The chargesheet filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on the 2019 suicide attack in south Kashmir’s Pulwama , which left 40 security personnel dead and pushed India and Pakistan to the brink of war, has once again turned the spotlight on the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and its founder, Masood Azhar. The NIA has called the attack a “well-planned criminal conspiracy hatched” by the Jaish.
According to top officials of Jammu and Kashmir’s counter-insurgency cell, the Jaish has exhibited two features ever since it was founded by Azhar in 2000, within a year of his release by India after the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 was hijacked — its ability to reinvent itself and take the centre-stage of Kashmir militancy with “spectacle attacks”.
It was the Jaish that introduced the first ever suicide bombing in J&K, according to police officers. In May 2000, the 17-year-old local recruit, Afaq Ahmad Shah, rammed an explosives-laden car into the Valley’s main Chinar Corps headquarters at Badamibagh, killing four soldiers.
From the 2001 Parliament attack to the 2019 Pulwama attack, Jaish carried out high-profile attacks every time its cadre came under pressure in the Valley. The group was also believed to be behind the Uri attack that killed 20 soldiers in 2016.
Drawing its ideology from the Pakistan-based Deobandi school of thought, Harkat-ul-Ansar, which gained guerilla warfare expertise in Afghanistan, was the earlier avatar of the Jaish. The group was banned in 1997, after the kidnapping of foreign nationals in Kashmir seeking the release of Azhar. The Jaish did draw scores of its recruits from Afghanistan for “the Kashmir jihad” and remained a militant force inside Afghanistan for around a decade. The group was banned by Pakistan in 2002 during the Pervez Musharraf regime.
The killing of Adil Pathan and Chota Burmi in Awantipora in October, 2015 was a body blow to the Jaish. However, the group reinvented itself by creating the Al-Shohada Brigade or Shaheed Afzal Guru Squad, named after the Parliament attack convict who was hanged in 2013. “The squad carried three major attacks in Baramulla’s Uri and for many years remained focused on border areas and the border action teams (BATs), backed by the Pakistani Army,” said one senior official. It may not be a coincidence that the Pulwama attack was carried out in the Lethpora area, just 32 km away from Anantnag’s Khanabal where Azhar was arrested along with Afghan war veteran Sajad Afghani in 1996.
The Jaish’s strong base remains in the Awantipora-Pulwama axis in south Kashmir and most of its commanders hailed from this region. Over 45 Jaish militants have been killed, including its specialist and well-trained team of nine commanders, since the Pulwama attack in Kashmir.
The Jaish has emerged as the third strongest militant organisation in 2020 after the Hibzul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Around 30 Jaish militants have been killed this year, according to the police. The biggest success of this year for the security forces was making the Tral area in Pulwama, the ‘capital’ of the Jaish, a militancy-free zone after the killing of Jaish ‘commander’ Qari Yasir and his two associates.
Azhar, 52, is believed to be living in an undisclosed location Pakistan and suffering from kidney ailments, but his online speeches continue to strike a chord with angry and alienated local youth. In February, the J&K police held three local youth, including the nephew of a former Peoples Democratic Party legislator, who, inspired by the speeches of Azhar, were planning to attack the security forces in Srinagar.
Unlike 20 years ago, when the Jaish mounted an attack on the Indian Parliament to deliver a message that the group had the reach and capability to strike the target of its choice in any part of India, the outfit has limited itself to the BAT actions along the Line of Control and attacks in the hinterlands of Kashmir, said one police officer.
“The killing of Ghazi Baba in 2003 and Saif-ullah Qarri, who plotted an attack on a temple in Ayodhya in 2005, in 2007 brought an end to Jaish’s attempt to organise attacks outside J&K. However, it remains a potential threat to India and its assets across the country,” said another police officer.