The resurgence of the extremist Islamist group Jaish-e-Mohammed in recent years is clear. Less obvious is the nature of - and motivation for - Pakistan's links with the group.
India has repeatedly blamed Pakistan for terrorist attacks in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), as well as in other parts of India, and for fostering insurgency and radicalisation in Kashmir. There is evidence of Pakistan’s connivance in various terrorist attacks in India, including the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament conducted jointly by Lashkar-e-T
oaiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (also known as JeM), the Mumbai attacks by LeT in November 2008, the attack on Pathankot Air Force base in January 2016 by JeM, and LeT’s attack on Uri Army base in September last year. While Pakistan has fostered various terrorist organisations operating in J&K or on the line of control (LoC) - including JeM, LeT, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul Mujahideen and Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami - it has a special relationship with JeM and its commander, Masood Azhar.
The genesis of this relationship goes back to 2001. After 9/11, Pakistan’s leader General Pervez Musharraf joined the US global war on terror and acted against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Some terrorist groups in Pakistan - especially JeM - were incensed by what they regarded as Musharraf’s decision to abandon their Deobandi brethren. Various factions proceeded to carry out attacks against Pakistan’s military-security establishment. In December 2003, two assassination attempts made on Musharraf were traced to JeM, however Massod Azhar and his faction remained loyal to the state.
In July 2007, JeM was involved in the standoff between the Pakistani security forces and jihadists who had occupied the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque). The attack by Pakistani security forces on the mosque was used as a rallying cry by extremists and resulted in many other terror attacks across Pakistan. Consequently, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella group of militants, was formed in December 2007. TTP’s leader pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban. JeM and Masood Azhar went underground after the Lal Masjid operation and from 2008, turned their attention to Afghanistan. Yet despite JeM’s involvement in attacks against the Pakistan state, Azhar is considered to be a valuable resource for the military-security establishment in Pakistan.
So, who is this man? Azhar is an Islamic ideologue, a brilliant orator and a prolific jihadist writer who has authored many books. He has been involved in numerous jihadist activities including mobilising funds for jihad and planning terrorist attacks. He is an excellent recruiter of jihadis and also a skilled administrator and negotiator.
JeM’s primary area of operations is Indian-occupied J&K. Azhar has carried out attacks on Indian security forces in J&K on many occasions. Indian security agencies maintain that, since 2014, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has given more latitude to Azhar to speak publicly and organise. There are three plausible reasons why.
First, it seems Azhar has expunged the anti-Pakistan jihadis from the organisation. For instance, according to Punjab Police records, in 2011, three JeM operatives - Haroon Akbar Khan, Muhammad Tayyab and Mati-ur-Rahman Aarin – who were involved in the attack on a Pakistan Air Force bus in 2011 and other attacks were listed as terrorists. However, JeM is no longer on the list of terror organisations maintained by Pakistan’s authorities.
The second reason is it would enable ‘bad terrorists’ to be transformed into ‘good terrorists’. Before commencing the military operation known as Zarb-e-Azab against the TTP in 2014, many believe Pakistan’s military-security apparatus tried to convince militants in the TTP to cease hostilities with Pakistan state and either fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan, or join JeM and wage jihad in Indian-administered J&K.
Third, LeT - which is also loyal to the Pakistan’s ISI - has come under increasing global scrutiny. The head of LeT, Hafiz Saaed, was declared a terrorist by the UNSC 1267 Committee in December 2008 in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks the previous month. Saeed was forced to change the name of LeT twice – first to Jamaat ud-Dawa and then earlier this year to Tehreek Azadi Jammu and Kashmir. The Nawaz Sharif government has Saaed under house arrest in Lahore, restricting his actions and reducing his influence. Pakistan’s ISI also wants to reduce its dependence on LeT because the link between Pakistan’s military-security establishment and LeT has become obvious. Thus ISI is reviving JeM to create a more deniable proxy.
Azhar has close links with many terrorist organisations operating in Pakistan such as Harkat ul-Mujahideen, Lashkar e-Jhangvi and Sipah e-Sahaba Pakistan, as well as radical political parties - including Jamiat-i Ulema i-Islam Fazlur Rehman faction (JUI-F) - and religious organisations. JeM is also a member of the United Jihad Council - an umbrella organisation of 13 to 16 militant outfits that operate in Kashmir. However Pakistan does not want Azhar to be designated as a terrorist and last year asked China to block India’s proposal to do just that.
Pakistan is concerned that if the state moves against Azhar, many terrorist organisations will turn against Pakistan. This would worsen the domestic security situation and increase political instability in Pakistan, and might also hurt Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. In 2016, after the attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, Azhar, using the pseudonym ‘Saidi’, warned Pakistan’s government not to act against JeM. He proclaimed any action against JeM would have serious consequences for the peace, security, unity and integrity of Pakistan.
The revival of JeM by Pakistan’s military-security establishment underscores the alliance between the two. It highlights Pakistan’s use of terrorism as an instrument to advance its geo-strategic agenda in South Asia. Pakistan has continued with its dichotomy of ‘good terrorist’ and ‘bad terrorist’ despite suffering enormously from terrorism emanating from its soil. The resurgence of JeM is clearly dangerous for India. Time will tell whether it is also a bad omen for Pakistan.