On the morning of February 26, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale announced that the Indian forces had struck the “biggest training camp” of the Jaish-e-Mohammad in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It was a base, Gokhale said, for training “fidayeen” fighters, or those who launched suicide attacks against the group’s chosen targets. The camp was headed by Yousuf Azhar, he added, brother-in-law of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar.

Yousuf Azhar is linked to the originary moment of the Jaish. He is wanted by the Central Bureau of Investigation for his alleged role in the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in December 1999, engineered by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. It led to a hostage crisis in Kandahar that would eventually force the government to release Masood Azhar and two other prisoners then lodged in Indian jails. Masood Azhar went on to form the Jaish, launching an era of suicide attacks in India.

Balakot in Pakistan’s Mansehra district, it is claimed, was home to one of the oldest camps of the Jaish.

Setting up camp

The camp in Balakot, according to author Riaz Hassan, was set up by Saifur Rehman Saifi, born in central Punjab in Pakistan and “introduced to the doctrine of jihad” by a Harkat-ul-Ansar militant in 1995. It should be recalled that Masood Azhar himself was once general secretary of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, which later changed its name to Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

Saifi joined the Jaish in 2000 and was tasked with supervising the construction of a training facility at Balakot. After a brief interlude in Afghanistan, Hassan writes, Saifi joined other Jaish leaders at the Balakot camp in 2001 “to discuss how to counter the growing US influence in Pakistan”. Suicide bombings were said to be a crucial part of their strategy. In 2002, Saifi would be held responsible for engineering a rash of suicide attacks: on the Protestant International Church in Islamabad, on the Christian School near Murree and the chapel of the Christian Hospital in Taxila. Saifi was arrested a few days after the attack in Taxila, at the house of another Jaish leader.

But why did the Jaish choose Balakot as one of its first bases?

‘A spot greatly revered’

Some historians have suggested that the ideological tradition of “jihad” in South Asia may be traced back to the place. Ayesha Jalal, in her book, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, writes of “the martyrs of Balakot”, memorialised in 19th verse.

They include Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, originally from Rae Bareilly, who joined a band of military adventurers in North India but was then drawn to the idea of a religious war. Barelvi and the Islamic scholar, Shah Ismail, were killed in Balakot in 1831, as they waged war against the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh.

Both were steeped in the ideas of Shah Waliullah, an Islamic scholar who appears to have shared some teachers with Muhammad Abdul Wahab, the 18th century Arab theologian who founded the puritanical Islamic movement now known as Wahabism. After the sayyid’s death, his followers called themselves Ahl-i-Hadith. But for colonial administrators, the name “Wahabi” stuck, shorthand for “those who deplored the accommodations South Asian Muslims had made with their Indian surroundings,” Jalal writes.

Balakot, where the sayyid was buried, is a “spot that has been greatly revered”, she says, first by “anti-colonial nationalists” who saw the battle against the Sikh king as a prelude to “jihad” against the British, then by militant groups in Pakistan who have set up training camps in the area. When the Lashkar-e-Taiba formed in the 1990s, it claimed to identify with the Ahl-i-Hadith school of Islam.

Making headlines

In 2005, when a devastating earthquake hit Pakistan, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity that is a front for the Lashkar, and the Al Rasheed Trust, linked to the Jaish, were seen participating in relief work, sometimes even in tandem with international humanitarian actors. This, according to one analysis, helped amplify the political and ideological influence of the armed groups.

Balakot was one of the places ravaged by the earthquake. Over the past decade and a half, the town and its surrounding areas seem to have made headlines in the Pakistani press mainly because of the earthquake, rehabilitation efforts and bad weather. In 2006, land is allotted for the relocation of survivors from old Balakot city. In 2007, tent villages at Jaba and other quake-affected areas are to be wound up. In 2008, Mansehra district is paralysed by rain and snow.

Two headlines deviate from the usual. One is from 2006: “‘Terror camp in Balakot’, US agency tells court”. A “terrorism expert” of the Defence Intelligence Agency had told a district court in California that satellite images of a place near Balakot, taken between 2001 and 2004, seemed to show a militant training camp. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations had dismissed the claims as “absurd” and “malicious”.

The second report is from 2017. It said clerics from various schools of Islam had “formed a peace committee to help the law-enforcement and security agencies fight terrorism in Balakot tehsil”. One of its tasks would be to vet the credentials of anyone who wished to be part of mosques or seminaries. A local police official is quoted praising the clerics for standing with security forces. It is not clear what became of these efforts.

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