In the re-emergence of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, the Jammu and Kashmir Police see a strategic bid by Pakistan to turn international scrutiny away from the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen. Lashkar founder Hafiz Saeed is among the world’s most wanted terrorists, with a $10 million bounty on his head.
“The reason for Jaish-e-Mohammad coming to the forefront (of the militancy in the Valley) may be due to increased and repeated international scrutiny of LeT and its chief,” a secret police report said last year.
“2017 witnessed heavy losses to terrorist outfits especially LeT and Hizb as their top commanders were killed. The Pakistan based handlers… have started reviving Jaish cadres in valley and main motive of carrying fidayeen type attacks is to push security forces on backfoot in order to give some breathing space to Hizb and LeT.”
Security forces believe the revival of the Jaish in Kashmir started with the infiltration of two of its groups, through Kupwara and Poonch, in August 2016 during the protests that followed after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. The local commander most crucial to the revival of the Jaish was the 3-foot-tall militant, Noor Muhammad Tantray alias Noor Trali.
In 2018, the Jaish introduced a new dimension to the militancy in Kashmir: sniper attacks. In October 2018, when security forces eliminated a Jaish sniper squad, its top commander turned out to be a nephew of Jaish chief Masood Azhar, Usman Haider.
Prof C Christine Fair, one of the most insightful scholars of the Pakistani political-military complex, has argued that “Pakistan’s refurbishing of (the Jaish) is not only about prosecuting (its) regional strategies, but it is also a critical component of (its) domestic security strategy”.
The Jaish is a Deobandi Islamist organization that has close links with the Deobandi Afghan Taliban, Pak Taliban, the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and al-Qaeda.
In late 2001, the Jaish leadership was divided on the question of whether to stay loyal to Pakistan under General Pervez Musharraf, or to retaliate for his support to the post 9/11 American campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Defying pressure from his comrades and the Jaish cadre, Masood Azhar shared information with the ISI, underlining to the Pakistani military his value and his loyalty.
Following the turmoil and realignment of militant groups in Af-Pak in the Musharraf years, and the creation of the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan in 2007, the ISI began to readjust its strategy.
From around 2011 and possibly earlier, Fair argued, the ISI started to resurrect Jaish under Azhar’s leadership “to rehabilitate those assets who had defected to the Pakistani Taliban”.
Before the launch of Zarb-e-Azb, its campaign against selected targets in the tribal areas, in June 2014, the Pakistani military tried to get TTP elements to shift their focus from attacking Pakistan to carrying out attacks in either Afghanistan or India.
“Envervating the Jaish is a cornerstone of Pakistan’s strategy of managing its own internal security challenges as well as a cornerstone of its policy of nuclear blackmail to achieve ideological objectives in Kashmir”, Fair wrote in the Huffington Post.
Jaish, in her words, is “Pakistan’s programme for bringing errant terrorists back into the fold of ‘good terrorists’,” as well as to carry on its permanent war against India.
Along with India, the US, too, wants Azhar, primarily for the alleged link between him and Omar Sheikh, who was released along with him during the Kandahar hijack, and who is now in jail after being given death for the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl. The US hopes to learn more about Omar Sheikh’s involvement in financing the 9/11 attacks.
The Americans also want to find out the extent of Azhar’s links with the al-Qaeda. A former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, Abu Jandal, has recounted a “lavish” party the al-Qaeda founder threw for Azhar after his release in Kandahar.
Any international action against Azhar, however, has been blocked by China, which has refused to let him be proclaimed as an international terrorist by the United Nations.