There are different kinds of jehadi leaders in Pakistan—there are those that are shot dead after they become redundant and seem troublesome, like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s Malik Ishaq; then there are others such as Hafiz Saeed, who, despite their relevance, can be put under house arrest in the name of national interest to negotiate more affectively with a larger power. But then there are those like Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Masood Azhar, who remain so relevant to the security institution that help is sought from powerful allies like China to protect them at international forums. In the past calendar year, China blocked Indian and now even American efforts to pass a resolution in the UN Security Council declaring Azhar as terrorist.
Azhar’s significance for Pakistan’s security establishment is beyond doubt. Though originally a member of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Azhar opened his own shop called JeM after his return from India as part of Indian Airline flight IC-814 hostage swap in 2000. At that time, he was ready to engage India in Indian Kashmir, fight in Afghanistan and also not attract attention internationally through killing Shias. Sectarian violence was one of the reasons that the military intelligence searched for a Deobandi-militant alternative at that time. Fazlub Rehman Khalil, who headed HuM, was rabidly anti-Shia. It is not that Azhar and JeM did not have a sectarian agenda, however, they were ready to postpone that violence to a later date. This also made JeM different from its mother organisations, the Sipha-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the LeJ.
The JeM went through its rough patch after 2001, during which some of its members broke away and established an organisation called al-Furqan that turned against the state, but the Azhar faction remained docile and connected to the security establishment. So, when Azhar was connected with one of the 2002 attacks on Pervez Musharraf, it was not an attack on the army but against a chief who was viewed by segments of the army as having crossed a line vis-a-vis America. The seeming friction inside the JeM dissipated after Musharraf’s departure.
Azhar, whose family belongs to a small town of Karohr Pakka, on the other side of the now dry Sutlej, shifted to Bahawalpur sometimes in the 1980s. Born to a school teacher, Azhar’s maternal grandfather was part of Majlis-e-Ahrar, a pre-Partition radical Islamist group. Partly trained in Bahawalpur, Azhar went for higher madrasa education at the Banori Town seminary, which had good contacts with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. As member of the HuM, Masood Azhar developed such good links with al-Qaeda that Osama bin Laden partly financed his new JeM and bought out HuM’s financial interests in several madrasas in Karachi and certain other cities. JeM continues to have links with al-Qaeda. Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British jehadi involved in the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl, was one of the prominent militants shared by al-Qaeda and JeM. Sheikh was also one of the three whose release was demanded by the IC-814 hijackers. He remains safely inside a jail in Hyderabad.
Unlike the Ahl-Hadith LeT/JuD network that has diversified activities and tried to spread through welfare activities, Azhar kept his organisation dedicated to Jehad. His close aides always dismiss the idea of any social work by calling it a distraction from their main work of jehad. In fact, Azhar’s role is significant in Deobandi militancy—currently, his books on jehad, especially his magnum opus, Fathaul Jawwad, are seen as the most critical works on the subject. JeM uses the book to train people and convert them to the idea of jehad on a regular basis. It is from amongst the group of people that complete the Daura-e-Tafseer that men are selected for minor and major military training. After the 2002 Indian Parliament attack, the JeM remained in the background, till the attack on Pathankot, that his men proudly own.
It is not just because of his willingness to fight in Kashmir that Azhar is important for Pakistan. The fact that he is a Deobandi militant turns him into a solid line of ideological connection with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The latter is a group that remains key to Pakistan’s strategic community for setting the future course for Afghanistan and Central Asia. Notwithstanding the public claim made by the former army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, that the policy of strategic depth was redundant, Rawalpindi continues to be interested in having an influence over the future of its northern neighbour.
This equation is perhaps easier to understand than China’s continued support to Pakistan for saving Azhar. Beijing blocking any effort at the UN Security Council flies in the face of the popular myth that China is deeply interested in seeing an end to all forms of militancy due to its larger concern for its Muslim areas. The Uighurs remains a problem for China. It is a kind of a problem that forced China to temporarily close its borders with Pakistan at several occasions in the past decade, a country with whom it is supposed to have a relationship ‘deeper than the Arabian Sea and higher than the Himalayas’. Chinese diplomats are quick to tell you that they do not push Pakistan on the jehadi issue or Masood Azhar because they do not want to impose on the country something that would result in the same kind of bitterness as Islamabad has with Washington.
However, this may not just simply be a matter of respecting sovereignty. We know that Beijing can put its foot down if needed, as in 2007, when it pressured Musharraf to take action against the Lal Masjid and its clerics after they harassed some Chinese masseuse in Islamabad. Most probably, China is not worried about the main Deobandi militant groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan attacking Chinese interests. It is noteworthy that the Chinese have remained relatively safe at a time when nationals of Western states (both civilian and military) came under attack by the Taliban or other jehadi groups. In Pakistan Chinese workers have worked in Gilgit-Baltistan for long without being attacked by the Taliban. The same goes for southern Punjab—known for the JeM’s presence—where hundreds of Chinese are employed in construction projects.
But the question is that, with China investing in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor an the one-belt-one-road project, Pakistan’s military should have by now put a process in place to make these groups redundant and weed them out. If the former ISI chief Rizwan Akhtar thought that mainstreaming them through bringing them into politics or giving jehadis jobs in para-military and police would solve the problem, then this won’t happen, because militancy is linked with radical ideas. The more hardcore jehadis believe in what they do not because it is fun and games. Nevertheless, a serious plan to retire militancy is not visible, which does not even seem to bother the Chinese, unless they have their own independent plan to secure themselves against the jehadis, or feel completely safe, and have their own plans to use these militants to their own advantage. Azhar is an ideological mercenary who along with his other Deobandi militants could be utilised in limited battles in the region. Since they have taken greater interest in South Asia, China has developed its own communication network with various jehadi groups and religious parties. Many of the leaders were flown to and hosted in Beijing. The result was development of greater understanding that will probably help China in times of need.
Thus, Azhar may be Pakistan’s baby but China seems equally guilty in wanting to milk and fatten this child. He is certainly of more strategic use than meets the eye.
(The writer is a research associate at the SOAS, University of London South Asia Institute)