musharraf but also the Harkat leadership. He split with the other leader Fazlur Rehman Khalil and set up another militia which he called Jaish-e Muhammad. In this he was supported by Jamia Banuria’s chief Mufti Shamzai — killed in 2004 — who prized him as his pupil. At that point Lahore had a number of “self-financed” centres — based on extortion on the basis of fatwas — run by youths plying double-cabin vehicles gifted by Osama bin Laden. From the published information available in Pakistan, it is quite clear that the Harkat-Jaish split caused the vehicles to be disabled, but the vehicles were replaced again by Osama bin Laden.
Masood damaged General Musharraf more effectively in 2001 when he attacked the Indian parliament and caused a military standoff between Pakistan and India that lasted almost a year. He was put under house arrest in his hometown Bahawalpur from where he has a way of vanishing from time to time. No one knows where he is today. The Harkat leader Fazlur Rehman Khalil is also at large, probably living in Islamabad, and has only recently stopped giving interviews to foreigners which have proved embarrassing to Islamabad.
Another actor in this lethal dramatis personae of terror was Qari Saifullah Akhtar, let off from the 1995 abortive military coup and then sent off to Dubai in 2001 to escape being killed by the invasion of Afghanistan, only to be recalled when his boys nearly succeeded in killing President Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. No one knows where he is now.
Pakistan is revisiting the nightmare of its past. Its posturings will remain dubious till it decides to purge its conscience and starts with a clean slate. *