Who Is Masood Azhar And Why He Is Declared A ‘Global Terrorist’

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Who Is Masood Azhar And Why He Is Declared A ‘Global Terrorist’

The story of Azhar’s evolution from a clergyman and teacher in a Karachi seminary to an international jihadi leader, began in Bahawalpur where he was born on July 10, 1968. His father, Allah Bakhsh Shabir, was headmaster in a government school. Azhar lived with his ten siblings — six sisters and four brothers — and the family ran a dairy and poultry farm.

Azhar joined the Binori madressah and this was his first contact with the jihadi movement. Leaders of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, the other name of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, enjoyed a great deal of influence on the madressah and many of the students even joined the Afghan jihad.

Azhar received much of the early jihadi influence from Harkat. The Harkat subsequently decided to appoint him head of the department of motivation, in which capacity he started editing the Sa’d-e-Mujahidin in Urdu and the Sawt-e-Kashmir in Arabic.

Pursuing the mission of pan-Islamism — which included ideological motivation, recruitment and fund-raising — Azhar founded Jaesh-i-Muhammad which had ties with Talibans in Afghanistan and, allegedly, with Al-Qaeda too.

According to intelligence sources, Azhar also 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.

Azhar’s Kashmir trip, though primarily a brief assignment, was a defining moment for him and his organization-to-be. The Harkat had been divided into Harkat ul-Jihadi al-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 by Indian security forces.

His aides made several attempts to get him freed before the hijacking drama in December 1999 but all failed. In those days, Harkat used to be active in South Kashmir. Five foreign tourists were kidnapped and used as a bargaining tool. Later, a jail break was orchestrated. But both the attempts failed.

In 1999, when an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked and flown to Kandahar, the Indian government was forced to release Azhar and two others.

Kandahar Hijack

Kandahar Hijack

His dramatic release in the land of Taliban came as a decided boost to Azhar and his group. Within months, he struck inside Kashmir. He also started indigenising his jihadi group by launching a major recruitment drive in the Valley. According to Kashmir Herald, it’s little wonder then that his first suicide bomber, Afaq Ahmad, was a class 12 student from downtown Srinagar.

Azhar became the general secretary of Harkat and was viewed as the best orator in the group before he became the chief of JeM. Notably, in 2001, JeM was implicated in attacks on the legislative assembly building in Indian-administered Kashmir and on the Indian parliament in New Delhi. More than 50 people were killed in the two attacks.

In 2008, JEM recruitment posters contained a call from Azhar for volunteers to join the fight in Afghanistan against Western forces.


Earlier this month, the UNSC 1267 Sanctions Committee’s listing of Masood Azhar had been under consideration in the committee for several years. The Foreign Office spokesman decried the ‘increasing politicisation’ of the committee, including attempts to include matters that are unrelated to the technical criteria.

A UN Security Council committee blacklisted Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar over his ties with al-Qaeda, ending a long diplomatic impasse. The sanctions committee accused Azhar of ‘participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing, or perpetrating of acts or activities’ carried out by the JeM.

Under the decision, he will be subject to an assets freeze, global ban and arms embargo. China, which had previously prevented the committee from imposing sanctions on Azhar in 2016 and 2017, gave way this time.

India had been trying for over a decade to get Masood Azhar blacklisted. Each time its efforts would be blocked by China on ‘technical’ grounds. What this translates to is that India was using the JeM and its head to project the Kashmiri freedom struggle as a ‘terrorist’ insurgency, hence the Chinese and Pakistani resistance to the move.

Now that the “political references” have been removed, as the Foreign Office has put it, China has lifted its technical hold, paving the way for the JeM chief’s blacklisting.

Pakistan outlawed the JeM as a “terrorist organisation” in 2002, prompting the group to unsuccessfully attempting to assassinate then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, twice.

Handling non state actors – the benchmarks

India cannot be allowed to link the Kashmiri struggle for justice and rights with terrorism. Secondly, the state of Pakistan must realise that tolerating such groups is a liability for Pakistan.

In 2016, Pakistan once again detained Azhar, after India alleged that JeM was responsible for an attack on an Indian airbase in the town of Pathankot, killing at least six people. Later that year, JeM was linked to an attack on an Indian security forces base at Uri, killing 19 people.

Azhar’s current whereabouts remain unknown having not been formally charged by Pakistan with a crime. He hasn’t made public appearances since his detention.

Even Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly conceded that those groups were created by Pakistan but now they have lost their utility.

There is a realisation within powerful quarters that Pakistan should gradually phase out all the groups, which were once used by the state for strategic interests. It is a must to phase out all the groups which have become strategic liabilities.

In the wake of Pulwama attacks on March 5, Pakistan arrested Hammad Azhar, son of JeM chief Masood Azhar, along with 44 other under-observation members of proscribed organisations. Such actions need to continue against violent non-state actors.

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Mehmood Ashraf

The author is a researcher based in Lahore

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