New Delhi: Leaders of the Jaish-e-Mohammed held a large public rally in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) earlier this month to claim responsibility for the December 2021 terrorist attack on the police in Srinagar, and to raise funds for future terrorist operations, videos and eyewitness testimony obtained by ThePrint have revealed.
The 3 January meeting is the first public event established to have been held by the Jaish since Pakistan clamped down on the terrorist group in the wake of the tensions between India and Pakistan provoked by the Pulwama terrorist attack in 2019.
PoK’s regional Jaish chief Muhammad Illyas addressed the meeting, which was held at Jaloth, near Rawlakote, near the family home of slain Jaish terrorist Hafiz Arsalan. Fighters of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a video obtained by ThePrint shows, fired shots in the air, and shouted pro-jihad slogans to commemorate Arsalan’s death.
A local resident who attended the meeting informed ThePrint that Jaish leader Illyas told the gathering that Arsalan had carried out the 13 December 2021 ambush on a police bus near Srinagar’s Pantha Chowk — an attack which claimed the lives of three police personnel and left 11 injured.
Arsalan, who is thought to have crossed the Line of Control six months ago, was killed in a shoot-out with Indian forces earlier this week.
Criticising Pakistan military
Illyas criticised Pakistan’s leadership and military for seeking to rein in the ‘Kashmir jihad’. “Flowers are being offered to the mujahideen who are sacrificing their lives, and a minute’s silence is being observed in their memory,” he said. “Yet, at the same time, our leaders are doing nothing to confront the Indian Army.”
The Jaish leader said that “if an attempt is made to stab us in the back like (by former military ruler General) Pervez Musharraf, then the mujahideen are prepared to take these knives in their chest”. “Traitors who take such a step,” he went on, “are warned that our guns are aimed at them.”
In his speech, Illyas also asked local residents to donate funds for the jihad in Kashmir. “A Kalashnikov purchased in Srinagar costs [Pakistani] Rs 1.5 million, a sniper rifle costs Rs 9 million and bullets are very expensive. People should be generous,” he said.
The event was attended by multiple local prominent people, including Maulana Aftab Kashar, of the proscribed anti-Shia terrorist group Sipah-e-Sahaba, Atiq Ahmed of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, former bureaucrat Jamil Safdar and members of major political parties, an eyewitness said. Participants were requested not to make video recordings of the event.
Fighting alongside the Taliban
India’s intelligence services have long warned of a Jaish-e-Mohammed resurgence, driven by its intimate relationship with the triumphant Taliban in Afghanistan. Afghan officials have long reported the country’s army facing Jaish and Lashkar fighters alongside Taliban forces, with hundreds participating in battles.
The United Nations Security Council group monitoring terrorism-related sanctions in Afghanistan was told last summer that up to 1,000 Jaish and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists were fighting alongside the Taliban, “acting as advisers, trainers and specialists in improvised explosive devices”.
Following the Indian Air Force strike on a Jaish seminary in Balakot in 2019 — a reprisal for the terrorist attack in Pulwama — the group’s overall chief, Masood Azhar Alvi, was moved into protective custody. The Jaish’s Bahawalpur headquarters at the Markaz Osman-o-Ali was placed under government administration, and its military training camps evacuated.
Last year, though, Jaish cadres were reported to have been called back to their camps, and its leaders resumed holding fundraising and recruitment meetings at mosques in Pakistan’s Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh provinces.
“The Kashmir movement might seem buried deep under the soil,” Masood Azhar wrote last year in the group’s house-journal, Medina, “but those who have the eyes to see hidden things know it has been planted like a landmine, primed to explode at just the right moment.”
“India’s entire military will get stuck in Kashmir,” Azhar continued. “The problem we will face is how to hold so many ugly and rotten prisoners of war.”
Jaish’s complex ties with ISI, al-Qaeda
Long-standing, complex relationships between Azhar, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and al-Qaeda underpin Jaish-Taliban ties, which centre around Muhammad Yakub — son of the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and now Afghanistan’s de-facto defence minister.
A graduate of Azhar’s alma mater, the Binori Town seminary in Karachi, Yakub is said to have received military training at Jaish facilities in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the early 2000s.
Nizamuddin Shamzai, the chancellor of Binori Town seminary, played a key role in backing the terrorist groups who would flower into the Taliban. In 1979, his student Irshad Ahmed founded the Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami to fight in Afghanistan. The organisation split in 1984, with Fazlur Rehman Khalil founding the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen in defiance of then leader Qari Saifullah Akhtar.
From 1988, when al-Qaeda first appeared on the battlefield of Khost in Afghanistan, both groups collaborated with Osama bin Laden. Failing to qualify for armed service with the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen because of his weight, Masood Azhar was instead used as a propagandist and fundraiser, even travelling to Africa and Europe.
In 1994, Azhar was sent across the Line of Control to merge the two Harkat factions, and ended up being arrested by Indian authorities. The Harkat made repeated attempts to free him, notably by kidnapping Western tourists in Kashmir. He was released in 1999 in return for passengers on board a hijacked Indian Airlines flight.
Nasser al-Bahri, a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden during the late 1990s, has claimed the slain al-Qaeda chief thought up the operation. “Bin Laden wanted Azhar freed and had ordered al-Qaeda to plan the Indian Airlines hijacking with Harkat,” he said in an interview.
Former Pakistan Air Force officer-turned-jihadist Adnan Rasheed wrote that he had begun his terror career after 9/11, travelling to the “Jaish-e-Mohammed office and then to the Manshera training camp…. I stayed in their camp for 23 days, waiting to go along with some other brothers to Afghanistan.”
Later, Rasheed wrote, he participated in a Jaish meeting where volunteers were sought for suicide attacks in Kabul. Fifteen of 200 participants volunteered.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)