As Pakistan enters the final stages of its efforts to be taken off the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) ‘grey list’ this year, all eyes are on action against Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) founder Masood Azhar, and his brother Abdul Rauf Asghar, two of the men most wanted by India for their role in many terror attacks, including the IC 814 aeroplane hijack in 1999 and Parliament attack in 2001. While Rauf Asghar was taken into custody along with 44 JeM members in 2019, officials say Pakistani law enforcement agencies are now in the process of “assessing” Masood Azhar’s whereabouts, including on whether he is in Pakistan. The Pakistani law enforcement agencies have discussed tracking Azhar’s possible move to Afghanistan with the Taliban regime as well, the officials said.
The Pakistani search for Azhar is being speeded up with some urgency, officials confirmed, as a senior FATF team is expected to visit Islamabad and other cities for an “on-site visit” from August 28-September 2, to verify whether Pakistan has carried out all the actions on its 34-point task list handed after it was put on the ‘grey list’ in 2018. If the team is satisfied by its findings, Pakistan is expected to be formally taken off the “increased monitoring” list, as the ‘grey list’ is known, during the FATF’s next plenary session in October this year.
According to submissions by the Pakistani government, its National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) held a meeting in early March to coordinate the hunt for Masood Azhar, who agencies claim is on the run, and the process to declare Azhar a “proclaimed offender” is under way. A terror financing case was also lodged against Azhar in March 2021, and more investigations are “contingent upon the arrest of Masood Azhar”, the submissions said. Pakistani investigations appear to conclude that Azhar is now either in Afghanistan, where the JeM has several training camps, or in Pakistan’s Khyber Puktunkhwa and Balochistan along the border, after a number of search operations in Pakistani Punjab were reportedly unsuccessful.
Pakistan has also raised the issue with the Taliban regime at a “ministerial level” in January 2022, and is following up the request, the submissions said. Pakistan pointed to a report submitted by the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team to the UN Security Council’s Counter Terror Committee, which India heads at present. The team’s 13th report, submitted on May 26, 2022, said that the JeM is “a Deobandi group that is ideologically closer to the Taliban”, and that the JeM maintains eight training camps in Nangarhar province, with JeM fighters numbering in the “few hundreds”.
Indian officials were sceptical of Pakistan’s claims that security forces are unaware of Masood Azhar’s movements, given his prominence at his base in Bahawalpur, as well as frequently publicised hospitalisations for dialysis at a hospital in Rawalpindi. They pointed to the recent arrest of the LeT handler and mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, Sajid Mir, whom Pakistan had declared as “dead” until last year. However, after U.S. pressure in December 2021, Pakistan “re-evaluated” the forensic evidence on Mir in February 2022 and concluded he was alive. An intense hunt was then launched, their officials said, which resulted in Mir’s arrest when he came to visit his ailing mother in April this year, and he was convicted and sentenced for terror financing within three weeks, just prior to a meeting between Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
As Pakistani officials claim they are closing in on Masood Azhar, New Delhi is watching closely. Masood Azhar, who was in Indian custody for plotting terror attacks for several years in the 1990s, was freed on December 31, 1999 in exchange for the safety of more than 150 passengers and crew members on board Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in an eight-day ordeal in Kandahar. Azhar was freed along with other terrorists, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar, in full view of live cameras, and then allowed to return to Pakistan by the Taliban ruling Afghanistan at the time. Despite that, he was not on the global most wanted list after 9/11 and it took 19 years, after the Pulwama attacks in February 2019, where 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers were killed allegedly by a JeM militant, for Masood Azhar to be named as a UNSC-designated terrorist.