In Bahawalpur, the ruins of a jihadist empire

Delhi, Delhi ya hanood, Jaish-e-Muhammad sauf yauood, proclaims the mural emblazoned over the entry to the headquarters of the once-feared terrorist group at Bahawalpur, in Pakistan’s Punjab: “to Delhi, O’ Hindus, the army of the Prophet will soon return.”

Laundry hangs in front of the mural, in a kind of anti-climactic graphic counterpoint. By its side, a gigantic new seminary is being built — complete with a swimming pool and stables.

The army Mr. Azhar’s new seminary will house though, is unlikely to march anywhere soon. Twelve years after it attacked Parliament House, bringing India and Pakistan to the edge of war, the Jaish-e-Muhammad has all but disintegrated. The organisation has failed to organise a single significant attack in India since an abortive 2005 strike on a makeshift temple in the Babri Masjid complex. In Kashmir, its ground presence has dwindled to almost nothing.

How this came about holds out important lessons about the course of the jihadist movement in Pakistan, and its potential threat to India in the future.

Formed in January 2000, soon after Mr. Azhar was let out of an Indian jail in a hostages-for-prisoners swap, the Jaish-e-Muhammad was intended to unite a welter of jihadist groups which had been fighting in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in Afghanistan. It was endorsed by a cross-section of jihadist clerics representing the Deobandi clerical tradition in Pakistan.

In the wake of 9/11, though, the new organisation came under enormous stress. For one, India used the transfigured international environment to its advantage. The attack on Parliament, preceded weeks earlier by the October 1, 2001, attack on the Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly, led India to mobilise troops along its borders with Pakistan. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons deterred an outright war, but the crisis placed huge stresses on its economy — forcing the country’s intelligence services to taper-off jihadist operations in Jammu and Kashmir.

Perhaps more important, Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, found himself forced into an increasingly bloody showdown with the Jaish-e-Muhammad’s constituent units. In late 2001, Maulana Abdul Jabbar, the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s overall military commander, began pushing for attacks on western targets in Pakistan — leading, eventually, to a split with Mr. Azhar. Mr Azhar described his challenger as a “sectarian terrorist” — but many young jihadists broke ranks with the Jaish, to join more radical al-Qaeda linked groups.

From 2003, matters came to a head, as breakaway Jaish operatives were found to be involved in attacks on General Musharraf himself. Later, elements of the group were involved in the July, 2007, stand-off between the Pakistan army and jihadists who had occupied the Lal Masjid in Islamabad.

In the wake these events, former Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lieutenant-General Javed Ashraf Qazi candidly told Pakistan’s Parliament that it “must not be afraid of admitting that the Jaish was involved in the deaths of thousands of innocent Kashmiris, bombing the Indian Parliament, [the journalist] Daniel Pearl’s murder and even attempts on President Musharraf’s life.”

Maulana Azhar’s decision to stand with the Pakistani state at this moment cost him legitimacy as a jihadist leader. There were also allegations, painstakingly documented by the journalist Amir Mir, that funds meant for jihad were being used for the one-time jihadists’ personal enrichment.

It isn’t as if the Jaish-e-Muhammad no longer casts itself as part of the global jihadist project. In a recent commentary on the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar published in the Jaish-e-Muhammad magazine al-Qalam, a commentator using the pen-name Sa’adi lamented the absence of “nine or ten Fedai and a few trucks of gunpowder.” “If only the army of an Islamic country or its secret agency had honoured the Islamic profession of faith”!

Mr. Azhar’s Fathul Jawwad, a disquisition on Koranic verses, is itself filled with blood-lust. “The light of the sun and water,” he writes, “are essential for crops otherwise they go waste. In the same way, the life of nations depends on martyrs. The national fields can be irrigated only with the blood of the best hearts and minds.”

Mr. Azhar’s hold has stilled, but “Having no alternative ideology like Marxism or Liberalism or even language-symbols which may challenge the feudal stranglehold,” the social scientist Tahir Kamran has explained, “Deobandi militancy remains one of the few ways to counter it.”

The jihadists Mr. Azhar recruited are now drawn to new battles — in Afghanistan, and against the Pakistani state. Mr. Azhar’s moment in history might have gone — but he has given birth to lethal spawn, who still pose a threat across the region, to India, and to Pakistan itself.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 10:06:06 PM |

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