Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi
Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Pakistan has no plan to take any action against Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the terrorist group that took responsibility for the car-bomb attack in Kashmir last week, according to government sources in Islamabad. The bombing claimed the lives of 42 Indian police officers.

“It was a local [man] from Indian-occupied Kashmir who launched the attack. Reports also confirm that even the explosives were locally obtained. We have no reason to take any action,” a senior Pakistani official told Asia Times.

India accused Pakistan of harboring the terror group behind the bombing after the suicide attack occurred in Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir last Thursday. New Delhi also retracted Pakistan’s ‘Most Favored Nation’ status, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi warning Islamabad of a ‘strong response’.

The government of Imran Khan called the bombing “a matter of grave concern”, but it has denied all accusations and asked India not to push any claims “without investigation”. On Sunday, following a continued surge in allegations from New Delhi, the Foreign Office issued another statement urging India to review intelligence and security lapses.

Concern over Beijing’s response

But, insiders confirmed that Islamabad was apprehensive about China’s reaction to the attack. It was only after a reaffirmation that Beijing has “no immediate plan” to retract its veto over India’s move to designate JeM chief Masood Azhar as a globally designated terrorist group at the United Nations, that the decision was agreed that “no action is needed” on Pakistan’s part.

The lack of response is in contrast to Pakistan’s “crackdown” against JeM after an attack on an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot in 2016, which resulted in Azhar’s “arrest” in Bahawalpur in South Punjab. Senior leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) confirmed that action was taken despite reluctance by military leaders. “The Dawn Leaks revealed that we wanted to take action against these jihadist groups, while the Army leadership opposed it. That is why the military went through all the effort with the help of judiciary to oust Nawaz Sharif, and fabricate an election win by the PTI [Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf]” a PML-N leader said.

Meanwhile, diplomatic sources confirmed that China’s reluctance to reconsider its position on Masood Azhar stems from the fact that he has not been directly linked to the Kashmir attack. With Masood Azhar in detention after the Pathankot attack, his family members are believed to have been actively running JeM. Those linked to the Kashmir attack include Azhar’s brothers Ibrahim Athar and Abdul Rauf Asghar – the latter has been leading the outfit in Azhar’s absence, while the former’s son Muhammad Usman was killed by Indian security forces last year.

JeM was founded by Azhar, a former Harkat-ul-Mujahideen member, in 2000, after he was released by India in exchange for passengers on board the hijacked IC 814 Indian Airlines flight in Kandahar. Afghanistan was under control of the Taliban at that time, who facilitated Masood Azhar’s escape to Pakistan. Many JeM members are said to have got military training from the Taliban. Azhar had been arrested by Indian security forces for his militant activities in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1994.

The group’s first prominent attack was on the Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly in October 2001. Then in December of that year, the group attacked the Indian parliament, resulting in a military standoff between India and Pakistan. Azhar was arrested in Pakistan and JeM declared a ‘terrorist organization’ under General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime in 2002. This followed the group’s assassination attempt on Musharraf, which had been preceded by JeM kidnapping and beheading American journalist Daniel Pearl. Indian intelligence tipped off Musharraf’s office when a second attempt was being planned against him by the JeM.

After overlapping with the Taliban, the JeM has launched attacks within Pakistani territory as well. In 2011, the Punjab Police found three JeM operatives – Muhammad Haroon Akbar Khan, Mati-ur-Rahman Arain, and Muhammad Tayyab – were behind attacks across the country, including one on a Pakistan Air Force bus. After Azhar’s detention in 2016, his brother Abdul Rauf Asghar formally took over JeM, intelligence sources say. It was Asghar who allegedly masterminded the raid on an army base in Nagrota in southern Kashmir in late 2016.

Bahawalpur madrassa

Asghar’s hub, just like Azhar’s, is a large JeM madrassa in Bahawalpur in southern Punjab. Many militants affiliated with the group were arrested from the madrassa in the 2016 crackdown. Pro-jihad banners saying “Jaish-e-Mohammad will return”, with an image of the Red Fort in Delhi, have propped up across Bahawalpur in recent years.

Even so, intelligence sources confirm that Bahawalpur madrassa remains the ‘ideological center’ of JeM, with a majority of its militant training being conducted in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Observers also believe that the Bahawalpur madrassa is not the main militant hub.

“[JeM] draws its strength from Karachi. Mardan is also important. Bahawalpur is very important but not the whole picture. They don’t carry many [militant] activities [in Bahawalpur]. [JeM] has its infrastructure out of its madrassas. To understand them one needs to think beyond madrassas,” security analyst Aoun Sahi told Asia Times.

With the group’s madrassas acting as fronts and funding sources, its proscribed status in Pakistan has meant that it has had to work under various banners. The Al-Rehmat Trust, a charity, is one such front. It was launched by Masood Azhar to support the group’s operations.

JeM has a publication called Al-Qalam, which largely promotes jihadist literature, specifically targeting Kashmir. Despite Azhar being in military detention, he has continued to write his Al-Qalam column. His sermons are easily accessible across the country as well. Analysts believe that JeM remains a part of the Pakistan Army’s “mainstreaming” process, to try to get radical militants to enter politics, as happened with the Hafiz Saeed-linked Allaho Akbar Tehreek (AAT), which had candidates in last year’s general election.

“The [military establishment] wants to internationalize Kashmir along with Afghanistan. And the Kashmir-bound militants are central to the military’s planning,” military scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, author of ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’, said.

Senior military leaders believe Pakistan will argue that the “mainstreaming” of Islamist groups is to counterbalance the rise of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has links to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Siddiqa says these ambitions mean that no action will be taken against the JeM this time around and maintains that “nothing was actually done” in 2016 either.

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