Who is Masood Azhar?
“The man who brought jihad to Britain”
This is how the BBC describes Masood Azhar in an April 2016 article. Born in 1968, Masood Azhar (often referred to Maulana Masood Azhar) is the founder and one of the leaders of the terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Apart from India, JeM is a designated terrorist organization in many countries including the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, and has been blacklisted by the UN. It operates out of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Masood Azhar is the mastermind behind most of JeM’s militant activities and is on the list of India’s most wanted terrorists.
Through his early years, Masood Azhar travelled through many countries aligning himself with radical Islamist outfits such as the Harkat-ul-Ansar of Pakistan. He also developed close ties with the al-Qaeda. Azhar spent some time fighting the Soviet forces in Afghanistan before returning to Pakistan. He then started to spread his jihadist ideology in many countries including the UK before becoming one of the top terrorists operating in Kashmir. In 1994, the demolition of the Babri Masjid made India the prime focus of Azhar’s attention. Ever since he has been planning and executing violent attacks on Indian soil in the name of Islam and Jihad.
Azhar’s involvement in terror activities on Indian soil started way back in 1994 when he was arrested for entering the country on a forged passport. In 1999 Pakistani militants hijacked an Indian Airlines aircraft flight at Kandahar and negotiated his release in lieu of 155 Indian hostages. It is following this release that Azhar went on to set up the JeM.
Azhar’s anti-Indian activities came to the forefront in 2001 when he was named as the prime suspect in the Parliament attack which killed 9 people. At the time Azhar was living in his home in Bahawalpur and Pakistani authorities had turned down India’s request for his extradition. Azhar and the JeM are believed to have the backing of Pakistan’s intelligence agency the ISI.
Following the 2008 Mumbai blasts and terror attacks, India demanded that Pakistan hand over a number of terrorists featuring on India’s most wanted list. Most of them were believed to be free and living in Pakistan. Nothing came of the demand since Pakistan denied knowledge of his whereabouts. Again in 2014, Indian intelligence officials issued a warning that Azhar and his associates were planning to hijack an Indian plane. Many public assets were put on high alert at the time.
Involvement in Pathankot Attack
On 2 January 2016, a group of heavily armed militants attacked the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot in Punjab. The attack and the military operation lasted over 17 hours and claimed the lives of 7 security personnel and 1 civilian. 6 militants involved in the attack were also killed. According to Indian authorities all available evidence points to the involvement of Jaish-e-Mohammed operatives in the incident. According to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) report of the incident, the attackers were all JeM members. Maulana Masood Azhar was the mastermind of the attack and his brother Abdul Rehman Rauf (JeM’s commander) monitored the details of the attack through Kashif Jaan. Kashif Jaan then guided the terrorists who attacked Pathankot to their point of infiltration into India. While the proof available has been deemed conclusive by the NIA, the agency further sought voice samples of Azhar and Rauf to match them with available evidence. Evidence of Azhar and the JeM’s involvement in the Pathankot attack was also provided to Pakistan’s Joint Investigation Team (JIT) which had visited Pathankot following the attack.
On 13 January, following India’s communication to Pakistan regarding Azhar’s involvement in the Pathankot airbase attack, Pakistani authorities announced that several JeM members had been arrested. This includes Azhar, Rauf, and their associates. Pakistani authorities have held them for questioning.
India has sent a request to Pakistan to let its intelligence agency interrogate him. However, Indian authorities are still waiting for Pakistan to give its approval.
UN Veto Case
Following the attack on the IAF’s Pathankot airbase, India’s Ministry for External Affairs took up a strong case to put Masood Azhar on the United Nations list of banned terrorists. Adding Azhar to the list would have been a major setback to his terrorist activities and those of the JeM, attracting a globally unified action against their brand of violence. This attempt was, however, thwarted by China using its Veto at the Security Council. While India’s submission to the UN sanctions committee was backed by considerable evidence that Pakistan-based JeM was responsible for the Pathankot attack, China has blocked the move to blacklist JeM and said that the link between JeM and the attack is sketchy and “did not meet the requirements”. It is likely that such a call was made by China in consultation with Pakistan. China had similarly blocked India’s attempts to levy sanctions against Azhar following the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Currently, though, Indian authorities do not seem to be in a mood to let the issue go. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said, “We have taken it up at a sort of very high level and we will continue to pursue this with the Chinese”. It is also likely that the government may reinstate China in India’s list of “country of concern” over the issue. China was pulled off the list given the improvement in relations between the nations.
India’s call to blacklist Azhar under the al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee was presented in the greater interest of protecting “all member states and their citizens from the activities of terror groups like JeM and its leader Azhar.”