Whereabouts unknown: India's most wanted terrorist Masood Azhar

Whereabouts unknown: India's most wanted terrorist Masood Azhar
Pakistani cleric Masood Azhar is India’s most-wanted terrorist.

Masood Azhar is India’s most-wanted terrorist, having orchestrated a series of attacks that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war, but his whereabouts remain unknown, writes Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.

With its snow-capped mountains and emerald valleys, teeming with apple orchards and fields of saffron, India’s northernmost province of Jammu and Kashmir can sometimes resemble an enchanted kingdom.

But for decades, this patch of ground has instead felt cursed, as the centre of a bloody and seemingly never-ending conflict between India and Pakistan. 

Although 70 years have passed since the area became a part of India, it remains a flashpoint between the two nations.

Last August, India moved to cement Jammu and Kashmir’s place in the Indian union by revoking the autonomy it was granted at the time of its accession. 

While the change was largely welcomed in Jammu, which is predominantly Hindu, it sparked anger in the overwhelmingly Muslim Kashmir valley, where a separatist movement has simmered since the late 1980s.

To preempt protests and violence, the Indian government enforced a security clampdown across the valley, shutting down mobile-phone and internet services and placing dozens under house arrest. 

Seven months on, Kashmir remains tense. Only in the last month have restrictions on internet use been lifted.

Indian officials say these measures were necessary not only to prevent civic unrest but also to guard against the threat of terrorism from across the border. 

Just a year ago, the Jaish-e-Muhammad — a terrorist organisation led by a 51-year-old Pakistani cleric named Masood Azhar — directed a car bombing against a convoy of troops in Pulwama, near Srinagar, killing at least 40 members of the Central Reserve Police Force.

Azhar is India’s most-wanted terrorist. 

The man’s success in orchestrating a series of attacks on Indian soil in recent years has angered India to the point that eliminating Azhar and his organisation has become a key strategic objective for India’s security establishment.

Twelve days after Jaish’s attack in February 2019, Indian fighter jets flew 80km or so across the Line of Control, the disputed border into Pakistan, in order to bomb a hilltop near Balakot that Indian officials said was the site of a Jaish terrorist-training camp. 

It was the first time since the war between the two nations in 1971 that India has conducted airstrikes inside Pakistani airspace. 

Pakistan retaliated the next day by deploying its jets to attack Indian military installations.

Despite the deadly attack in Pulwama, and the other attacks for which Jaish claims responsibility, Pakistan has refused to prosecute Azhar or bring the organisation to justice. 

Indian officials find this unsurprising, because, they contend, Inter-Services Intelligence — Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service — provides Jaish with funding, training, and logistical support.

The hostilities between India and Pakistan date back to their birth as sovereign nations, in August 1947, when the subcontinent gained independence from the British. 

Pakistan, a Muslim-majority nation, went on to become an Islamic republic. 

India, predominantly Hindu, chose to become a secular democracy.

Jammu and Kashmir, a Muslim-majority province ruled by a Hindu maharajah named Hari Singh, initially opted not to join either country. 

But weeks after the two nations were formed, several thousand armed tribesmen from Pakistan rode into Kashmir, in what would be the first of many attempts by the Pakistani military to seize control of the territory.

As the intruders advanced, Singh asked the Indian government for help in repelling the invasion, which India was willing to provide — on the condition that the ruler sign an agreement merging Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian union. 

Singh consented. The province became a part of India, though Pakistan had taken control of roughly a third of the state by the time fighting ended in 1948. 

Undated photo of Masood Azhar. Picture: AP Photo
Undated photo of Masood Azhar. Picture: AP Photo

Under the deal, the remaining territory of Jammu and Kashmir was granted autonomy over its internal administration.

Pakistan did not accept the new arrangement, remaining determined to cleave Kashmir from India. 

The defeat in 1971, however, drove home the realisation that India, with its larger military and greater resources, could not be defeated in a conventional war.

Husain Haqqani, who was Pakistan’s ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2011 and is now a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, told me this is what led Pakistan to adopt jihad — or the use of proxy warriors fighting in the name of Islam — as a strategy against India. 

“It is a paradigm of unconventional warfare,” he said.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence oversaw the recruitment and training of jihadists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other Islamic countries to fight against Soviet troops. 

The Soviet army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was seen as a major victory for the ISI, which came to view it as proof that jihad was viable as a military strategy.

At the ISI’s direction, according to Indian officials as well as Pakistani scholars, jihadi groups in Pakistan shifted their attention to a new, supposedly Islamic cause: Liberating Kashmir from Indian rule.

A prominent group assigned to the task was the Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen. 

One of its new members in 1989 was a bright 20-year-old who had graduated from a seminary in Karachi. 

His name was Masood Azhar.

The Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen sent Azhar to train at a camp in Afghanistan. 

Despite being in his early 20s, he was not quite cut out for the rigours of jihadi boot camp. 

And so, after he was there for a week, the trainers exempted him from the remainder of the course.

Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen’s leader decided that Azhar’s talents would be better exploited in producing a monthly magazine on behalf of the organisation called Sadai-e-Mujahid (Voice of the Mujahid).

The magazine detailed the heroic accomplishments of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. 

The publication of the group’s bank account number in each issue helped bring in substantial donations every year. 

The magazine’s success quickly propelled Azhar into Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen’s leadership ranks. 

He was also proving himself to be a gifted orator. 

On trips to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Zambia, and Britain, he delivered passionate speeches, which brought funds pouring into the group’s coffers.

In 1994, Azhar travelled to Srinagar and met with a militant commander named Sajjad Afghani. 

On February 11, Azhar and Afghani were driving back from a meeting when their car ran out of gas. 

They hailed an auto-rickshaw, but the vehicle was intercepted at an army checkpoint. 

Azhar and Afghani were sent to a prison in Jammu.

Whereabouts unknown: India's most wanted terrorist Masood Azhar

Devi Sharan possesses an air of almost impenetrable calm, an asset when it comes to a career as an airline pilot. 

On the afternoon of December 24, 1999, however, while captaining an Indian Airlines flight (IC-814), from Kathmandu to Delhi, Sharan was gripped by panic when a man wearing a red ski mask barged into the cockpit. 

In one hand, the man held a grenade; in the other, a revolver.

“Don’t make any moves,” the armed man said, in Urdu, “or this aircraft gets blown up.” 

The plane was then cruising at 26,000 feet over Lucknow, in northern India. 

A second person, also wearing a ski mask, entered the cockpit. 

He saluted the first intruder, calling him “Chief.” “How much fuel do you have?” Chief asked.

“Let me read it on the instrument panel,” Sharan replied.

“You can read it on the flight-engineer panel, too,” the other man said. 

His use of the term “flight-engineer panel” suggested that the hijackers knew some aviation basics, Sharan realised, which meant it would be difficult to trick them.

“We have enough fuel to reach Delhi,” Sharan said.

“What’s your alternate?” the second hijacker asked.

“Bombay,” Sharan said. Surely, then, the plane could fly to Lahore, Pakistan, the chief hijacker argued — after all, it was closer.

Sharan insisted that it couldn’t. 

“The first thing on my mind was to not leave Indian territory, using any means possible,” he told me recently.

By now, Sharan had learned that there were five hijackers in all. 

Sharan and his flight engineer began pleading with the hijackers to let them land at the nearest airport, Amritsar, in the hope that Indian security forces would storm the plane once it was on the ground. 

The hijackers relented, and the aircraft touched down in Amritsar.

Sharan made a request for refuelling. But the minutes ticked by with no sign of a fuel truck. 

Enraged by the delay, one hijacker stabbed Rupin Katyal, a young businessman who was returning home with his wife after honeymooning in Kathmandu.

The hijackers forced Sharan to take off without refueling and fly toward Lahore. 

After refuelling there, they had Sharan fly to Dubai, where they offloaded the body of Katyal, who had bled to death, and 27 other passengers. 

They ordered Sharan to take off again, this time for Kabul, but Kabul’s air traffic control directed the plane to Kandahar.

Early on Christmas morning, the aircraft landed. About 48 hours later, a team of negotiators flew in from New Delhi. 

Whereabouts unknown: India's most wanted terrorist Masood Azhar

The hijackers wanted the Indian government to release 36 terrorists who were in Indian custody; Azhar was first on the list.

The Indian negotiators were led by Ajit Doval, from the Intelligence Bureau, and CD Sahay, a senior officer from the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s equivalent of the CIA. 

Over the course of the negotiations, Sahay told me recently, he became convinced that the hijackers weren’t acting alone, but rather were taking direction from Pakistani intelligence.

Sahay retired as chief of the Research and Analysis Wing in 2005 and is now a senior fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation in New Delhi. 

He claimed there were officials from the ISI sitting in the control tower, serving as intermediaries.

On December 30, the hijackers agreed to free the passengers and crew in exchange for three inmates: Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British national in jail for kidnapping Western tourists in Kashmir; Mushtaq Zargar, a Kashmiri militant; and Masood Azhar.

The Pakistani media coverage of the hijacking transformed Azhar from an obscure radical into a household name. 

Within weeks of his return, he was making public speeches across Pakistan.

Most Pakistanis had never heard of Azhar before; now many saw him as an inspirational figure. 

“Nobody except a few thought it was problematic to give somebody who had been released like this a hero’s welcome,” Ayesha Siddiqa, who served in the Pakistani military and is now a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told me.

Azhar founded Jaish-e-Mohammad in March 2000. 

He set up a headquarters for Jaish at a seminary in the heart of Bahawalpur, in a neighbourhood called Kausar Colony.

Soon after its founding, Jaish struck with a suicide bombing outside an Indian army facility in Badami Bagh, Jammu and Kashmir, on April 19. 

On October 1, 2001, a car loaded with explosives rammed into the gates of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, after which two gunmen entered the Assembly building. Jaish claimed responsibility for the strike, which killed 38 people.

Then, on December 13, 2001, five assailants executed a similarly audacious attack on India’s parliament in New Delhi, killing nine people. 

Indian investigators found that Jaish had orchestrated the attack, in concert with another Pakistani terrorist group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The parliament attack drew international attention to Jaish, compelling the Pakistani government to ban the organisation and place Azhar under house arrest. 

But no charges were brought against him, and the house arrest was lifted after a year.

In an interview given to a Pakistani broadcast journalist last year, Pervez Musharraf — Pakistan’s president from 2001 to 2008 — admitted that Pakistani intelligence used Jaish to orchestrate bombings in India. 

He said he always considered Jaish a terrorist organisation and had even pushed to act against it, but he clarified that he didn’t insist — seeming to support the popular belief that Pakistan’s civilian government lacks meaningful control over Pakistan’s army.

After an attack in Srinagar in 2006, Jaish dropped out of the headlines, although Azhar was continuing to deliver sermons to inspire jihadis. 

David Headley, a US citizen who helped plan the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, told Indian investigators that he had been deeply influenced by Azhar’s speeches.

Then, in 2014, a prerecorded speech by Azhar was aired at an anti-India march in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. 

Jaish struck not long after that. 

On January 1, 2016, four Jaish operatives armed with Kalashnikovs and grenades attacked an air base in Pathankot, a city in Punjab about 30km from the Pakistan border. 

They killed seven Indian Air Force and security personnel.

Ajit Doval, who led the Indian government’s negotiations with the hijackers of IC-814, now serves as India’s national-security adviser. 

Doval hasn’t given interviews in recent years, but in a speech he delivered at a university a few months before ascending to his current position, in February 2014, he laid out a doctrine of “offensive defence” for countering terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

For years, India had battled Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in the defensive mode, Doval said, but it wasn’t good enough: “You throw 100 stones at me, I stop 90, still 10 hurt me. And I can never win.” 

What India needed to do instead, he argued, was strike at Pakistan’s vulnerabilities in anticipation of the country’s hostile intentions.

The Indian government’s decision to send fighter planes into Pakistan days after the Pulwama attack in February 2019 reflects the new doctrine Doval has pushed. 

“The purpose of the strike has been served,” Pankaj Saran, India’s deputy national-security adviser told me. 

Until now, he said, terrorist groups created by Pakistan to fight a proxy war against India believed they had immunity within Pakistan’s boundaries. 

That would no longer be the case, Saran said.

In March 2019, a week after the aerial strikes, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry claimed that it had taken 44 members of Jaish and other banned groups into preventive custody. 

The government has also taken control of mosques, seminaries and hospitals run by Jaish.

Whereabouts unknown: India's most wanted terrorist Masood Azhar
Indian security forces inspect the remains of a vehicle following an attack by terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammad, led by Pakistani cleric Masood Azha, on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy that killed at least 16 troopers on February 14, 2019.

The compound in Bahawalpur as well as the more recently built headquarters on the northern outskirts of the city have police and paramilitary troops guarding them. 

Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, recently acknowledged that the Pakistan army had tolerated and even created terrorist groups in the past but was now determined to disband them.

Azhar’s whereabouts is not publicly known, although Pakistan’s foreign minister said last year that Azhar was ill. 

When I visited the Pakistan Embassy in Washington in March 2019 to discuss my request for a visa to report this story, the press minister, Abid Saeed, told me that Azhar was in the hospital.

I remarked that it would then be convenient for me to meet with him when I went to Pakistan. 

He let out a laugh while escorting me out of the building. 

“Well, now you are asking for the moon,” he said. I never did receive a visa.

The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and its bloody aftermath set the stage for decades of conflict between two newly born sovereign states, and few of the consequences have been as devastating as those inflicted upon Kashmir.

It’s tempting to look back and ask what could have been done differently to alter its fate — what the Indian government could have done to forestall the separatist movement in the valley; what the international community could have done to dissuade the Pakistani army from sponsoring terrorist attacks.

A year after the two countries were brought to the edge of war by a terrorist attack, the more consequential questions are about how the actions of today might shape the future. 

Will India’s new policy of striking terrorist camps in Pakistan truly deter the Pakistani army’s use of cross-border terrorism?

Will India’s tightened grip over Kashmir really improve the lot of Kashmiris, as Narendra Modi claims? 

Or will these measures only lead to more violence?

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine.

c.2020 The New York Times

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