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

India scored a major diplomatic victory when the United Nations Security Council designated Pakistani national Maulana Masood Azhar as a “global terrorist” after China withdrew its “technical objections.”

Wednesday’s diplomatic coup came after months of intense pressure from the US, UK and France, as well as some non-permanent members of the Security Council.

India had been pressing for Azhar’s designation as a global terrorist for over a decade. A UN “international terrorist” tag leads to immediate freezing of all financial assets held by the designee, as well as travel restrictions and the threat of sanctions against any nation that violates these norms.

India renewed its pressure to designate Azhar after 40 Indian policemen were killed in Pulwama in Kashmir on February 14 this year when a suicide bomber rammed into a convoy carrying security personnel. Azhar’s outfit, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Security forces scour the site of the car bomb attack in Pulwama, south of Srinagar, that killed over 40 police and sparked the crisis. Photo: AFP / Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto

Intense diplomacy

Azhar had been in India’s crosshairs since his release more than a decade ago in a swap for hostages on a hijacked plane. In December 1999, a group of hijackers led by his elder brother Mohammed Ibrahim Athar Alvi hijacked an Indian Airlines flight en route from Kathmandu, Nepal, to the Indian capital, New Delhi.

The flight was diverted to Kandahar in Taliban-held Afghanistan and India scrambled a team of top intelligence officials to negotiate its release. In exchange for the release of the hostages, India released Azhar along with Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar. Omar Saeed was later sentenced to death for the murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl.

Soon after his release Azhar founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed. JeM is believed to have been supported by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Indian intelligence believes that the ISI was also instrumental in the hijack of the Indian Airlines flight and helped the Taliban negotiate Azhar’s release.

On February 22, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Pulwama attack in Kashmir. A diplomatic source told Asia Times that such a resolution was unique. “This was the first time that the UN’s Security Council passed a resolution on Kashmir condemning a terrorist attack,” a diplomatic source told Asia Times. “This was a rare diplomatic victory and encouraged us to push for designating  Azhar as a ‘global terrorist.’”

Late last week US State Department officials told their Indian counterparts that they were close to getting the Azhar resolution passed. In the early hours of Tuesday, the Indonesian envoy to the UN called up Syed Akbaruddin, India’s permanent representative, to say that the negotiations were done. “The Chinese insisted that the reference to Pulwama be dropped as a gesture towards Pakistan. But that was a mere formality and it was clear that this was coming through,” the Indian diplomatic source said.

The attack on the Indian policemen had nearly led India and Pakistan to war as Indian fighter jets crossed into Pakistani air space on February 26 and launched an airstrike on Balakot, a small town in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. India claimed that Balakot hosted a major JeM camp and plans were afoot to launch further attacks. This was the first time that Indian fighter jets crossed into Pakistani air space since the Bangladesh war in 1971 between the two – now nuclear-armed – South Asian neighbors.

Indian security guards at the crash site after an Indian Air Force aircraft crashed in Kashmir on February 27. Photo: AFP / Faisal Khan/ Anadolu

As tensions escalated, the US, UAE and Saudi Arabia stepped in to find a diplomatic solution, and the loss of an Indian MiG-21 on February 27 proved fortuitous. The return of the captured Indian pilot helped defuse tensions, but diplomatic efforts to have the UN designate Azhar as a global terrorist were initially stymied.

In the process, the US pressed India to stop its oil imports from Iran, in exchange for American efforts to push the resolution to designate Azhar a global terrorist. The concession permitting India to import oil from Iran runs out today (May 2), and India has agreed to look for imports elsewhere. It currently imports nearly 11% of its oil from Iran.

Speaking via Twitter, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Tuesday’s outcome “a victory for American diplomacy and the international community against terrorism, and an important step towards peace in South Asia.”

Pompeo’s remarks came a day after China lifted its technical hold on the listing under the UN Security Council resolution 1267 sanctions committee. China had in the past blocked Azhar’s listing four times but finally yielded after two-and-half months of negotiations with India, the US, UK and France.

“In 2004 India managed to get Hafeez Sayeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), designated as a global terrorist by the UN. But in November 2008, the LeT still managed to pull off a spectacular attack on Mumbai in India,” a senior security official said. “Not only is Hafeez Sayed free, he almost managed to get his people elected in the last general elections. We know he continues to operate freely out of Muridke [a Pakistani city, near Lahore] and we also know the madrassas where he operates from.”

Indian intelligence is also aware that Azhar has renal failure and spends most of his time in a hospital. Over a year ago he was based in a military hospital in Rawalpindi undergoing regular dialysis. He is reported to have returned to Bhawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

But most of the JeM’s work has been taken over by his brothers Mohammed Ibrahim Athar Alvi and Abdul Rauf Azhar. In fact, Mohammed Ibrahim’s son was killed in Kashmir by the Indian  Army in October 2018. It is believed that the Pulwama attack this year was a result of Mohammed Ibrahim’s plans to avenge his son’s death. His son was a militant who had slipped into Kashmir with some of the key bomb experts of the JeM in early 2018.

Indian security officials are also concerned that Azhar’s brothers and other relatives remain at large. The Balakot camp, also identified as a terrorist training center by US intelligence documents released in 2004, was run by his brother-in-law, according to Indian intelligence officials. The JeM has a considerable hold in Bhawalpur town and runs quite a few madrassas – schools – training children and young men.

Soon after the UN security council designation, the Pakistan government stated that it would take “immediate action.” It is not clear what kind of action it envisions. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government stated that it will be taking over nearly 30,000 madrassas across Pakistan to curb rising extremism.

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