LAHORE: The investigation into the Jan 2 airbase attack in India apparently entered a critical phase on Wednesday amid reports of the arrest of Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

New Delhi had named Maulana Azhar as the mastermind of the Pathankot airbase attack.

Know more: Pak-based groups to face action if role proved: PM

Police and security agencies refused to confirm the arrests. Officials in Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, Rahimyar Khan and Multan, where these arrests were initially believed to have taken place, were totally unaware of any such development in their areas.

Bahawalpur DPO Sarfaraz Ahmad Falki expressed ignorance about house arrest of Maulana Azhar or any other arrests in his district.

“It’s a federal matter and the federal government may have taken him into custody,” said the spokesperson for the Punjab police, Nabila Ghazanfar.

Some reports suggested that Masood Azhar’s brother Rauf and his brother-in-law had also been taken into “protective custody”. Over a dozen other Jaish activists have been arrested.

India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is understood to have provided “credible leads” to his Pakistani counterpart, Nasser Khan Janjua.

Maulana Azhar’s detention was made on the information provided by India linking him to the Pathankot airbase attack.

The attack took place a week after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a stopover in Lahore to wish Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and attend his granddaughter’s wedding at Jati Umra.

Maulana Azhar was arrested in India in February 1994. But India was forced to release him and two others — Mushtaq Zargar and Umar Sheikh — in December 1999 in exchange for passengers and crews of an Indian flight that was hijacked by militants linked to Harkatul Mujahideen from Kathmandu and forced to land in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Umar Sheikh was later arrested for his involvement in the kidnap and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002. Mushtaq Zargar was believed to be in Muzaffarabad. Maulana Azhar’s brother Rauf is believed to have masterminded the hijacking.

After his return to Pakistan, Maulana Azhar split with Harkatul Mujahideen in 2000 and formed his own militant outfit Jaish-i-Mohammad.

The Jaish was banned in 2002 by the military regime of Gen Pervez Musharraf under international pressure, forcing the Maulana to rename it as Jamiatul Furqan.

Maulana Azhar, a former teacher and son of a schoolteacher, Afghan jihad veteran, and author of several treaties on jihad, is believed to also have travelled to Kenya and Somalia in the early 1990s to “shore up his jihadist credentials”.

He was first put under house arrest in 2001 and released shortly on a court order. He went “underground” after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but resurfaced in January 2014 when the organisers of an anti-India rally in Muzaffarabad ran his pre-recorded film on India’s Republic Day.

Some say he was taken into “protective custody” after the Mumbai attacks that brought the two countries on the brink of another war, but released in 2010.

However, he stayed outside public view during the past seven years before his reappearance at the Muzaffarabad rally.

Majeed Gill from Bahawalpur contributed to the report

Published in Dawn, January 14th, 2016