Photo Credit: Saeed Khan/AFP
In the cloud of theories swirling around the Pathankot attack, one name has recurred – Jaish-e-Mohammad. Though there was no official confirmation that it was behind Saturday’s terror strike, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the group’s involvement could not be ruled out and numerous reports cite intelligence officials who believe the JeM is responsible.
The genesis of the theory – intercepted phone calls made from Bawahalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province, home to the JeM headquarters. Saturday’s attack also seems typical of the JeM, known for launching fidayeen strikes on high security targets. That alone may not be enough to implicate the JeM. But this weekend’s speculation indicates that one of the most dreaded names from the early 2000s is back in relevance.
The terror outfit was formed in 2000 by Maulana Masood Azhar, freshly released from prison in exchange for the hostages on the hijacked Flight IC 814. The JeM started life as a group in Pakistan that used violence to destabilise the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and induce the security forces to withdraw. Next on the agenda was taking control of Ayodhya, Amritsar and Delhi, said Azhar in speeches made in Pakistan soon after his release.
As several commentators have recorded, the JeM started a new phase in the Kashmir insurgency, setting off a spate of suicide attacks and targeting key installations in the state. In October 2001, it attacked the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly, killing 30. In December that year came the attack on Parliament.
That attack was to have long shadows. It led to the arrest of Afzal Guru, who was sentenced to death for his role in the attack. More than a decade later, the execution of Afzal Guru, without warning and in secrecy, would set off a fresh wave of discontent in the Valley. According to some intelligence sources, the Pathankot strike was meant to be retaliation for the hanging.
The twilight years
But the JeM, which is believed to have ties with the Taliban and the al-Qaeda, has long since broadened its scope of operations. Soon after it was formed, the group turned its attentions westward, as American troops kept arriving in Afghanistan. In 2002, it claimed responsibility for the abduction and beheading of the American journalist, Daniel Pearl. In 2003, it carried out two suicide bombings, aimed at assassinating then Pakistan Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf. In 2008, it is believed to have attended a meeting of various terror groups that were then directing their energies at the United States in Afghanistan.
These high profile attacks set off a security crackdown, forcing the group to keep a low profile. It distributed its financial assets among less known members, renamed itself Tehrik-ul-Furqan and later split into two factions.
Though Pakistan banned the JeM after the attack on Musharraf, Azhar has largely roamed free. After the Parliament attack, he was arrested by Pakistani authorities but let off a year later, on a Lahore High Court order. After 26/11, he was reportedly put under house arrest for a while but Pakistan refused to hand him over to India. Pakistan’s leniency with Azhar has only fuelled rumours that the Inter-Services Intelligence used the JeM as an instrument of aggression on India.
But as the JeM faded from the news in India and the attacks in Kashmir dwindled, Delhi seemed to have eased up on demands for his arrest.
In 2014, Azhar burst into view again, holding his first public rally in years. It was a well-organised event, with thousands ferried to the venue. The rally took place in Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The occasion – the launch of a book written by Afzal Guru.
The same year, JeM marked its return to the Valley with a pre-dawn suicide attack on an army camp in Uri. In November, it launched a similar attack on an army camp in Kupwara’s Tangdar area, triggering fears that the JeM was gaining ground in Kashmir once more, at a time when the number of local youth joining militancy had seen a sharp rise.
Whether responsible for Saturday’s attack or not, the group has become a talking point once again. And the JeM’s return to relevance is not good news, for the politicial situation in Kashmir, for ties between India and Pakistan or for security within the country.