Protesters hold a scratched photo of Jaish-e-Mohammad group chief
Protesters hold a scratched photo of Jaish-e-Mohammad group chief, Maulana Masood Azhar, as they shout slogans against Pakistan during a protest in Mumbai on February 15, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Pakistan-based banned militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and its leader Masood Azhar are once again in the spotlight after the suicide bomb attack on a convoy of Indian paramilitary men in Pulwama district of Indian administered Kashmir.

At least 49 personnel were killed in the February 14 attack claimed by JeM.

A vehicle filled with explosives rammed a bus carrying the troops to Srinagar. It is believed to be the deadliest militant attack on Indian forces in Kashmir since the insurgency began in 1989.

Since the attack, various theories, condemnations and threats have been hurling around between India and Pakistan — both at the official level and on social media.

There is no doubt that the Jaish-e-Mohmmad was once one of the most feared militant groups operating in Kashmir in 2000s, but it is not clear whether they are still strong enough to carry out such devastating attack. The group was banned in Pakistan in 2002 by the then President General Pervez Musharraf after being declared a terrorist outfit.

Their claim of the attack is also debatable, especially when its leader Azhar has been hospitalised and has been out of action for a long time.

Who is Maulana Azhar Masood?

JeM leader Masood Azhar is a former member of Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM)—Azhar. Commonly known as Maulana Masood Azhar, he gained prominence in the late nineties when he was in an Indian prison for militant activities in Jammu and Kashmir.

He was released from an Indian jail during a hostage swap on December 31, 1999, following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 by HuM. Azhar went to Afghanistan after his release from India and then launched JeM on January 31, 2000 in Karachi.

Azhar was born in 1968 in Bahawalpur, a city in Southern Punjab of Pakistan and was educated at a religious madrassa known as Jamia Uloom-ul-Islamia. Though JeM is banned in Pakistan, India has been calling for international sanctions against Masood Azhar.

India has held Pakistan responsible for the attack as JeM has claimed responsibility, Pakistan has denied any hand in the attack especially when the new government of Imran Khan has been trying to push for peace talks with India.

Main target of JeM

The main goal of JeM which has been accused of armed militancy in Indian Administered Kashmir, is to unite Kashmir with Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan claim all of Muslim-majority Kashmir but only control parts of it.

Insurgency in Kashmir

The surge in insurgency in Indian-Administered Kashmir increased in 1989 after the Afghan war ended. During the Afghan war, Pakistan with the help of the US and other Western governments, supported the mujahideen (Islamic warriors) against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

It is a known fact that during the Afghan war, the Pakistani army not only trained militants, who were then called mujahideen, but also provided them full support backed by the US.

At that time, Pakistan’s military dictator General Ziaul Haq had embarked upon the nationwide movement of radicalisation and created various militant groups to fight in Afghanistan. Warriors from around the world, especially from Middle Eastern and African countries also joined the war that was called jihad (holy war).

The US supported that jihad to flush out the Russian army from Afghanistan.

The war ended and Russian troops were completely withdrawn by 1989. Then after seven years of chaos and infighting in Afghanistan, Taliban formed government in 1996.

Disgruntled militants

The various militant groups (called jihadi groups at that time) and the mujahideen became ‘jobless’ as the US left them alone without finding them a solution. At this point, they turned towards ‘liberating’ Kashmir as they started joining insurgent groups known as ‘freedom fighters’ in Pakistan but terrorists in India.

9/11 scenario

Then 9/11 happened in the US and it changed the whole scenario. The US, which showed ignorance towards activities of these groups, suddenly turned against them and also put immense pressure on Pakistan to ban all these militant outfits. Pakistan came under US pressure and was left with no option but to withdraw support to these groups. Pakistani military ruler Pervez Musharraf decided to side with the US to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Operation against militant groups

Pakistan relinquished its support for these militant groups and tried to divert their attention. Some of them listened to Pakistan, but there were a few which refused to budge and were divided into splinter groups which continued their activities of ‘jihad’ to earn their bread and butter.

Pakistan launched a crackdown on disgruntled militant groups declaring others as ‘strategic assets’ – a policy which backfired later as Pakistan itself became target of militancy with terrorist attacks across the country over several years. The problem continues to pose a serious challenge for Pakistani authorities

Jaish-e-Mohammad is also one such groups which was derived from Harakat-ul Mujahideen and continued its ‘jihadi’ activities. It is accused of various attacks in Indian Administered Kashmir and even in other parts of India. In Pakistan, the support in terms of funding and recruitment gradually dried out due to the Pakistan army’s massive operation against militant groups across the country.

However, JeM reportedly confined its operations within Indian administered Kashmir and continued its activities.

JeM attacks

Indian Administered Kashmir was the initial focus of most JeM operations, although it also has consistently carried out attacks in India and Pakistan since the early 2000s. Following are some of its terror attacks:

April 19, 2000 - JeM claims responsibility of carrying out one of the first suicide attacks in the history of the Kashmir conflict. 

December 2001 - JeM claims attack on the parliament of India, setting off a tense political standoff between Pakistan and India. Later that month, following the Parliament attack, the US State Department added JeM to its foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) list.

December 29, 2001 - Pakistani authorities arrest Masood Azhar for his alleged involvement in the attack. He was released a year later after the Lahore High Court ruled his arrest unlawful.

February 1, 2002 - JeM members gain international notoriety when they claimed the kidnapping and later beheading American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi.

2003 - Group makes 2 attempts to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Indian Administered Kashmir was the initial focus of most JeM operations, although it also has consistently carried out attacks in India and Pakistan since the early 2000s.

2008 - JeM also reportedly began to target Coalition forces in Afghanistan.