On 14 February 2019, a 20-year-old suicide bomber, identified as Adil Ahmed Dhar, rammed an explosive-laden vehicle into a bus carrying Indian paramilitary personnel in Jammu and Kashmir. It was one of the deadliest terror attacks in three decades, killing 44 and critically injuring many others.
A Pakistan-based jihadi terrorist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad ("Army of Muhammed"), claimed responsibility for the attack.
Founded in 2000 by Maulana Masood Azhar – a portly and bespectacled radical Islamist cleric – at the behest of Pakistan’s military establishment, Jaish-e-Muhammad has close financial and operational links with the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba – and anti-Shia groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi/Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan.
Its formal aim is to force India out of Kashmir for the entire region to become part of Pakistan, but it has a long history of using jihadist ideology to organize terrorist attacks across the world. The group’s prime mentor is Pakistan, but a world superpower has also got its back: China.
Much before Masood Azhar founded the Jaish-e-Muhammad, he was a part of the radical Islamic group called Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. As its member, Masood Azhar travelled to Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Kashmir, Britain and other parts of the world, spreading hardcore jihadist ideology, seeking funds and recruiting young people as jihadists.
In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, Masood Azhar and other purveyors of radical Islam, supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, launched a genocide in the Kashmir Valley, an ethnic cleansing pogrom in which tens of thousands of Hindu Kashmiri Pandits were targeted, massacred, and driven out of their homes. Nearly 350,000 of them fled the valley; today, there are only 2764 Hindus left there. As Amy Waldman of the New York Times writes:
"The Pandits’ story is one of the tragic and often overlooked footnotes of a conflict that has claimed perhaps 60,000 lives. The Pandits were the elite of Kashmir, filling the medical and education professions. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a Kashmiri Pandit… But in the early 1990s, most Pandits were driven out."
The tentacles of these terror networks, however, are not restricted to Kashmir. They extend far beyond, using the mass media – especially the internet – to spread their militant jihadist ideology. There are accounts of young British Muslims, fascinated by his vitriolic jihadi speeches against India, the U.S. and the West, listening to his sermons over and over again, a classic stage in radicalization. One report tells how women, listening to his sermons, are moved to tears and give away their jewellery for the cause of jihad.
As the editor of the magazine Sadai Mujahid ("Voice of the Mujahid"), Masood Azhar extolled the virtues of jihad in Afghanistan and then later in Kashmir. Through his books – Ma’arka ("The Struggle"), Faza’il Jihad ("The Virtue of Jihad") and Tuhfa-e-Saadat ("The Gift of Virtue") – he spewed vicious hate and called for jihadi militancy in the name of Allah.
In his book Yehud Ki Chalees Bimariyan ("Forty Diseases Of The Jews") – considered to be "the most anti-Semitic book in the Urdu language" – Masood Azhar declared, "Judaism became another name for those beliefs, ideas, and practices which were invented by Satan." He calls Jews "the cancer seeping into all of humanity" and provokes "real" Muslims "to challenge the Jews in the battlefield of jihad."
Notwithstanding his extremism, Masood Azhar was warmly welcomed by Britain’s leading Islamic scholars. He addressed gatherings in some of Britain’s most influential mosques in the early 1990s, speaking about "jihad, its need, training and other related issues," and telling them that a large proportion of the Koran had been devoted to "killing for the sake of Allah."
A BBC investigation revealed that Azhar, in a speech titled "From Jihad to Jannat (paradise)," told the audience that "the youth should prepare for jihad without any delay. They should get jihadist training from wherever they can. We are also ready to offer our services." He is considered to have been the first Islamist preacher "to spread the seeds of [the] modern jihadist militancy in Britain."
Among the earliest recruits as a suicide bomber for the Jaish-e-Muhammad was a 24-year-old Briton from Birmingham: Asif Sadiq. Nearly two decades ago, on Christmas Day 2000, using the pseudonym Mohammad Bilal, he drove a car packed with explosives into an Indian army outpost, killing nine soldiers.
Over the past two decades, as Jaish-e-Muhammad, supported by Pakistan’s military establishment, spawned insurgency in Kashmir and other parts of the world, its terror footprint increased dramatically.
Its supporters and graduates have been involved in numerous acts of terror: the kidnap and beheading of the American journalist Daniel Pearl; the 2005 London underground bombings; an attempt to blow up a transatlantic airline through liquid bombs; the bombing of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly; an attack on the Indian Parliament; an attack on the Indian embassy in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan; an attack on the Pathankot airbase and on the Uri army camp – to name a few.
Consequently, its members have been on the terror watchlist of most of the world’s intelligence agencies.
In October 2001, the United Nations designated it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization; two months later, in December 2001, the U.S. followed suit. Following reports that the U.S. State Department was considering declaring Jaish-e-Muhammad a foreign terrorist organization, the group transferred its money to low-profile supporters to hide its assets.
In 2002, due to pressure from the United States, the Pakistan government imposed a ban on Jaish-e-Muhammad. But this ban existed only on paper. The Pakistani military establishment continued to work closely with the jihadi group informally, and the group continued its activities by changing its name to Tehreek Khudam-ul-Islam. Later, when the new organisation was banned in 2003, the group started to operate as the Al-Rahmat Trust, a "non-political," "charitable," "community organization."
However, despite being the mastermind behind terrorist activities including murder, kidnapping, and soliciting for a global war on the U.S., UK, Israel and India – Masood Azhar, once detained by the Indian authorities, is now a free man in Pakistan. Although he was detained in "protective custody" (a house arrest with all necessary facilities) for a few months, he was released for "lack of evidence."
He reportedly lives in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, in a 6.5-acre Madrassa located close to a Pakistani army post in the Punjab province. In many instances, the Pakistani military establishment has treated him like a celebrity. He holds rallies, sharing the dais with Pakistan’s military generals and politicians, and gives lectures in which he calls to "destroy India."
Despite volumes of evidence – news reports, academic studies, intelligence reports – the United Nations Security Council has failed to put Masood Azhar on its 1267/1373 list of banned terrorists.
A permanent member of the UN Security Council, Beijing has consistently vetoed the UN Security Council efforts to get Masood Azhar on its list of banned terrorists. In 2018, 14 out of 15 members of the Security Council, including Saudi Arabia, supported putting Masood Azhar under the UN sanctions list. China – as a permanent member of the UN Security Council with the power to prevent the adoption of a substantive draft council resolution, regardless of otherwise unanimous international support – was the only member to block it.
On paper, China reiterates its "commitment" to fight terrorism. However, keeping India distracted – by requiring it to deal with terrorism and its aftermath – is in China’s interest. China regards India as a potential challenger for strategic and economic leadership in Asia, and is committed to quashing those ambitions. Implicitly supporting terrorism and insurgency in India is the easiest, cheapest and most effective ways to accomplish this task.
China therefore has a vested interested in insurgencies targeting India’s territorial integrity. Its International Institute for Strategic Studies published a policy document in 2009 arguing that China should make an effort to break India into 20 to 30 independent states with the help of "friendly countries" such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan.
That China vetoes Masood Azhar from being on the sanctions list and supports Paresh Baruah, the leader of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), an insurgency group in the North Eastern state of Assam, further provides evidence of China’s intention to keep India distracted by insurgent terrorism.
China’s appeasement of Masood Azhar strengthens India’s case against Pakistan as the hub of global terror groups. But Beijing has good reason to play on Pakistan’s side.
By blocking Azhar as a UN designated terrorist, China – which has, on several occasions, explicitly stated that it wants to be Pakistan’s "all-weather strategic partner"- has gained Pakistan’s subservient loyalty. In this case, blocking Azhar, a person close to Pakistan’s military, is a powerful symbolic gesture and token of support for Pakistan in times of trouble. Masood Azhar is just a pawn in China’s larger geo-strategic game.
In return what China gets is a Pakistani government willing to prostrate itself in front of the Chinese. Such posturing is evident in the Pakistani ambassador to Beijing’s sycophantic declaration that the relationship between the two countries is ‘"higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey."
This subservience – and desperation – to challenge India’s growing power in the global arena is reflected in Pakistan offering the Gwadar port to China to use as a naval base. The Gwadar port is an alternative to sea routes from Africa and West Asia through the South China Sea. China has pledged to invest $51 billion in an economic corridor that runs across the entire length of Pakistan, connecting the Gwadar port to China’s Xinjiang region. China also gets access to Pakistan’s natural resources.
Pakistan is also China’s port of call for support and mediation with groups such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In the past, Pakistan supported China in the OIC against Beijing’s crackdown on its Muslim Uighur community, which includes concentration camps and the demonization of the Uighur community as "terrorists." Pakistan has also loyally supported China at the Non-Aligned Movement’s meetings regarding its aggressive conduct in the South China Sea.
Strategically, China uses Pakistan to counter Indian power in the region, while Islamabad gains access to civilian and military resources to balance Indian might in the sub-continent – and to desperately needed funds.
This "You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours" agreement between China and Pakistan is one of the key reasons why terrorist organizations such as Jaish-e-Muhammad are able to bypass international sanctions, cultivate insurgent movements and get away with terrorism.
That Beijing, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is complicit in abetting terrorism by protecting a murderous jihadi who has committed crimes against humanity, in contravention of the UN’s own principles, exposes the deep faults in the international system. And it exposes the hypocrisy of a superpower like China.
The only way to force rogue states like Pakistan to end their support for jihadi terrorist activities is by sanctioning terrorist groups and their international sponsors. And if economic and political sanctions don’t work, then, perhaps military options would.
Shrenik Rao is the Editor-in-chief of the Madras Courier, a 233-year-old news brand which he revived in October 2016. He is also the founder & CEO of 7MB, a digital media company. An alumnus of the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rao writes about foreign policy issues. Twitter: @ShrenikRao