Nearly two decades ago, the Jaish-e-Mohammad announced its arrival in the Kashmir Valley with a suicide bombing. Seventeen-year-old Afaq Ahmed Shah, son of a school teacher in Srinagar’s old town, drove a Maruti full of explosives into the gates of the Badami Bagh army cantonment in April 2000. On February 14, the group announced its resurgence in Kashmir with a devastating car bomb attack which left at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel dead.

In the two years after the Kargil war of 1999, Kashmir saw 45 suicide attacks. But car bombs, according to one police official based in the Valley, have always been the preserve of the Jaish.

The group, which was formed in 2000, has gained a new salience in the Valley. According to a confidential report prepared by the Jammu and Kashmir police in 2018 and viewed by, it is taking centre stage in Kashmir’s militancy to give breathing space to groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed, in particular, has increasingly been under international scrutiny.

While the Jaish expands its footprint in the Valley, the Indian government struggles to leverage international opinion against its founder, Masood Azhar. It is a grim throwback to the heyday of the Jaish in the early 2000s, the years which saw attacks on Parliament and the Red Fort, while security forces made a concerted push against militancy in the Valley.

A comeback

Police officials in the Valley say the group has around 50 militants in Kashmir at present, with local recruits outnumbering foreigners. It has established a base largely in the four districts of South Kashmir – Shopian, Kulgam, Anantnag and Pulwama – the hub of the local militancy which has gained ground over the last few years.

The outfit’s revival is believed to have been led by Noor Mohammad Tantray, a 47-year-old local militant known for his diminutive stature. Described as a “recruiter-commander” of the Jaish, Tantray had been convicted for militant activities in 2003 and was released on parole in 2015. By December 2017, he was dead, killed in a gunfight with security forces in Pulwama. But the group had already struck root in South Kashmir. That Kashmir was a focus of attention once more is borne out by the fact that two of Azhar’s nephews, Talha Rashid and Usman Haider, have been killed there since November 2017.

While the Jaish might have built up a presence in the Valley, over the past year, it has lost a number of its regional commanders in gunfights with security forces. These conflagrations ranged from the Tral area of Pulwama district in the south to Kupwara district in the north. Then in December 2018, the police arrested 10 Jaish militants from two modules in Pulwama district.

Despite arrests and losses, at least part of the group’s networks seemed to have survived. Just this year, it has claimed responsibility for two grenade attacks in Lal Chowk, in the heart of Srinagar, bristling with security. The second attack, on February 11, injured at least 11 people, including four policemen, three members of the Central Reserve Police Force and four civilians. It proved to be a run up to the tragedy on February 14.

The ‘Afzal Guru Squad’

Theories of the Jaish’s resurgence began to circulate after the hanging of Afzal Guru, a member of the group who was convicted for the attack on Parliament in December 2001. On February 9, 2013, he was hanged in secret, his remains buried in Delhi’s Tihar Jail instead of being handed over to the family. The group is believed to have used Guru’s death to mobilise support.

In November 2015, the Jaish claimed responsibility for an attack on an army camp in in Tangdhar, on the Line of Control in Kupwara district. Since 2016, Indian security agencies have suspected Jaish involvement in a number of high profile attacks: the siege on the air force base in Pathankot in January that year, the September raid on the army camp in the garrison town of Uri in North Kashmir, another raid on an army camp in Nagrota, on the edges of Jammu city, that November. In December 2017, it launched an attack on a Central Reserve Police Force training centre in Lethpora, Pulwama, not far from where Thursday’s massacre took place.

In February 2018, the Jaish was held responsible for an attack on the Sunjuwan army camp in Jammu. Observers pointed out that it was no coincidence the attack took place a day after Guru’s death anniversary.

A number of these attacks were signed off by the “Afzal Guru Squad”, believed to have been formed after Guru’s death. It was reported to be the Jaish’s “fidayeen” squad. The word fidayeen has passed into India public discourse ever since the early suicide attacks in Kashmir. It is an Arabic word, translating to “those who sacrifice themselves”. Adil Ahmad Dar, the militant responsible for Thursday’s attack, is believed to have been recruited to the Jaish’s fidayeen squad after losses in Lethpora last year.

In search of Azhar

Tracing Guru’s history inevitably leads to Masood Azhar. In the Indian imaginary, mention of Azhar conjures up the picture of him walking next to then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, on his way to freedom in Kandahar. The Indian government had to release Azhar and two other militants to secure the lives of passengers held hostage on an Indian Airlines flight in December 1999. As it happened, the man who negotiated with the hijackers was none other than the current National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, then India’s Intelligence Bureau Chief, who was also present on the tarmac in Kandahar when Azhar was exchanged in return for Indian passengers on board flight IC 814.

Azhar, born in Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province, formed the Jaish months after his release. Over the next couple of years, as attacks by the Jaish mounted, the Indian press sometimes referred to him as “India’s Osama bin Laden”. He had cut his teeth in Soviet-Afghan wars of the 1980s and then joined Islamist groups that eventually became part of the Kashmir conflict in the 1990s. In 1994, he was arrested from Srinagar.

One of the primary aims of the Jaish was to destabilise the Indian state in Kashmir but Azhar also had other preoccupations – the demolition of the Babri Masjid, for instance, and the expulsion of American forces from Afghanistan.

Finding refuge

After his release, Azhar took refuge in Pakistan and the Indian government has blamed its neighbour for sheltering him ever since. Azhar was reportedly allowed to retire to the seclusion of Bahawalpur. That was until 2014, when he burst into public view again, giving a speech over the telephone to Muzaffarpur in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. When India renewed pressure on Pakistan after Pathankot, the neighbouring country claimed to have taken him into “protective custody”.

Over the years, the Pakistani state’s ties with Azhar and the Jaish, which was believed to have links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, seem to have been rocky. A Pakistani journalist recalled Azhar delivering a speech from a mosque in Karachi, but the Inter-Services Intelligence denied all knowledge of it. Yet, when the journalist met Azhar a few weeks after the Jaish was formed, the militant’s “security detail was no less than that for a VVIP”. When Azhar was apparently taken into custody in 2016, the journalist wondered why the offices of a supposedly proscribed organisation had to be shut down across the Pakistani province of Punjab.

But as the group was implicated in attempts to assassinate former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf in 2003 and attended meetings held by outfits keen on ejecting the United States from Afghanistan in 2008, the Pakistani state launched crackdowns on it. In 2014, the state started an offensive against groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, even as it continued to protect Azhar.

The Beijing factor

A fractured Pakistani establishment must now work out the complex equations of which militant group it may support and which it may not. But there is another factor queering the pitch: China. India has long pressured the United Nations to declare Azhar a “terrorist”, while China has used its veto powers in the international body to prevent it.

After the February 14 attack, China professed to be “shocked” but refused to back Azhar’s name being added to the United Nations terror list unless there was a “consensus” among parties. Various factors may guide the Chinese decision, including its interests in Gilgit-Baltistan, its own border disputes with India and its aspirations to outweigh India in the neighbourhood.

This much is clear: an explosion on a highway in South Kashmir has triggered questions that could affect the geopolitical order in the subcontinent. But as the Indian government tackles these larger questions, it also needs to ask why groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad have found resonance in Kashmir again.

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