SOUTH ASIA

Feared Pakistani militant Maulana Masood Azhar resurfaces

It's time to resume holy war, says Pakistani Islamic hardliner blamed for the 2001 attack on India's parliament that left 15 people dead

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 10:49pm

The Pakistani Islamic hardliner blamed for an attack on India's parliament that brought the nuclear rivals to the brink of war has resurfaced after years in seclusion, setting off alarm bells in New Delhi.

Twice since the end of December, Indian authorities have issued an airport security alert, warning of an attempt by members of a Pakistan-based militant group called Jaish-e-Mohammad, or Army of Muhammad, to hijack a plane, with smaller airfields most at risk.

If a call is given the number of [fighters who are ready to die] will go up to 3,000
MAULANA MASOOD AZHAR

Indian officials have said the alerts followed reports of increased activity by Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the outlawed militant group.

Azhar was named by an Indian court as the prime suspect in a 2001 attack on India's parliament aimed at taking top political leaders hostage. Fifteen people were killed, most of them security guards as well as the five men who stormed the complex.

Tensions between the old enemies spiralled after the attack and up to a million troops were mobilised on both sides of the volatile border. Pakistan refused to hand over Azhar to India.

The portly and bearded cleric has remained mostly confined to a compound in his home city of Bhawalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province for years, but three weeks ago, he addressed supporters and said the time had come to resume jihad, or holy war, against India.

"There are 313 fedayeen [fighters who are ready to die] in this gathering and if a call is given the number will go up to 3,000," he told the rally held in the city of Muzaffarabad by telephone. A journalist who was present said a telephone was held next to a microphone which broadcast his comments to loudspeakers.

Azhar spoke from an undisclosed location.

Indian intelligence analysts have described Azhar's resurgence as part of a change in the tactics in Pakistan as US forces withdraw from Afghanistan this year and as Islamabad tries to clamp down on Islamic insurgents who oppose the Pakistani government.

The Indians say Pakistan's military establishment is bringing militants such as Azhar out of cold storage, with the promise of helping them fight India, while trying to stamp out the radicals they can't control.

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general, said: "It is very dangerous that the Pakistani establishment is giving space to him. They are playing with fire and the fire will engulf them."

A former fighter for Jaish, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Azhar remained in command of the group, operating from his Bhawalpur base. "His speech via telephone should not be a surprise for people involved in jihad, he has been controlling the organisation very actively," the man said.

The security alerts in India occurred just days before Azhar spoke. They were not publicised but two officials, one from the domestic Intelligence Bureau and the other from the Central Industrial Security Force, said authorities had increased checks on airport staffers to ensure nobody with forged passes gained access.

Security had also been increased in Delhi's suburban rail system.

Azhar was arrested in Indian Kashmir in 1994. But India freed him and two other jailed Pakistani militants in 1999 in return for 155 passengers held hostage in an Indian Airlines aircraft that was hijacked to Afghanistan.

After his release from jail, Azhar set up the Jaish to fight Indian forces in Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed by both countries and the trigger for two of their three wars.

"Any reactivation of Masood Azhar is cause for deep concern," said AK Doval, a former head of India's Intelligence Bureau and one of the foremost experts on militant groups in South Asia.