BREAKING his long hibernation, Maulana Masood Azhar, a notorious militant leader in Pakistan, resurfaced last week when he addressed by phone thousands of his supporters in Muzaffarabad. This first public appearance of sorts in years of the leader of an outlawed organisation, Jaish-e-Mohammad, raises questions about the state’s policy towards militancy.
First Hafiz Saeed was made ‘kosher’ by being brought into the mainstream and now Masood Azhar is back in the arena. And let us not forget Fazalur Rehman Khalil of Harkatul Mujahideen who now regularly appears on television talk shows and is reportedly being used by the government for back-channel contacts with the Pakistani Taliban groups.
Indeed, the reactivation of leaders of the outlawed groups does not seem accidental. It is a disturbing development for the international community as well as for our national security.
The rally in Muzaffarabad was very well organised –thousands of people were bussed to the venue. So, it is not possible that the local administration and security agencies did not know about the event, which was held for the launch of a book written by Kashmiri leader Mohammed Afzal Guru who was executed by the Indian authorities.
It is true that Mr Guru’s death triggered widespread anger on both sides of the Line of Control and the large gathering was to be expected. But the fiery speech delivered by Masood Azhar on the occasion was bound to raise eyebrows. He reportedly called upon Pakistani authorities to lift restrictions on ‘jihad’.
According to newspaper reports, the security at the rally was strict; cameras and tape recorders were not allowed in. Among others, the rally was also reportedly addressed by Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar, the younger brother of Masood Azhar, who too was closely associated with the banned outfit.
It is often argued by the civil and military authorities that the ban on the jihadi groups was only applicable in Pakistan and not in Azad Kashmir. This is an extremely ridiculous argument especially as it cannot explain why Azhar Masood is still operating from Bahawalpur, his hometown.
Masood Azhar formed the JeM after his release by the Indian authorities in exchange for the passengers of a hijacked Indian Airline plane in December 1999. It soon emerged as one of the fiercest jihadi group in the region. In addition to guerrilla activities in India-held Kashmir, the militant outfit maintained close ties with the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Several of Masood Azhar’s family members held government jobs in Kabul. Hundreds of JeM activists received training in camps in Afghanistan, bringing them into close contact with Al Qaeda. The group’s newspaper, Zarb-i-Momin, became a mouthpiece of the Taliban regime.
Outlawed by General Pervez Musharraf’s military government, the JeM was also placed on the international terrorist groups list after it was alleged to have masterminded the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, which had pushed the two countries to the brink of war.
Following the ban, the JeM splintered into several factions and continued its militant activities. These factions have reportedly been involved in many terrorist attacks that have taken place inside Pakistan. Some of the splinters also maintain close links with the sectarian groups such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.
Despite his group being banned, Masood Azhar was never detained and lived freely in his home in Southern Punjab where the JeM has strong roots.
It is often said that Masood Azhar had lost control over his banned outfit and was not responsible for any terrorist actions attributed to those who belonged to JeM. But his latest address to the Muzaffarabad rally confirms that he has continued his jihadi activities, though he maintained a low profile.
The audiocassettes of his speeches and his publications are freely circulated. The widely circulated Zarb-i-Momin continued to publish despite the proscription of the JeM.
The resurfacing of Masood Azhar and other militant leaders exposes the duplicity of our policy on militancy. The country has paid dearly for using militancy as a tool of our regional policy in the past and it is high time that it is stopped.