Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar. Photo: Reuters

India rejoiced over its major diplomatic victory last week when the United Nations Security Council’s 1267 Committee declared Pakistani national Maulana Masood Azhar a “global terrorist.” This came after China withdrew its “technical objections” to such a designation.

For years India had been pressing for Azhar’s designation as a global terrorist but it was stonewalled each time by China, which holds a veto on the Security Council. And now Azhar, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) founder and the man behind several terror attacks in India including the Pulwama attack in February, has finally been listed as an international terrorist.

Despite this, there remains a need to examine what exactly India is celebrating.

If it was really a diplomatic win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then China would not have held technical objections at the UNSC against branding Azhar a terrorist after Modi’s informal summit with President Xi Jinping on April 27, 2018, in Wuhan, China.

This leaves some doubt over India’s reason for celebration and whether the UNSC move will bring Azhar closer to getting arrested.

Azhar’s JeM had already been designated as a terrorist organization by Pakistan, Russia, Australia, Canada, India, the UK, the United Arab Emirates, the US and even the United Nations itself. But this has evidently not deterred the alleged support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to the organization for attacks in India.

Similarly, the Indian criminal Dawood Ibrahim, wanted in India as the mastermind behind the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, figured in the UNSC’s updated list of terrorists and militant groups in April 2018, with a total of 139 entries from Pakistan. So it would be naive to assume that putting Azhar’s name on UN’s “terrorist” list will affect the ISI’s presence or operations in Kashmir.

The propaganda that Pakistan is moving Azhar around for fear of Indian air strikes is hard to believe. Before the Balakot air strike by India on February 26, intelligence sources were aware that Azhar had renal failure and was present in a military hospital in Islamabad. So if he has been moved from Islamabad to a hospital in Goth Ganni in Bahawalpur, Punjab province, it was probably because of his illness.

Meanwhile, China’s decision to lift its technical hold over the UN’s terrorist designation of Azhar can have many reasons. It had blocked the resolution on four occasions in the past.

One reason being quoted is that China bowed to international pressure along with two and a half months of back-door negotiations with India, the US, the UK and France. But that is unlikely, as China is strong enough economically and militarily to continue charting its own course in the world.

It perhaps wanted to woo India to join its massive connectivity project the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and continue to benefit from bilateral trade with India. China may have also wanted to optimize its hold over the country’s digitization programs – considering India’s silence over Huawei’s participation in rolling out its 5G (fifth generation) network. There has been considerable pushback against Huawei in the US, the UK and other places. This is more than apparent with China showing interest in the next Modi-Xi summit in India, on the lines of the Wuhan summit.

But the most probable reason for Beijing to let Pakistani national Azhar be branded as a terrorist could be to help its all-weather friend Pakistan. Islamabad is facing intense pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) amid an ongoing economic crisis. A global terrorist tag would lead to freezing of all financial assets held by Azhar and restrictions on travel and activities including fund collection. It would also lead to threats of sanctions against any nation that violates these norms.

But Azhar does not need to travel out of Pakistan and as for funds, they would likely continue to flow through a plethora of front organizations, including new ones and other radical group affiliates.

The JeM continues to have links to its ancestor, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), and terror outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the United Jihad Council (UJC), an umbrella organization of around 15 to 16 militant organizations fighting against India. Besides, Khuddam ul-Islam is a militant splinter group of the JeM that is a proscribed organization in Britain. It is reportedly a restructured JeM headed by Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar, younger brother of Azhar.

Different nations have dealt with absconders or terrorists in different ways. After the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Israel launched a series of covert assassinations. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US launched a number of rendition programs where suspected terrorists were picked up and incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In May 2011 it launched Operation Neptune Spear that finally got Osama bin Laden. However, India has never shown any predilection to launch that kind of kinetic and covert action against terrorists and has always chosen diplomacy and conventional strikes as a response to terror attacks.

India’s euphoria over Azhar being branded as a global terrorist is certainly misplaced, especially when India has never exercised the sub-conventional option against Pakistan or the terrorists it harbors. Pakistan may have been made to look somewhat sheepish in the wake of the UNSC action, but India should brace for a riposte from other quarters. In 2004, when Hafeez Sayeed of the LeT was designated as a global terrorist, it was believed that it would limit his activities. However, the attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008, proved that the designation had done little to restrict his or the LeT’s actions. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the current designation of Azhar will prove any more effective than the one of 2004.

The designation of Azhar could also have a rather unpleasant fallout. The ax may fall on Indian naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was nabbed by Pakistani authorities nearly two years ago. He has since been sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court on purported spying charges. Even if India wins the case in the International Court of Justice, Pakistan is likely to go ahead with his execution.

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