In May 2000, a 17-year-old schoolboy from downtown Srinagar drove an explosive-laden car into the headquarters of the Army at Badamibagh. It was not just the first suicide bombing in Kashmir, it was the beginning of a new phase of Kashmir militancy. It launched the Jaish-e-Mohammad and announced that its founder, Maulana Masood Azhar, who was released in exchange of the crew and passengers of the hijacked IC-814 at Kandahar in the January of that year, was back in business.
Azhar’s Jaish went a step ahead of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the group that introduced fidayeen missions in the Valley, by having human bombs play a role in their operations. Lashkar had been avoiding such attacks, restricting their fidayeen missions to sneak attacks, so that it cannot technically be described as suicide attacks, because of the strict prohibition of suicide in Islam.
A great motivator, the story of Azhar’s evolution from clergyman and teacher in a Karachi madarsa to an international jihadi leader, began in Bahawalpur where he was born on July, 10, 1968. His father, Allah Bakhsh Shabir, was a headmaster in the government school. Azhar lived with his ten siblings — six sisters and four brothers — and the family ran a diary and poultry farm. In his book, The Virtues of Jihad, Azhar reveals that his father had Deobandi leanings and was extremely religious. ‘‘One of my father’s friends, Mufti Sayeed, was working as a teacher at the Jamia Islamia at the Binori Mosque in Karachi. He prevailed upon my father to admit me in the Jamia,’’ he wrote.
Azhar joined the Binori madarsa and this was his first contact with the jihadi movement. He continued his studies in the madarsa, received the almia degree and was soon given a teaching assignment in the madarsa. Leaders of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, the other name of Harkat-ul-mujahideen, enjoyed a great influence on the madarsa and many of the students even joined the Afghan jihad. Azhar, too, got involved. ‘‘A leader of Harkat-ul-Ansar, Commander Akhtar, had come to invite the principal of the madarsa to visit Afghanistan. The principal, Mufti Ahmadur Rahman, suggested that Maulana Masood Azhar should also participate in the training course of jihad,’’ Azhar recalled.
Being physically weak, Azhar is said to have failed to complete his 40-day military training at a Harkat camp at Yavar in Afghanistan. But he still joined the war against the Russians and was injured. The Harkat subsequently decided to appoint him head of the department of motivation, in which capacity he started editing the Sad’e Mujahidin in Urdu and the Sawte Kashmir in Arabic. He also became close to Maulana Fazlur-Rehman Khalil, the head of Pakistan’s Jamiat-e-Ulemai Islam, whose religious schools spread across Pakistan nurtured and created both the Harkat and the Taliban.
Azhar became the general secretary of Harkat and was viewed as the best orator of the group. He remained busy with the Harkat, which was pre-Taliban military wing of JUI, and was active in Kashmir where it had introduced foreign cadre, especially Afghan war veterans. He almost became its international envoy. Pursuing the mission of pan-Islamism — which included ideological motivation, recruitment and fund-raising — Azhar visited Lusaka, Chipata in Zambia, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Mongolia and United Kingdom. In fact it was his meeting with Mufti Ismail from a mosque in Southall, London that led to his visits to Mongolia and Albania. He even visited Nairobi.
Azhar’s Kashmir trip was primarily a brief assignment. The Harkat had been divided into Harkat-e-Jihadi Islami and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and he was sent to effect a patch up. The Harkat factions did merge subsequently but Azhar was nabbed in the Valley along with another top commander, Sajjad Afghani. Incidentally, his entry into India was dramatic — unlike most militants he did not cross the Line of Control in Kashmir. In January 1994, he flew into Delhi from Dhaka as a Gujarat-born Portuguese national, Wali Adam Issa. He checked into Ashoka hotel and later shifted to Janpath Hotel, from where he left for Deoband with two Harkat men from Kashmir. He flew to Srinagar and met the Harkat’s top commanders, Sajjad Afghani and Amjad Bilal, in the Lalbazaar area of downtown Srinagar.
Those days, south Kashmir used to be the hub of Harkat activities and Azhar, along with Afghani, left to meet their men in the heights of Anantnag. On February 10, 1994, he was nabbed by the security forces along with Afghani at Khanabal. The Harkat made several unsuccessful attempts to get Azhar and Afghani out of jail before the hijack drama in December 1999. The kidnappers of the five western trekkers in south Kashmir by the mysterious Al-Faran — deemed to be a front for the Harkat — in 1995, had demanded the release of Azhar and Afghani. Then there was an jail break attempt which was also foiled. Afghani was, however, killed by the police, allegedly in a jail uprising. In 1999, when an Indian AirlIner was hijacked to Kandahar, the government was forced to release Azhar and two others.
This marked the beginning of another alliance. Azhar and a Kashmiri militant commander, Mushtaq Zargar alias Latrum, had become friends. According to Azhar, they first met in Tihar jail. This friendship got Zargar out of jail. Azhar, in a write-up in International Mujahid, talks of the strategic benefits of this alliance. Zargar’s Al-Umar outfit had a very strong network across the Valley, especially in his downtown Srinagar, his home. This helped Azhar to set up a base for his group in the city. The other man who was released in the hijack deal was Sheikh Omar, a former London School of Economics student, who later became instrumental in the launch of Azhar’s new group-Jaish-e-Mohammad.
After his release, Azhar had wished to create a conglomerate of all jihadi groups but failed. He had also developed differences with Maulana Fazlur-Rehman Khalil, which finally led to the launch of Jaish which was created out of Harkat cadre loyal to Azhar. His links with the Taliban were well-established during the hijack drama. In another article, ‘From imprisonment to freedom’, soon after his release, Azhar says that he was greeted by Maulvi Mohammad Akhtar Usmani, the Kandahar corps commander of Taliban. When the India plane carrying him and other two prisoners arrived at Kandahar airport, ‘‘the runway flashed by and I was a mixture of emotions. The land where the plane had landed, everything belonging to it was intensely dear to me,’’ he wrote.
Their dramatic release in the land of Taliban came as a decided boost to Azhar and his group. Within months, he struck in the Valley. He also started indigenising his jihadi group by launching a major recruitment drive in the Valley. It’s little wonder then that his first suicide bomber, Afaq Ahmad, was a class 12 student from downtown Srinagar.