Of theology and terrorism

Maulana Masood Azhar, a Pakistani national who received training in a seminary and preached terror, played a pivotal role in coalescing terrorist groups in Kashmir.

Published : Jan 08, 2000 00:00 IST

Security forces at the site of the landmine blast at a market in Srinagar on January 3, in which 13 persons were killed.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL / AP

Security forces at the site of the landmine blast at a market in Srinagar on January 3, in which 13 persons were killed.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL / AP

IF it had not been for a faulty fuel gauge, Harkat-ul-Ansar general secretary Maulana Masood Azhar might never have been arrested.

On February 11, 1994, on his second day in Kashmir, Azhar was returning from a meeting with terrorists at Matigund village, near Anantnag. Sajjad Khan, the Harkat-ul-Ansar's supreme commander in the Kashmir Valley, better known by his code name Sajjad Af ghani, had just turned their car on to the National Highway to Srinagar when the engine spluttered to a halt. It turned out that the car had run out of petrol. Azhar, Khan and their bodyguard Farooq Ahmed had no choice but to take an autorickshaw back to the nearest petrol pump, at Khanabal.

Five minutes down the road, the three ran into a Border Security Force patrol. Ahmed had nowhere to hide his gun, and opened fire. He escaped, but both Azhar and Khan had no time to run. When the BSF personnel searched Azhar's briefcase, they found $1,20 0, a fake Portuguese passport and identity card and an Indian Airlines ticket to New Delhi, booked for February 13. Interrogators soon learned who Azhar was, and the fact that he had come to Kashmir to negotiate the merger of two far-right organisations, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI), into the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA).

It looked as if Azhar's luck had run out. Of course, it had not.

MASOOD AZHAR was born to Allah Baksh Sabir Alvi and Pukia Bibi on July 10, 1968, the fourth of five brothers and six sisters. Alvi had retired as the headmaster of a school in Bhawalpur, Punjab (in Pakistan), and runs a poultry farm along with his eldest son, Mohammad Tahir. Azhar studied at the Government School in Bhawalpur until the seventh grade, but when it was time for him to go on to secondary school at nearby Rahimyar Khan, the decisive shift in his life came about. Alvi's brother Mufti Syed sug gested that the boy be sent instead to a seminary in Karachi. Azhar passed out of the Jamia Islamia seminary in April 1989 and started teaching there immediately afterwards.

Deobandi ultra-conservatism suffused the Jamia Islamia seminary. Students from West Asia, Sudan, Bangladesh, South Africa and Zambia were on its rolls, and the HuM's jihad in Afghanistan was seen as the practice of all that they had been taught. In June 1992, Azhar met the HuM's chief, Maulana Fazalur Rahman Khalil, for the first time. Khalil invited him to join the HuM training programme at Yavar, in Afghanistan. Azhar did learn to use a Kalashnikov and Russian-made Zokai machine guns, but the portly s eminary student just could not make it past the first week of the arduous 40-day commando course. He was put to work, instead, running a monthly magazine for the HuM.

Sadai Mujahid was priced at Rs. 5 and had a print run of around 1,000 copies, most of which were, in fact, distributed free at mosques in Karachi. The magazine became an important instrument of HuM recruitment, targeting the frustrated youth of di sintegrating Karachi. Khalil was by then impressed enough with Azhar to send him on fund-raising trips to Saudi Arabia and Zambia. In Lusaka, helped by local fruit merchant Ibrahim Lambert, the Sadai Mujahid chief editor managed to raise the equiv alent of over Rs.20 lakhs. In October 1992, Azhar visited the United Kingdom, addressing HuM gatherings at mosques in Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester and Sheffield.

The year 1993 saw Azhar rise to the top of the HuM hierarchy. With the end of the United States-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan, much of the HuM's cadre had become redundant. Several West Asian governments, notably those of the United Arab Emirates and Sa udi Arabia, were less than enthusiastic about the return of volunteers from Afghanistan. At one point, the Pakistan Government itself jailed some 500 Afghan volunteers. Most of the HuM recruits left for Somalia, fighting with the Ittehad-e-Islami. Soon, the HuM found itself at war with the United States-backed United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Somalia, which included a contingent of Pakistan soldiers.

The HuM desperately lobbied against the use of Pakistan troops in the U.N. force in Somalia. After a field visit to Kenya, where several HuM cadre had fled, Azhar organised a media campaign against the Pakistan troops' involvement. The chief editor of Zindagi weekly, Mujeeb-ur-Rahman Shami; Urdu Digest editor Altaf Husain Qureishi; and prominent Urdu journalist Mustafa Sadiq were among those whom Azhar recruited to write on the Somalia situation. All three, along with Azhar and Khalil, vis ited HuM cadres in Kenya. Although Pakistan never did withdraw its troops, the campaign helped the HuM gain mass legitimacy in Pakistan.

BACK in Pakistan, Azhar was given a central role in organising the HuM's Kashmir campaign. Early in 1993, using a genuine Pakistan passport, he travelled with Sajjad Khan to Bangladesh. Khan, whom Azhar had first met at the Yavar training camp, had becom e among the HuM's most respected military leaders and was assigned charge of the organisation's Kashmir operations. Since the border routes into India were closed due to winter snow, Azhar's job was to get Khan across the Bangladesh border. Khan and Azha r arrived in Dhaka on an Emirates flight, where they were received by Maulana Karimullah, a graduate of the Jamia Islamia seminary.

Azhar took two days off to relax at a hotel in Dhaka after Khan was pushed across the Bangladesh border. He needed a break. Back in Pakistan, a furious dialogue was under way on the future of the HuM. The origins of the organisation lay in two Deobandi r eligious bodies, the Jamait-ul-Ulema-e-Islami and the Tabligh-i-Jamaat, which had set up the HuJI in 1980, at the outset of the Afghan war. Khalil later broke away from the HuJI to form the HuM. Kari Saifullah Akhtar stayed on to lead the HuJI, but it so on split again, with Maulana Masood Kashmiri starting a third splinter group, the Jamait-ul-Mujaheddin (JuM). Azhar was at the centre of protracted negotiations to get the three back together.

Maulana Khalimullah Khan, the chancellor of the Jamia Farooqui seminary, and Mufti Rafi Usman, chancellor of the Dar-ul-Ifta-Wal Irshad, were the two top seminary leaders heading negotiations among the HuM, the HuJI and the JuM. The religious heads succe eded in persuading the three armed organisations to put their personal disputes aside, along with their recriminations over misappropriation of funds. In November 1993, the HuJI, the HuM and the JuM merged into the Harkat-ul-Ansar(HuA). Maulana Sadatulla h Khan was the notional head of the HuA, but real military power lay with its first Naib Amir, Khalil. At just 25, Azhar became the HuA's general secretary, empowered with overall organisational charge.

The Portuguese passport that Azhar used to reach India was brokered through a United Kingdom-based contact; it arrived stamped with Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi visas in January 1994. The HuA general secretary was now Wali Adam Issa, a Portuguese na tional. Azhar left Karachi on January 26, 1994, having ensured that his Pakistan visa had been stamped to show that he had arrived there from Europe. He waited two days in Dhaka before boarding a Biman flight to New Delhi. Early on the morning of January 29, Azhar was in New Delhi. When a curious immigration official at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi told Azhar he did not look Portuguese, the HuA leader replied that he was born in Gujarat.

Ashraf Dar, a Srinagar-based carpet exporter, was Azhar's contact in Delhi. Dar received a call from Azhar on the night of January 29, from the HuA leader's room in Ashoka Hotel in Delhi's diplomatic enclave, Chanakyapuri. The next morning, Azhar, escort ed by Dar and the Doda district commander of the HuM, Mohammad Musa, travelled to Deoband. They spent the day visiting the shrines of the Deoband intellectuals and the graveyard of Maulana Massiullah Khan at Jalalabad. After spending the night at a mosqu e, the three returned to New Delhi. Azhar checked in at Hotel Janpath in New Delhi's central shopping district, Connaught Place.

In the remaining time that Azhar spent in New Delhi, he visited injured HuM terrorists, who had been brought to the city for treatment, at Hotel Usman near the Jama Masjid. Azhar then travelled to Lucknow by a night bus on February 6, hoping to meet the highly-regarded Muslim theologian Ali Mian. Ali Mian was unavailable, and an impromptu visit to religious writer Manzoor Nomani's residence also drew a blank. February 8 was spent shopping for gifts. Among other things, Azhar purchased 12 compasses for t hose he was scheduled to meet in Srinagar.

Azhar arrived at the Madrassa Qasmian in Srinagar on February 9, flying Indian Airlines. Khan, along with HuM deputy commander Amjad Bilal, arrived in the evening. He briefed them on the formation of the HuA and asked for a meeting to be arranged with th e leadership of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Before that, however, the most important work had to be done. On February 10, a meeting of 19 leaders of the HuM, the HuJI, and the JuM was called at Matigund village, in the Anantnag forests. Azh ar's ideological and operational address to the group began late that evening, and continued until 9 a.m. the next day. It was while returning from that meeting that Azhar was arrested.

INTERROGATORS in the BSF knew they had arrested someone important, but it took them time to comprehend just how important he was. Azhar's arrest was followed in quick succession by the kidnapping of British tourists Tim Housego and David Mackey. HuA terrorists demanded Azhar's release, along with that of Afghan war veteran Nasarullah Langriyal. In the event, intense diplomatic pressure on Pakistan ensured that both Housego and Mackey were released unharmed, 17 days after they were taken hostage. India, for its part, flatly told the United Kingdom that it would under no circumstances consider a hostages-for-terrorists swap.

More kidnappings soon followed. In October 1994, British national Ahmed Umar Syed Sheikh, who has now been released as part of the hostages-for-terrorists exchange in Kandahar, organised the abduction of four British nationals from a guest house in New Delhi's downmarket Paharganj area. The victims were driven to a safehouse near Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, where intelligence officials located them on October 31. A shoot-out followed, in which Uttar Pradesh Police commando Abhay Singh Yadav was killed. Sheikh and his accomplice, Pakistani national Abdul Rahim, were arrested. All four hostages emerged from the rescue operation unharmed.

Finally, in July 5, 1995, a shadowy outfit called Al Faran took five Western tourists hostage from Pahalgam. One of the hostages, Norwegian national Hans Christen Ostro, was beheaded early on by the kidnappers, in a move to pressure Western governments t o force India to bring about Azhar's release. Keith Mangan and Paul Wells of Britain, Donald Hutchings of the U.S., Dirk Hassert of Germany are widely believed to have been shot dead on Christmas Day in 1995, shortly after HuA chief Hamid Turki was kille d in an encounter with the Indian Army near Doda. Frustrated by their failure to secure the prisoners' release, and angered by Turki's death, the kidnappers are believed to have given orders for the hostages' execution.

Interestingly, despite persistant denials by both the HuA and Pakistan of complicity in the Pahalgam kidnappings, The Sunday Times of the U.K. reported in March 1998 that the U.S. was long aware of the facts. According to the newspaper, a series o f meetings with the HuA's Khalil were held at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. This dialogue broke down because the HuA leadership was angered by the Americans' inability to push India into a deal. "The Harkat commanders became so angry that they were dete rmined to deny Americans any success, and sent a message through to Kashmir that the remaining hostages should be disposed of," The Sunday Times recorded.

To the credit of the Government of P.V. Narasimha Rao, it persistently refused to negotiate on Azhar's future.

In September 1999, Khan and Langriyal led a group of terrorists in Kot Bhalwal into a plot to dig a tunnel under Azhar's overall supervision. Again, the tunnelling was detected. When police officials went into the barracks, 11 jailed terrorists threw st ones, leading to a lathi-charge. Khan was killed, and over a dozen policemen were injured. Terrorist groups, however, charged that the HuM commander in fact died during interrogation. Whatever the truth, prison officials had reason to crack down hard. In October 1998, three Pakistani nationals had succeeded in breaking out of Kot Bhalwal, sparking off serious concerns over prison security.

SAJJAD AFGHANI'S body now lies in a graveyard just a couple of hundred meters from Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's official residence in Jammu. It is unlikely that his remains will ever be moved, as the Kandahar hijackers had demanded. He was not, in an y case the first terrorist to die for Masood Azhar's cause. Several members of the HuA group which carried out the Pahalgam kidnapping were subsequently shot dead. Nazir Chhan, a member of the HuA group involved in the tourists' murders, has been in jail for three years. Sheikh spent six years in jail before his release; there is no sign of his associate Rahim's release.

Rupin Katyal became the fifth civilian to die at the hands of those who wanted Azhar free. One police officer also gave up his life. How many more deaths Masood Azhar will now preside over remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the last of his vio lent story is yet to be heard.

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