Pakistan’s Perpetual Militant Feedback Loop

In the wake of a recent attack in India, Islamabad is again pledging to get tough on militants. Why should this time be any different?

Mulana Masood Azhar (3rd R), head of an outlawed militant organization of Jaish-e-Mohammad makes his way towards a mosque in Peshawar 30 May 2003. Azhar, who was prevented from speaking at press conference, delivered Friday prayer sermon in which he hailed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's spiritual leader Mullah Omar as heroes. AFP PHOTO/Tariq MAHMOOD  (Photo credit should read TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Mulana Masood Azhar (3rd R), head of an outlawed militant organization of Jaish-e-Mohammad makes his way towards a mosque in Peshawar 30 May 2003. Azhar, who was prevented from speaking at press conference, delivered Friday prayer sermon in which he hailed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the Taliban's spiritual leader Mullah Omar as heroes. AFP PHOTO/Tariq MAHMOOD (Photo credit should read TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

In a speech last November, Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a Pakistan-based anti-India militant group, railed against men who didn’t want to sign up for jihad. “Jihad washes away your sins,” he said. “We work for those men who have climbed tall mountains and destroyed an Indian army camp in Kupwara,” Azhar said, praising an attack in Kashmir that month that claimed the lives of one civilian and three militants.

For decades, New Delhi has accused Islamabad of allowing propagandists like Azhar and militant networks like JeM to operate and plan attacks against India. But Pakistan has typically responded to such allegations with a combination of defensiveness and dismissiveness. Islamabad, for example, failed to arrest Azhar when JeM was accused of attacking a legislative building in Kashmir in October 2001. Pakistani authorities also apprehended him in connection with an attack on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi two months later, but never charged him. After spending a year under house arrest, he was set free by the Lahore High Court in December 2002.

So it came as a surprise when officials in Islamabad responded swiftly after investigators in New Delhi accused Azhar’s group on Jan. 13 of staging an attack 11 days earlier at an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, near the India-Pakistan border, that resulted in the deaths of seven Indian soldiers. The Pakistani government raided JeM’s offices, detained Azhar and some of the group’s other activists and leaders, and offered to send an investigation team to India. The Pakistani government described these efforts as “part of [its] commitment to eliminate terrorism from our soil and the expressed national resolve not to allow our territory to be used for acts of terrorism anywhere.”

But there’s reason to doubt whether this signals a serious effort from Islamabad to crack down on Islamist militant groups.

Pakistan’s crack down on JeM mostly seem to be an attempt to keep its newfound diplomatic relationship with India on track. Recent efforts at rapprochement have started paying off. On Dec. 25, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has long been a proponent of peace between the two countries and met with his Indian counterpart at his family home in Lahore.

But skepticism abounds over whether Pakistan will actually prosecute Azhar and JeM. When it comes to acting against anti-India militant groups, Islamabad appears to follow a pattern: detain militant leaders, organize raids, and promise cooperation, without gathering actual evidence or prosecuting suspects. Its actions against JeM appear no different, except for the relative speed with which they have occurred. While this may indicate a stronger commitment by Pakistan to confront and root out anti-India militants, the reality is these groups remain free to recruit, fundraise, and operate across Pakistan — which means these attacks are likely to recur.

In the past, little has come of Pakistan’s efforts to act against anti-India militant groups. Its recent moves against Azhar and JeM seem straight out of its playbook from 2008, when it was forced to act against Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), an anti-India group responsible for a series of attacks on Mumbai landmarks that killed more than 150 people. The ensuing investigation resulted in no charges against LeT’s top leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, prompting speculation that Pakistan had no intention of curtailing the group, and others like it.

At the root of Pakistan’s record of inaction against groups like LeT or JeM is the military establishment’s own involvement with anti-India militants, including Azhar. In the 1990s, the Pakistani military supported militant networks in the recruiting and training of young men to attack Indian security personnel in Kashmir, the disputed territory that India and Pakistan have fought over for 68 years. In 1989, Azhar began serving as the editor of a prominent jihadi publication, thus building a reputation as a leading jihadi propagandist and recruiter. In 1993, he was named general secretary of Harkat-ul-Ansar, a militant group allegedly backed by Pakistani intelligence, before being caught and imprisoned in India a year later. In 1999, militants hijacked an Indian airplane and flew it to Kandahar, Afghanistan, demanding the release of Azhar and other leaders in exchange for the passengers on board. Azhar returned to Pakistan and formed JeM, without facing any charges for his militant activities.

Pakistan’s present handling of Azhar’s case bears unmistakable parallels to its previous handling of the LeT case. After the Mumbai attack in 2008, Islamabad was initially dismissive of allegations that the assault was rooted in Pakistan. It later admitted that the attack was partially planned by LeT. Under intense global scrutiny, Pakistan then promised to cooperate with India and even send Lt. Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, then-head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, to India to help with the investigation. But Pasha ultimately did not go, in part because of the military’s resistance. (A Pakistani judicial commission looking into the Mumbai attack did visit India in 2012.)

This time around, observers believe the military may have assented to the crackdown on JeM. But it is still unclear whether a full investigation into the Pathankot attack will take place.

Azhar has also been placed under preventive detention in Pakistan, much like how in 2008 Pakistan detained LeT’s leaders, including Saeed. But despite evidence that pointed to LeT’s involvement in the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan failed to charge Saeed, who claimed he had nothing to do with LeT or the Mumbai attacks. And since Pakistan could not hold Saeed indefinitely without any charges against him, he legally challenged his detention and was set free by the Lahore High Court. Today, Saeed is thriving as a leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa — a hard-line religious political group that many believe to be another version of LeT — and an expansive philanthropic network which includes an ambulance service, medical facilities, and relief and rescue services in disaster zones. If Pakistan similarly refuses to charge Azhar, it may be blessing him with a similar fate.

There’s also little indication that Pakistan has clamped down on JeM’s command infrastructure. The government has said it is working to close the group’s offices. But there is no indication that JeM’s activities at its headquarters in Bahawalpur, a major city in the southern part of Punjab province, have ended or that its seminaries have been closed, said Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of Military Inc., and an expert on Pakistani militant groups. “No one in Bahawalpur in their right mind believes that anything will happen to [JeM],” Siddiqa said. After the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, Pakistan closed some of LeT’s facilities, including a training camp and offices in Muzaffarabad and Rawalpindi. But it allowed its headquarters to remain open and named a government administrator to oversee the facility. The facility is currently run by Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

Following the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan’s then-president, Asif Ali Zardari, attempted to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 1267, which mandates a series of actions that governments must take against militant groups, including the freezing of assets. Pakistan said it had seized bank accounts linked to LeT. But according to leaked U.S. State Department cables published by WikiLeaks, Zardari believed Jamaat-ud-Dawa had been tipped off by the provincial government of Punjab; the group’s bank accounts were nearly empty when the government seized them. Pakistan has not disclosed if it plans to carry out similar action against JeM.

Pakistan did arrest and charge a number of suspects allegedly involved in the Mumbai attack, including LeT leader Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. But the slow-moving trial of the suspects remains a sticking point in the India-Pakistan relationship, and Lakhvi was released on bail last April. “At this point, it seems doubtful that Masood Azhar or other [JeM] leaders will face judicial processes as opposed to detention,” said Colin Cookman, a program officer at the United States Institute for Peace’s Center for South and Central Asia.

In the past, Pakistan’s efforts to act against militants have been mostly ineffective. The current spate of events is reminiscent of late 2001, when JeM and LeT were accused of attacking the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. After a period of defensiveness and saber rattling, Pakistan detained the leaders of these groups. In 2002, Pakistan banned JeM and LeT, as well as several other militant groups. But groups that were banned, such as the anti-Shiite Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, reappeared later, sporting new names. Neither JeM nor LeT disbanded, of course.

Even as JeM kept a low profile in the ensuing years, its operations continued. The group kept its focus on India, attempting cross-border attacks in Kashmir while riling up anti-India sentiment in Pakistan through speeches and publications. By constantly trying to derail the India-Pakistan relationship in this manner, JeM maintains what Omar Shahid Hamid, an analyst at IHS, called its “nuisance value.” These attacks, as well as the delays with investigating and prosecuting suspects, continue to sow conflict between the two countries.

How this history of failed action will color JeM is unclear. India has welcomed Pakistan’s actions against JeM, calling them an “important and positive first step.” But Azhar didn’t get the memo. In a message posted to JeM’s website before his detention, he struck a defiant note, promising that any arrests would not detract from the group’s mission. If past precedent is anything to go by, Azhar may also be back at the pulpit soon.

Photo credit: TARIQ MAHMOOD/Stringer