Five men laughing as they splash in a swimming pool — the selfie records a short moment of innocent pleasure for men preparing to drown a nation in blood. Late in the summer of 2016, Muhammad Umar Farooq returned home to Bahawalpur in Pakistan from the dust-blown Afghan town of Sangin. His cousins and closest brothers-in-jihad—Talha Rasheed Alvi, Mohammad Ismail Alvi, and Rasheed Billa—joined him that morning at the pool inside the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s sprawling seminary in southern Punjab.
Two years later, Farooq would command the cell responsible for the 2019 suicide bombing in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, which led India and Pakistan to the edge of war.
Earlier this week, police in Jammu and Kashmir were reported to have shot dead Jaish-e-Mohammed operative Ashiq Ahmed Nengroo who was a truck driver, one-time police informer and among the most significant fugitives involved in the suicide attack. The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has alleged that Nengroo transported Farooq to Kashmir from Hiranagar in Kathua district and provided him with a safe house.
The killing might seem like closure, but it comes at a cusp in Jaish-e-Mohammed’s journey. Facing international sanctions, Pakistan sought to distance itself from the Jaish, even claiming that its client-State in Afghanistan is harbouring Farooq’s uncle and the organisation’s chief Masood Azhar Alvi.
In recent months, though, the Jaish has organised public rallies to commemorate jihadists killed in Kashmir and raised funds to expand its seminary. Kashmir police investigators have claimed that Nengroo continued to run weapons for the Jaish—using trucks and even drones—even after Islamabad said it had shut down the group.
Each of the men in the swimming-pool photograph is dead, but the Jaish itself has proved difficult to kill.
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The rebirth of the Jaish
Less than four feet tall, elderly and balding, Noor Muhammad Tantray looked nothing like a feared jihad commander. Following the 2001 attack on Indian Parliament, Tantray was convicted of transporting explosives to New Delhi for the Jaish. Following his training in Pakistan, prosecutors claimed, Tantray became a key figure in the networks of Parliament attack commander Shahbaz Khan. Tantray emerged from jail in 2015, having spent 12 years in prison.
The jihadist group he served had disintegrated during that time. Following the military stand-off triggered by the attack on Parliament, military ruler General Pervez Musharraf cracked down on the Jaish. Azhar himself had been arrested, and training camps were shut down. Not a single fighter from the jihadist group was killed in Kashmir between 2012 and 2013—a sign of how marginal it had become to the jihadi landscape.
Even as Farooq and his friends were training in Afghanistan, Tantray patiently resumed recruiting a new generation of supporters in southern Kashmir, aided by the massive Islamist-led uprising that broke out in the summer of 2016. For all practical purposes, jihadist groups ruled the region, even hoisting their flags and holding military parades. In villages where they operated, the Jaish’s Pakistani cadre became heroes, drawing crowds of frenzied young people.
Following a series of terrorist strikes, an enraged India struck across the Line of Control (LoC) in September 2016. The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate needed to hit back and unleashed the Jaish. The terrorists struck at an Indian Army base in Nagrota, killing seven soldiers. Further suicide operations took place in 2017. The strikes culminated in December that year with an attack involving the first ethnic-Kashmiri fidayeen—teenagers Fardeen Khanday and Manzoor Baba.
Like Khanday, several other young Kashmiris had also begun operational roles in the Jaish. Farooq’s alleged girlfriend Insha Jan, together with Shakir Bashir, Waiz-ul-Islam, Muhammad Abbas Rather, Bilal Kuchay, and Abbas Rather, the NIA says, played key roles in the Pulwama plot, ranging from providing safe houses to securing the Gelignite used to fabricate the bomb.
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The road to Pulwama
Late in 2017, intelligence officials had begun issuing a series of warnings that the Jaish was again planning major bombings. The intelligence, government sources told ThePrint, came from Arzoo Bashir, a Tral-area resident recruited by Tantray. The arrest led, among other things, to the killing of Talha and Billa as well as Tantray’s arrest. Even though intelligence-led operations failed to lead authorities to the Pulwama plot, dozens of other Jaish cadres were killed.
The operations also claimed the life of the Jaish military chief in Kashmir, Abdul Mateen, a Bahawalpur resident widely known by the alias Mufti Waqas.
Finally, Farooq’s brother Usman was shot dead by the Indian Army in October 2018, one of the events that, investigators say, led Adil Ahmad Dar to volunteer for the Pulwama suicide bombing.
Azhar authored an elegy released on social media after Talha’s killing: “The martyr’s sins are forgiven when the first drop of his blood falls and he is spared the agony of the grave, the terrors of the day of judgement; he is married to seventy-two virgins; his family granted God’s mercy.”
Taken hours before the Pulwama bombing, another photograph recorded the end of the journey from the swimming pool: Together with his swimming friend Ismail, Farooq stands alongside suicide bomber Adil Dar. There is just one figure in this second photograph who might still be alive: Ethnic Kashmiri Samir Dar, alleged by the NIA of having helped to fabricate the bomb used in Pulwama.
Like several other second-rung figures in the plot, Nengroo fled across the border after the bombing. For a time, Indian intelligence officials say he worked at the seminary in Bahawalpur and then was put back to work.
The continuing threat
Following the Pulwama bombing, Indian Air Force jets struck across the LoC, which led to retaliatory strikes by the Pakistan Air Force. Faced with the prospect of war, Islamabad responded by stopping jihadist operations in Kashmir. Last year, former Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa also agreed to reinstitute the ceasefire along the LoC, enabling the Indian Army to block jihadist movement more easily.
Low levels of logistics support for jihadist groups, however, continued, with figures like Nengroo pushing small arms and cadres into Kashmir. Earlier this year, police shot dead two Jaish operatives believed to have been plotting a suicide attack ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The abortive attack, police allege, was organised by Nengroo.
Even though the ISI has disowned Azhar, moreover, other top Jaish operatives remain active. The terror chief’s brother and Jaish military chief, Abdul Rauf Asghar Alvi, remain active at the Bahawalpur seminary. So does Azhar’s younger brother Ammar Alvi and second-rung commanders such as Mohiuddin Aurangzeb Alamgir.
Two years ago, the United Nations Security Council recorded that the Jaish, along with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, was facilitating the “trafficking of terrorist fighters into Afghanistan, who act as advisers, trainers and specialists in improvised explosive devices”. The two groups, the report warned, are believed “to have approximately 800 and 200 armed fighters, respectively, co-located with Taliban forces”.
Even though the Jaish threat appears to have been stamped out inside Kashmir, the organisation retains its infrastructure, capabilities, and lethal reach. The killing of Nengroo is punctuation in a story that is almost certainly far from its end.
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(Edited by Humra Laeeq)