Masood Azhar: India's most wanted militant

Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Pakistani - founder of group said to be behind Kashmir hit - not among those held by Islamabad

Pakistan has detained 44 people as part of a crackdown on members of outlawed terror groups amid international pressure to take action following the recent outbreak of hostilities with India over Kashmir.

But those detained on Tuesday did not include Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which India claims was responsible for a series of terror attacks in the country including the Feb 14 suicide bombing in Pulwama, Kashmir, that left 40 soldiers dead.

Azhar, who has been on India's most wanted list for nearly two decades, has called for a holy war against India. His group's stated aim is to put all of Kashmir under Pakistani rule.

In 1994, the militant leader was arrested by Indian police in Kashmir while travelling in an auto rickshaw, a three-wheeled vehicle like the tuk-tuk in Thailand.

Azhar, the then general secretary of the Pakistan-based Al-Qaeda linked terror group, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), spent the next five years in an Indian jail.

"His hatred for India came before he entered India and before he was arrested. But it multiplied several times after his incarceration," Mr Avinash Mohananey, a former Indian intelligence officer who interrogated Azhar, told The Straits Times. He said that Azhar, who at the time edited a militant magazine, gave Indian intelligence crucial inputs on the HuM.

"He was not a fighter. He was used (even then) for motivation and recruitment. He never completed his training in Afghanistan. We had sketchy details of the Pakistani group (HuM) and he would fill in the blanks."

But Azhar only came to public attention in India in 1999.

 
 
 
 

On Dec 24 that year, five gunmen hijacked an Air India plane that was en route from Nepal to India. They demanded the release of three terrorists, including Azhar, in return for the 176 passengers and 15 crew members.

The Indian government, in a contentious decision, agreed to the demands. Shortly after he was freed, Azhar launched JeM, which translates as Army of Mohammed, in 2000. He has since remained a constant source of tension between India and Pakistan.

Security analyst Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, said that JeM had proved to be a "most lethal organisation".

"This man had organisational capacity," added Mr Sahni.

Mr Mohananey said that Azhar, who was born in Bahawalpur in Pakistan, had the capacity to "rabble-rouse and generate religious hysteria" among the masses.

India has accused JeM of being involved in the Pathankot attack in 2016 when gunmen attacked an Air Force base, killing seven military personnel and a civilian, as well as the terror strike on Parliament in New Delhi in 2001, in which 11 people were killed.

While India has demanded action against Azhar, Pakistan has maintained there is not enough evidence to link him to attacks like the Pathankot strike.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in an interview with CNN last week, confirmed that Azhar is in Pakistan and is unwell.

Over the last couple of days, rumours of his death have also swirled, ostensibly as a result of air strikes by India or as a result of his illness. The Pakistan government has denied the rumours.

For now, India is moving to get Azhar listed as a global terrorist at the UN Security Council, but China, a permanent member of the council with veto power and a close ally of Pakistan, blocked similar attempts in the past on the grounds of insufficient evidence. JeM is already listed as a global terrorist organisation at the UN.

Among the 44 people detained in this week's crackdown were Azhar's son, Hamad Azhar, and his brother, Mufti Abdul Raoof.

"This is across the board - we don't want to give the impression that we are against one organisation," Pakistan's Ministry of Interior Secretary Azam Suleman Khan told local media.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2019, with the headline 'Masood Azhar: India's most wanted militant'. Print Edition | Subscribe