Why you should care
Because in this tinderbox, he holds the biggest match.
Dueling airstrikes, a captured-then-returned fighter pilot, politically fueled tension: India and Pakistan have been brought to the brink of war since a suicide bombing in Kashmir last month, carried out by the terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad.
The world is alarmed. The man at the center of it, Jaish chief Masood Azhar, does not seem the least bit perturbed. That is, if we go by the editorial the 50-year-old wrote for his outfit’s online portal, Alqalam, on the eve of India’s airstrikes at what it claimed was a Jaish terror camp in Pakistan.
Under his pen name Saadi, Azhar poetically describes the peace — “The buds of joy were coming to fruition.” — before the Feb. 14 Pulwama bombing, which killed 40 members of India’s Central Reserve Police Force. “The situation has altered now,” he continues. “Three plus one obligations are incumbent upon us. One, we should not succumb to cowardice. Two, we should not betray weakness. Three, we should neither submit nor look for support. And fourth, we should keep praying.”
The Kashmiris were just too moderate to mount the kind of total war that was needed if India was to be unseated.
From the Afghan war against the Soviet Union in the late 1980s to a stint of jihad in northern Africa to his deadly work in India, Azhar has run the terror gamut. Now, he’s back where he was born, in Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab, where the Jaish is headquartered. The third of 11 children, Azhar graduated as a teacher from the Jamia Uloom Islamic religious school before taking to jihad. His real introduction to the world came in December 1999 when four Pakistani militants hijacked an Indian Airlines flight to demand his release along with three other jihadis — among them Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh who would later behead Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl — from their jail in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government at the time felt it had little option but to agree. The militants were later flown to Kandahar, Afghanistan, by no less than India’s then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh.
Shortly thereafter, al-Qaida leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri are alleged to have thrown a party for the freed jihadis. Bin Laden and Azhar had fought together in Somalia in 1993, where they were reported to have armed Islamists with rocket-propelled grenades that brought down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in the battle for Mogadishu. Azhar later started Jaish-e-Mohammad, which has carried out a series of high-profile, large-casualty attacks on security personnel in Kashmir.
In 2001, Jaish struck India’s parliament in New Delhi, killing 14 people including the five militants. In response, India amassed troops along the border with Pakistan but stopped short of war — a level of brinkmanship unseen again until now, though the attacks have continued.
Through it all, Azhar has not only survived but emerged stronger. News about him, published invariably alongside a picture or video featuring his luxuriously bearded stern face, has become a staple of the media in India. Though he is now rarely seen in public, he continues to issue audio statements and write for Alqalam. The last time he addressed a rally was in 2014 at Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, though his call for jihad came via cellphone held close to the microphone. Azhar spoke of exacting a “chilling revenge” from India for executing militant Afzal Guru for his role in the parliament attack. “Let it be clear to all: We are not terrorists but formidable fighters.”
Azhar himself has been everything but a formidable fighter. His time on the battlefield ended when he was shot in the leg by a sentry of his dugout in Afghanistan upon failing to recall the password after heading out to relieve himself one night. He was sent back to Pakistan to preach jihad and edit the magazine Sadai Mujahid (Voice of the Mujahid), where he found more success. His oratory and religious fervor were compelling and helped raise funds and recruits for jihad. He even visited Britain in the early 1990s to raise awareness and money.
Around that time he turned his attention exclusively to Kashmir. In 1994, he visited the state on a Portuguese passport, reportedly to reconcile differences among militant groups and also help lend some sting to the jihad against India. But he was nabbed at a checkpoint along with militant commander Sajjad Afghani without the police knowing how big a catch he was. He spent five years in jail until his release following the plane hijacking.
Ever since, Azhar has redrawn the jihadi landscape of South Asia. “The Kashmiris were just too moderate to mount the kind of total war that was needed if India was to be unseated,” he wrote in Sadai Mujahid magazine, according to authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark in their book The Meadow.
But will the Pulwama bombing finally force Pakistan to crack down on his outfit? “Not really,” says Ajai Sahni, a New Delhi-based counterterrorism expert who runs the independent South Asia Terrorism Portal. “If Masood Azhar dies tomorrow by natural causes, there will be 20 other people who will take his place. But if you are to continue with the use of terrorist organizations as instruments of state policy, all groups must know they can rely on you. If militants know you will throw them under the bus the moment pressure comes, then who will fight for you? These groups will turn against you.” Pakistan denies the Indian assertion that it uses terror groups as strategic assets against its neighbors but has failed to shut them down despite growing pressure from U.S., Europe, India and Russia.
This time, Pakistan is signaling it will indeed crack down on the terrorists. Soon after the tit-for-tat aerial strikes with India, Pakistan seized property from Jaish and other militant groups and arrested Azhar’s brother and son among 44 other members of the armed groups. But American and Indian security experts have pointed out that Pakistan has in the past taken such steps, only to release those arrested after international attention shifts. Azhar himself has been spared, apparently for being “very unwell,” as recently revealed by the country’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in an interview with CNN.
Meanwhile, Russia has backed France, the United Kingdom and the United States in including Azhar on the U.N. Security Council sanctions list, though China — which is running a major piece of its Belt and Road initiative through Pakistan — has blocked the measure.
Regardless of what the U.N. does, two things must happen to end the terror, says the former Jammu and Kashmir minister Naeem Akhtar. “One, there has to be a shift in Pakistan’s strategic outlook. Second, New Delhi should take steps to address the alienation [of youth] and issues in Kashmir,” says Akhtar, referring to local anger against India’s heavy-handed tactics in the state, the world’s most militarized zone, where hundreds of protesters were blinded in firing by security forces in 2016. Dozens of innocent Kashmiris faced attacks in other parts of India after the Pulwama attack, often to chants labeling them “terrorists.”
Frail and marginalized though he may be, Azhar remains defiant. In a nearly 12-minute audio message following the government crackdown, he warned the Pakistani government: “Stop persecuting the mosques, madrassas and mujahedeen. Remember, when a Muslim flees the battle against the hypocrites, he invites upon him the wrath of Allah.” And now, too, the wrath of Azhar.