The gathering storm

The primary threat to India emanates not from ISIS, but from Pakistan in the form of jihadi groups aided and abetted by that country’s military-security establishment.

The dramatic rise of the group referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) presents a new dimension to the challenges that India faces from unrest and extremism in the Middle East. It has been particularly difficult, for example, to ascertain the whereabouts of the 39 Indians allegedly being held hostage by ISIS in Iraq.  Additionally, although India has been largely insulated from the disturbing trend of foreign nationals traveling to Iraq and Syria to enlist with ISIS, there is evidence of at least some Indian nationals having done so recently.

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Despite these challenges however, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the primary source of threat in the form of terrorism to India emanates not from ISIS, but from Pakistan in the form of jihadi groups aided and abetted by that country’s military-security establishment.

The four terrorist attacks in Jammu & Kashmir on December 5, including a fidayeen attack on an Indian army camp in Uri that killed eight soldiers may have been aimed at disrupting assembly elections in J&K in the short term, but there is sufficient evidence of a longer-term goal of reviving militancy in J&K and other parts of India. Pakistan’s military establishment appears particularly confident in its ability to influence events in Afghanistan in its favor once a majority of U.S. and NATO forces leave. It is possible then, that Rawalpindi’s jihadi assets will be redirected towards India just as they were after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

Support structures for India-specific terror groups in Pakistan are have long been institutionalised and not only continue to exist today, but also thrive. It would be naive to expect that these support structures would be dismantled simply because of political or military leadership changes in Pakistan. It would also be naive to expect that political dialog with Pakistan can convince it to abandon or clamp down on such groups when it sees them as force-multipliers in its perpetual struggle against India.

Indeed, despite having been forced under international pressure to dismantle its terrorist proxies following the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, Pakistan continued to turn a blind eye to ostensibly-proscribed groups such as the Deobandi Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). Far from having gone ‘underground’, there is documented evidence indicating that JeM and its leader Maulana Masood Azhar have operated and recruited openly from their Markaz Usman-o-Ali headquarters in Bahawalpur, southern Punjab since at least 2010.

A September 2011 article in the Islam Times indicated that Masood Azhar had resumed training militants in Bahawalpur and was constructing bunkers and tunnels similar to those that existed in the madrasas of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafza before they were destroyed by the Pakistani army in 2007.  JeM’s infamous Usman-o-Ali Jama Masjid also continues to host Friday sermons delivered by Masood Azhar’s younger brother and senior JeM functionary, Maulana Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar where the ‘ideals’ of jihad and shahadat (martyrdom) are promoted.

The JeM, which was founded in 2000 as an offshoot of the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, has a love-hate relationship with Pakistan’s security establishment. Many JeM members (though, unsurprisingly, not Masood Azhar) are wanted by the Government of Punjab on charges ranging from kidnapping, extortion and sectarian violence to attempts on the life of the country’s former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. But on India and Jammu & Kashmir, the interests and objectives of the Pakistani military establishment and the JeM converge.

On January 26, 2014, Masood Azhar addressed his first public rally outside his Bahawalpur stronghold since 2008 in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.  At the “Afzal Guru Shaheed Conference” in Muzaffarabad, he warned India of “dreaded revenge” for its execution of Afzal Guru. JeM writings and speeches during this period indicate that the group’s leadership was particularly affected by Guru’s execution.

The scholar Khaled Ahmed views the resurgence of Masood Azhar as the “result of two ongoing developments in particular:  the withdrawal of almost all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan this year and India’s continued if not enlarged role there; and the Pakistan Army’s reported resistance to Islamabad’s wish to normalise relations with India…”

More potent than the JeM and considerably better resourced is the Ahl-e-Hadith group Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), which, unlike the JeM, is always a vocal cheerleader of the Pakistani military’s aims and ambitions in Pakistan and the region.  The group was founded in August 1987 as Markaz ud-Dawa wal-Irshad (MDI) by Hafiz Saeed, Zafar Iqbal, Abdul Rehman Makki, and Chaudhry Abdul Hafeez among others.

JuD’s chief ideologues at the time were Maulana Amir Hamza and Abdullah Bahawalpuri, Hafiz Saeed’s maternal uncle, whose daughter, the recently-deceased Umm Talha, Said would marry.   The JuD today consists of multiple wings, including the charity-focused Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) and the jihadi-militant wing that most in India are familiar with, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).  By its own count, the group today has over 80,000 members (for purposes of comparison, the Brookings Doha Center places ISIS’s strength at roughly 30,000).

JuD as an organization is on the ascendency in Pakistan and Hafiz Saeed appears to harbor mainstream political aspirations.  Since its inception, JuD’s annual congregation (ijtima) was largely a private affair held at either its Markaz Taiba headquarters in Muridke or at Markaz ul-Badr in the hamlet of Bonga Balochan.  This year however, the much-publicised ijtima at the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore was a massive undertaking involving 15,000 volunteers and 4,000 policemen.  Its members boasted of anticipating over 400,000 participants at the ijtima.

As a precursor to the ijtima, JuD’s media mouthpiece in its November 1 publication, carried an opinion piece by Hafiz Saeed where he offered his version of the historical circumstances that led to India being in administrative possession of two-thirds of Jammu & Kashmir.  In a lengthy diatribe against India, Hafiz Saeed opined:

“Agreeing to a ceasefire [in the 1947-48 India-Pakistan war] was a costly mistake for Pakistan whose consequences we continue to suffer to this day.  Since the ceasefire, we have not been able to liberate even an inch of occupied Jammu & Kashmir.  But it is necessary for Jammu & Kashmir to gain independence from India; Kashmir represents the unfinished business of Partition.  The question is, ‘how will Jammu & Kashmir be liberated’?  The simple answer is via the same path of jihad through which we were able to liberate [one-third] of Jammu & Kashmir in 1947-48.

Kashmir cannot be resolved through dialogue and discussion. What have we achieved in 67 years through dialogue and discussion with India?  Dialogue and discussion are useless backed with the effective use of power to force a resolution.  It is therefore necessary that we choose the path of jihad to liberate Kashmir.” [Weekly Jarrar, November 1, 2014]

The return to invoking jihad is interesting because JuD’s position (at least publicly) in the recent past while drawing attention to Kashmir has been to call on Pakistan’s government to raise the issue in international forums and avoid all engagement with India until Kashmir was resolved.

Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed’s public vitriol and the JuD’s show of strength in Lahore coupled with the sustained increase in the number ceasefire violations by the Pakistani army along the Line of Control over the course of this year suggest that Rawalpindi is keen on reactivating militancy in J&K.

The Pakistani army today has swagger.  General Raheel Sharif just concluded a trip to the U.S. lasting almost two weeks, the longest for any serving Pakistani Chief of Army Staff. Rawalpindi believes its rope-a-dope has successfully outlasted and outmaneuvered the U.S. in Afghanistan and it may now be ready to return fulltime to its two primary obsessions, India and Kashmir.  India’s political leadership and its security and intelligence agencies  would do well to pay heed to the gathering storm,  even as the people of J&K reaffirmed their faith in democracy by turning up to vote in record numbers despite threats and actual violence sanctioned from across the border during the assembly elections.

Photo: Aurellen Pernot