His testament could have been just another teenager’s Instagram holiday video, complete with tasteless graphics, low-grade mood-music, and the faux-machismo of the B-grade Bollywood potboiler. “It has taken a year of waiting, and god’s blessings, to get to this point. By the time you get this message, I’ll be frolicking in paradise”. Except that Adil Ahmed Dar was telling the story of how he was going to kill, and die.
File image of Masood Azhar. Reuters
File image of Masood Azhar. Reuters
Thursday’s car bombing isn’t significant because it’s the first suicide bombing by an ethnic Kashmiri: 17-year-old Afaq Ahmed Shah, the quiet introverted son of a Srinagar school teacher, blew himself up outside the XV Corps headquarters in 2000. Nor is the scale of the carnage unprecedented: in 2001, 34 were killed in a car-bomb attack on Kashmir’s Assembly.
Thursday’s attack—the most lethal in the state since September, 2016, when 19 Indian Army soldiers were killed at Uri—still tells us something important. The Jaish-e-Mohammad, the consistent author of the most spectacular terrorist attacks in Kashmir, has shaken off the shackles placed on it by prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government in Pakistan. This sunrise will have consequences in Kashmir, and beyond.
For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the strike is a stern test: will he, elections ahead, retaliate across the Line of Control, as he ordered the army to do after Uri, or hold his fire since the attacker is an Indian national?
From Ahmed’s testament, we know how the village boy from Kakapora, in central Kashmir’s Pulwama district, understood his war. “The time is not far,” he proclaims, “when the azaan will sound again from the towers of the Babri Masjid. The more you oppress us, the more lions will rise across India to wage jihad against you.” He vows “a terrible vengeance”: “you drinkers of cow urine cannot resist our wrath.”
To other young people in Kashmir, too, Ahmed had a similar message. “Your enemy is not just the enemy of Kashmir’s freedom,” he declaimed, “but of your faith itself. They want to deprive you of Islam, and seduce you into a life of vulgarity and worldliness.”
Behind the words lie a lethal reality: for months now, the Jaish has been blossoming in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s not-so-naya Pakistan, systematically expanding its infrastructure and capabilities.
Last summer, Firstpost had broken news that the Jaish-e-Mohammad was building a new training complex on Bahawalpur’s fringes, adding to its existing headquarters in the city. The terror group’s house-magazine, al-Qalam, described rallies it was holding across rural Punjab (in Pakistan) and asking for donations of ushr (religious tithes) from farmers.
In one typical report, al-Qalam quoted a leader identified as “Maulana Ammar” speaking at a mosque in Pattoki, not far from Nawaz Sharif’s home town of Raiwind, seeking donations because “jihad was a mandate of the Shari’a”.
The story was much the same in 2016, when the Jaish struck at the Indian Air Force’s base in Pathankot. Former prime minister Sharif had shied away from confrontation with the Jaish, knowing it had powerful patrons in the Pakistan Army. In 2016, a videotape surfaced showing young men collecting funds in Karachi, for “the brave young men of the Jaish-e-Mohammed who are fighting for the victory of the name of god and Islam”—this even though the terrorist group is proscribed by Pakistan’s own laws.
Earlier that year, Jaish attackers had struck at the Indian diplomatic mission in Mazhar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, leaving a message written in blood: “revenge for Afzal Guru” — the terrorist hanged for his role in attacking the Parliament House in 2001.
But, faced with the prospect of an India-Pakistan crisis after Pathankot, Sharif moved against the Jaish, publicly accepting its complicity. He also ordered the arrest of Masood Azhar. The army, however, stepped in to ensure that Azhar was only detained at an Inter-Services Intelligence-run safehouse in Islamabad.
From house arrest, Jaish chief Masood Azhar railed against Sharif. “The rulers of our country are sad that we have disturbed their friends,” Azhar wrote. “They wish to arise on the Day of Judgment to be judged as friends of (Prime Minister Narendra (Modi) and (former Prime Minister) Atal Bihari Vajpayee.”
In another article, Azhar described Nawaz Sharif as a “traitor”, “even worse than (General) Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari”. He concluded: “Pakistan’s rulers have reduced their own country into a heap of ashes. Every single one of them comes, spreads fire and then escapes abroad.”
Last year’s Pakistan elections saw the Jaish throw its weight behind Prime Minister Khan—cheered on by the Pakistan Army. “Choose the party that is pious and reject the corrupt,” wrote Talha Saif, one of Masood Azhar’s brothers. “Pick a party that rejects fohashani [vulgarity] and uriyani [nudity].”
The sentiments—even the exact words—figure in Ahmed’s suicide video.
Prime Minister Modi’s Uri strikes—of far more limited military value than Bollywood might have led people to believe—were in fact mainly intended to send a message. Pakistan’s army had persuaded itself that India would not strike across the Line of Control, for fear of sparking a cycle of escalation that would lead to a costly war. India’s focus on economic growth, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, were seen in Islamabad as a shield, guarding against the consequences of terrorism.
The cross-Line of Control strikes questioned that assumption, making clear that, push come to shove, India was willing to throw its military dice in the air, and gamble on where they might land.
Even though the Jaish’s army backers had succeeded in sabotaging prime minister Sharif’s efforts to rein it in—an investigation against the group went nowhere, even though Pakistan was given precise names and phone numbers for suspects—the group thus operated very softly.
Following Khan’s rise, though, the Jaish became increasingly defiant. “Flags of the jihad are flying on every street-corner in Kashmir, and we are victorious in Afghanistan,” Masood Azhar wrote in one article last year “Prepare yourself to be Muslim who practices his faith with the mujahideen”.
At around the same time, we know would-be suicide bomber Adil Ahmed had joined the Jaish—and the process of grooming him for his mission had begun.
In 2018, the Jaish stepped up the tempo again, hitting military targets across Kashmir—a campaign that culminated its strike on an army camp in Jammu.
“To Delhi, O’ Hindus, the army of the Prophet will soon return,” reads a giant mural over the entrance of the Jaish-e-Muhammad’s headquarters at Bahawalpur. Inside the building, there is a swimming pool, stables, training grounds and accommodation for hundreds of students. “The life of nations depends on martyrs,” Masood Azhar wrote in the Fathul Jawwad, his disquisition on the Quran. “The national fields can be irrigated only with the blood of the best hearts and minds.”
For many young people, groups like the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda offer a template for liberation, not the failed religious nationalism of groups like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. This youth cohort, fired by global jihadism, offers an unprecedented opportunity for the Jaish.
From the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC814 to the Parliament House attack, the Jaish has shown it means business. For New Delhi, there are no easy options.