Maulana Masood Azhar, fire-breathing chief of the outlawed terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, was scheduled to appear in January at a public gathering of thousands in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-administered Kashmir. He had been expected to castigate India for hanging Afzal Guru, who allegedly helped mount Jaish’s 2001 attack on Indian Parliament.
Azhar didn’t show up. But his prerecorded fulminations were played and they echoed the quietly gelling consensus about Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former president and Army chief, as a “collaborator” of the United States. “Musharraf made Pakistan a stooge of the U.S. and offered its resources for the massacre of innocent people of Afghanistan,” he roared. Weeks later, Azhar also failed to turn up at Lahore’s University of the Punjab to judge a debating contest on jihad. The organizers, a batch of radical students, said they were forced to call off the event after the university “threatened us with violence.”
Azhar’s resurfacing (by tape, for now), after about six years of silence, is the result of two ongoing developments in particular: the withdrawal of almost all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan this year and India’s continued if not enlarged role there; and the Pakistan Army’s reported resistance to Islamabad’s wish to normalize relations with India through trade. In the past, Pakistan has been accused of showcasing a number of its nonstate actors—terrorists, to the rest of the world—to dampen prospects of any normalcy with India.
Last year, the protest of the pious against the national consensus to trade with India included old Kashmir Jihad hands Hafiz Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamat-ud-Dawah and one of the most powerful men in Pakistan, as well as Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, chief of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen from which the resurgent Azhar spun off the Jaish in 2000.
In the 1990s, nonstate warriors like Khalil and Azhar teamed up with the likes of Osama bin Laden, allowing the proxy wars in Afghanistan, India and India-administered Kashmir to be fought on the cheap. But such wars proved dear for Pakistan in several obvious ways. Speaking recently, a Pakistani economist at the Brookings Institution told an audience in Lahore that, for reasons which couldn’t be stated in public, Pakistan had started malfunctioning economically after 1992, the same year that the Indian economy took off. The audience understood what went unsaid: blowback from the proxy wars had roiled Pakistani life and economy.
After India freed Azhar from jail in 1999 in exchange for the release of the crew and passengers of an Indian Airlines plane hijacked from Kathmandu and taken to Kandahar in “friendly” Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, many foreign observers thought the hijacking had been arranged by Pakistan. Azhar’s resurfacing is troublesome for India and Pakistan both. Azhar, said an Indian newspaper recently, is “back in action. A flurry of intelligence reports has warned that Jaish, the terror group created by Azhar after his release, and which is responsible for the attack on Parliament in 2001, is planning a wave of suicide attacks at [election] rallies across India.”
Expressing innocence about Azhar, Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson in Islamabad said: “We have also seen media reports of Azhar’s resurfacing. This is probably a onetime event. He escaped scrutiny, but his organization is banned in Pakistan and its activities are regularly monitored.” Pakistani diplomats are not supposed to know that someone else—not the Foreign Office—actually molds the country’s foreign policy by creating “events” meant to be of help to Pakistan.
Lights, Camera, Jihad!
Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s Khalil has been making appearances on Pakistani cable talk shows. Azhar, his erstwhile ally, is said to be in makeup, primping to thumb his nose at a worried world as Pakistan’s Talibanized audiences rapturously welcome him to the spotlight. As usual, Pakistan is not short of other ominous signs. Two new militias—Ansar-ul-Aseer and Ahrar-ul-Hind—are in the wings, ready to hit their marks.
Ansar-ul-Aseer (Helper of the Imprisoned) is led by Adnan Rasheed, an ex-Air Force mechanic from Swabi who has said he trained at Jaish’s Al Qaeda-financed camp in Mansehra and who was on death row for attempting to assassinate Musharraf until the Pakistani Taliban sprung him from Bannu Jail. The 2012 Bannu and the 2013 Dera Ismail Khan jailbreaks played as horror reels for a not-easily-jolted country. The Bannu attack cost the Taliban some Rs. 20 million, most of this almost certainly went to those who transferred the dangerous Rasheed from the military stronghold of Rawalpindi to semi-tribal Bannu, where the Taliban virtually rule in a doubtful diarchy with the local administration. (Last year, Rasheed told an English-language Taliban publication that his jihadist handlers had wanted him to remain with the Air Force so he could “invite” other officers to Islam.)
Ahrar-ul-Hind (Victors of India) is led by Maulana Umar Qasmi, a Punjabi from the Sipah-e-Sahaba stronghold of Jhang who enrolled at Usman-o-Ali, Azhar’s seminary in Bahawalpur. This group claimed the March 3 gun-and-bomb attack on the Islamabad district courts. At least 11 people were killed in the attack, including Malik Rafaqat Awan, the judge who had dismissed a Lal Masjid petition to file charges against Musharraf for the 2007 operation against that Al Qaeda mosque in the capital. The group also owned the March 14 attacks in Peshawar and Quetta—which left 19 dead and some 80 wounded. Another group, the Al Qaeda-linked Jandullah, claimed last year’s Sept. 22 attack on Peshawar’s All Saints Church that left 78 parishioners dead and wounded about 100 others. Jandullah counted Qasmi as a leader.
Ahrar-ul-Hind is opposed to “peace” talks between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban, who have disavowed any current association with the freshly-stitched terrorist outfit. On March 16, Prof. Ibrahim Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, speaking on behalf of the Pakistani Taliban, said Ahrar-ul-Hind was “under investigation” and suggested that “secret hands” opposed to the so-called truce talks were pulling Ahrar-ul-Hind’s strings.
Some reports have Qasmi in the tribal agency of Mohmand, home to warlord Umar Khalid Khorasani, whose savagery toward troops the Pakistani Taliban say has put them off him. Other reports locate both men in Afghanistan’s Kunar. Since their chief, Mullah Fazlullah, is not in North Waziristan, the peacenik denials and disavowals from the Taliban Shura based in that agency appear to be incredible. Their claims cover up for the indiscriminate butchery favored by Fazlullah, Khorasani, and Qasmi. It is also another likely ruse that Pakistan is dying to accept in order to award impunity to the killers it is talking “peace” with.
In 2009, a Pakistani intelligence report said Azhar was very much in control in Bahawalpur, would often visit North Waziristan to plot with then-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, receive Afghan warriors from the tribal badlands, liaise with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi killers from neighboring Rahimyar Khan, and send warriors inside Iran with Jandullah.
The report spoke of angry discussions at Azhar’s Usman-o-Ali about Pakistan (read: security agencies) and its alleged “double game” of running with Jaish and hunting with America. It connected Jaish also to the Punjabi Taliban’s Asmatullah Muawiya, trainer of suicide bombers, and to Sipah-e-Sahaba’s Ahmad Ludhianvi, who claimed to have visited the anti-Shia Malik Ishaq in a Lahore jail at the Punjab government’s “request.” At the time, Azhar, officials had claimed, wasn’t even in Pakistan.
With Azhar’s rollout, is a section of Pakistan’s officialdom putting the world on notice about their next move? If so, Pakistanis should brace themselves for more punishment since cash for Jaish for proxy battles against India, Afghanistan and the U.S. comes from bank robberies, kidnappings, extortion, and an all-out assault on the national economy.
Jihad runs in Azhar’s family. His father, Allah Bakhsh Shabbir, was a Quran teacher in Bahawalpur, and his family had pre-Partition ties to the Ahrar fundamentalist movement. Born in 1968, Azhar is the most famous alumnus of Karachi’s Jamia Binoria, where he also taught for two years, until 1989, and whose head, Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, inspired him to jihad. Ibrahim, one of his brothers, went to liberate Afghanistan at the age of 19. Later, their father also joined him. Ibrahim was associated with the banned Harkat-ul-Ansar’s Bahawalpur office and is said to have participated in the 1999 hijacking that set his brother free. Another brother, a computer salesman, also made several trips to Afghanistan, where their sister Rabia ended up working for the Taliban government.
Azhar has always been a man possessed. He tirelessly toured abroad to raise funds for Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, loosening donor purse strings with arguments he articulated in 29 jihadist tracts. (He was caught carrying counterfeit dollars at Jeddah airport during one of these trips.) Azhar was also instrumental in getting Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami to merge for some time. Azhar was devoted to Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the fanatically anti-Shia and anti-Iran founder of Sipah-e-Sahaba, who was murdered in 1990 which in turn led to the murder of an Iranian diplomat in Lahore—this started the great sectarian war of the decade, drawing Arab funds to Deobandi warriors. Azhar’s trail in Somalia in 1993, when bin Laden was in Sudan, links him and his Pakistani warriors with bin Laden-supported Mohamed Farrah Hassan Aidid’s Mogadishu ambush that killed 24 Pakistani troops on U.N. duty. Azhar is said to have met bin Laden in Medina in 1994 when both were disguised. It was his mission to bring his jihadist organization, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, under the aegis of Al Qaeda.
He succeeded in this mission. One of the hijackers of the Indian flight in 1999 was Amjad Faruqi, one of Al Qaeda’s Pakistani operatives, who was killed by Sindh police in 2004 after a five-hour battle. He had a bounty of Rs. 20 million on his head and was wanted for two assassination attempts on Musharraf and in connection with the kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
A man of means, Azhar once flew from Dhaka to New Delhi on a Portuguese passport. He was finally arrested in India-administered Kashmir in 1994 trying to coordinate the activities of Harkat-ul-Ansar. In 2000, following his release from jail and return from Afghanistan, he immediately announced the foundation of Jaish, which first claimed the December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament and then, when things got hot, denied any involvement. In the minds of international observers, Jaish and Taiba were the two most “veritable arms” of Pakistan’s powerful and ensconced pro-jihad lobby.
In his autobiography, In the Line of Fire, Musharraf clearly refers to Jaish as a terrorist organization, but it wasn’t seen as such by everyone in Islamabad and Rawalpindi prior to the attempts on his life at Al Qaeda’s behest. How else does one explain Azhar’s life of great freedom inside Pakistan following his release from India? Had Azhar been stopped then, much of the sectarian slaughter that followed could perhaps have been prevented.
Here’s a possible reason Musharraf was unable to do more against Azhar, in his book or in power: the trail could have led to parts of the security establishment the Army chief did not want to shed light on and upset. A 2004 Terrorist Monitor report by Jamestown Foundation dubbed Karachi a “safe haven” for the likes of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, and Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami. It said Harkat-ul-Mujahideen runs 48 seminaries in the city, and that “a large number” of its students had fought against the Northern Alliance in the 1990s while others battled Indian security forces in Kashmir. “Their collective objective,” the report said, “is to turn Pakistan into another Taliban-style country.”
There’s another instructive report, this from a 2001 edition of The News: “Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Maulana Masood Azhar, whose entry was banned in Sindh because of the wave of sectarian terrorism, was stopped at Karachi airport and was asked to go back. Azhar phoned someone and the ban was immediately lifted to allow him to enter Karachi, after which he had a meeting with the home secretary, Sindh. Azhar later went to Ghotki in violation of the ban and was ignored by the local administrative magistrate there. The officer was pulled up, but later still, when Azhar tried to enter Sukkur and was stopped by the district administration, the local bureaucracy was pulled up, this time for not giving him unhampered passage to anywhere in the city.” It would appear that the India-obsessed among Pakistan’s policymakers have no Plan B.
Post-occupation Afghanistan is another worry. Islamabad-based think tank Jinnah Institute spelled out Pakistan’s “objectives” here in a recent briefing: The “Pakistani foreign policy elite accept that India has a role to play in Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction … but the Pakistani security establishment [thinks] a reluctance to address Pakistani misgivings increases the likelihood of a growing Indian footprint and, in turn, New Delhi’s greater ability to manipulate the endgame negotiations and the post-settlement dispensation in Kabul.”
Will India follow America and NATO out of Afghanistan? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has vowed that India “will support the Afghan people,” so it appears not. The most likely outcome of the withdrawal is another Afghan civil war, which the Afghan National Army doesn’t seem capable of containing. After foreign forces leave, Afghanistan will be left with the largest local army it has ever possessed.
It will also be its most multiethnic. In Pakistan on the Brink, Ahmed Rashid explains: “U.S. recruitment policy [for the Afghan Army] includes a strict ratio established in 2003 among all ethnic groups. Thus the Tajik could not be over 25 percent in the Army, but in 2010 they constituted some 41 percent of soldiers and officers in the Army, while Tajik officers commanded 70 percent of the units.”
Many expect the uneven Afghan battlefield will be leveled by inserting additional, nonstate fighters from Pakistan, setting off a parallel war between the Afghan National Army and these plausibly-deniable warriors. The Pakistani Taliban will raid across the international border, their manpower augmented by the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani network, Hizb-e-Islami, the Punjabi Taliban and its Asian Tigers, ragtag warlords of Pakistan’s federally-administered tribal areas and Malakand, all of them ready to battle an Afghan Army already inclined to defection. Jamat-ud-Dawah’s Saeed claims he alone can muster 100,000 fighters.
Pakistan is home to the armies that will enter Afghanistan, but it hardly controls them. So the blowback from Afghanistan this time will be transformational; Pakistan may not survive the “fundraising” by its nonstate actors: Karachi and Peshawar are already paralyzed by kidnappings and Lahore, too, is expected to be targeted in a big way. Criminals in Pakistan are in the process of becoming Talibanized: vendettas are carried out increasingly with suicide-bombers because the Taliban are busy selling their surplus henchmen.
Pakistan has sought to appease terrorism by becoming anti-American and pro-Taliban. After the withdrawal, a Talibanized Afghanistan will only survive if Pakistan takes its policy of appeasement to its logical end and becomes a caliphate itself. The remaining attributes of the state will fall off, with religious parties and madrassahs with jihadist capacity increasingly exercising authority in its name. The time-bomb ticks away.
With Benazir Shah and Nazar Ul Islam. From our April 5, 2014, issue.