In the Indian imaginary, any mention of Masood Azhar conjures up the picture of him walking to freedom in Kandahar, Afganistan. The government of India had to release Azhar and two other militants who were then lodged in Indian jails to secure the lives of passengers held hostage on a hijacked Indian Airlines flight in December 1999.

As it happened, the man who negotiated with the hijackers was none other than 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 for the passengers on board flight IC 814.

Azhar, born in Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province, had cut his teeth in the Soviet-Afghan wars of the 1980s and joined Islamist groups that eventually became part of the Kashmir conflict in the 1990s. In 1994, he was arrested from Srinagar.

Months after his release in Kandahar, Azhar went on to form the Jaish-e-Mohammad. 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”.

Nearly two decades after India set him free, and days after the Indian government said the Indian Air Force had conducted strikes on a Jaish camp near Balakot in Pakistan on February 26, rumours of his death emerged. They were bolstered by the fact that Pakistan’s foreign minister had recently claimed the Jaish leader was unwell. Then on Sunday evening, Jaish-e-Mohammed reportedly released a statement saying Azhar was alive and well.

Whatever the truth, the intense speculation around Azhar shows just how much in the subcontinent hangs on the life or death of one man.

A masked hijacker carrying a pistol walks with a member of the Afghan Taliban (left) and Ajit Doval (right), then India’s Intelligence Bureau chief, in Kandahar airport, in Afghanistan, on December 31, 1999.

A bombing in the Kashmir Valley

The Jaish-e-Mohammad announced its arrival in the Kashmir Valley with a suicide bombing in April 2000. Seventeen-year-old Afaq Ahmed Shah, son of a school teacher in Srinagar’s old town, drove a Maruti car full of explosives into the gates of the Badami Bagh Army cantonment on the city’s outskirts.

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 early 2000s would be the heyday of the Jaish in India. These were the years which saw attacks on Parliament and the Red Fort, while security forces made a concerted push against militancy in the Valley, extracting a heavy toll.

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.

Setting up camp in Pakistan

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, it is claimed, the Jaish set up one of its first camps in Balakot, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The camp, 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. 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. 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.

The choice of Balakot as a base may not have been accidental. Some historians have suggested that the ideological tradition of “jihad” in South Asia may be traced back to the place. Historian Ayesha Jalal, in her book, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, writes of “the martyrs of Balakot”, memorialised in 19th century verse. They include Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, 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.

Balakot, where the sayyid was buried, is a “spot that has been greatly revered”, Jalal 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.

According to one report from 2006, an American “terrorism expert” 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”.

Masood Azhar in Islamabad in 2000. (Photo credit: Zahid Hussein/Reuters).

Finding refuge

After his release in 1999, Azhar took refuge in Pakistan. He was reportedly allowed to retire to the seclusion of Bahawalpur.

Yet Pakistan has not always been a comfortable home for Azhar and the Jaish, which was believed to have links to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

A Pakistani journalist recalled Azhar delivering a speech from a mosque in Karachi in January 2000. But Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence denied all knowledge of it at the time, he wrote. 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”.

As the Jaish 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.

By 2014, however, Azhar appears to have been rehabilitated. That year, 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 the 2016 attack in Pathankot, the neighbouring country claimed to have taken him into “protective custody”.

Yet the Pakistani journalist, writing in 2016, wondered why the offices of a supposedly proscribed organisation had to be shut down across the Pakistani province of Punjab.

An Indian Air Force base in Pathankot was attacked by militants in Pathankot, Punjab in 2016. (Photo credit: PTI)

The ‘Afzal Guru Squad’

In 2013, theories of the Jaish’s resurgence, which had begun to circulate, intensified after the hanging of Afzal Guru on February 9 that year. Convicted for his alleged role in the 2001 attack on Parliament, Guru 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 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.

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’s public discourse ever since the early suicide attacks in Kashmir. It is an Arabic word which means “those who sacrifice themselves”.

On February 14, the group established its resurgence in Kashmir with a devastating car bomb attack in Pulwama district which killed at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel.

Security personnel in the Indian Parliament complex run for cover during the December 2001 terrorist attack in which 14 people, including five gunmen, were killed. The terrorists belonged to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed. (Photo credit: Reuters)

A comeback

According to a confidential report prepared by the Jammu and Kashmir police in 2018 and viewed by, the Jaish has taken centrestage 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.

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 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.

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, and proved to be a precursor to the Pulwama tragedy.

At least 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed in a suicide bombing in Pulwama, Kashmir, on February 14. (Photo credit: Younis Khaliq/Reuters).

In the international eye

After the Pulwama attack, Indian diplomatic efforts were concentrated once more on having Azhar included in the global terror list. For years, India has pressured the United Nations to do so, 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. Yet, after a bout of diplomatic wrangling, China signed off on a United Nations statement that condemned the Pulwama attack and named the Jaish as the perpetrator.

As the United States, the United Kingdom and France plan a fresh appeal to put Azhar on the terror list, the mystery of his whereabouts remains. Was he at the seminary in Balakot when India said it had conducted strikes? Is he ailing in a military hospital in Rawalpindi? Or is he still presiding over the Jaish headquarters in Bahawalpur?

This article is an updated version of two earlier articles: Searching for Jaish-e-Mohammad: Pulwama attack is a throwback to the peak of militancy in Kashmir and Why did the Jaish-e-Mohammad choose Balakot as one of its first bases?