The Pakistani government has placed the leader of of the al Qaeda-linked Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group under “protective custody” after the Indian government implicated his group in multi-day assault at an airbase in Punjab province. Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammed emir, has been place under house arrest and in protective custody at least three other times in the past.
Azhar’s detention was confirmed on Jan. 14 by Rana Sanaullah, the Law Minister for Pakistan’s Punjab province. “When asked if his custody can be termed an ‘arrest’, the provincial law minister explained that Azhar will only face arrest and legal action if his involvement in the Pathankot attack is proved beyond doubt,” Dawn reported.
The Jan. 2 attack on the Pathankot Air Base in Indian’s Punjab province lasted several days. Seven Indian security personnel were killed in the attack, which was carried out by a small team thought to be commanded by Jaish-e-Mohammed handlers based inside Pakistan. Indian police said they intercepted communications between the handlers and members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed assault team.
Despite the mountain of evidence against Azhar and Jaish-e-Mohammed for their role in numerous terrorist attacks, Pakistan refuses to crack down on the group and its leader. Azhar is only placed under house arrest or protective custody when coming under external pressure.
Azhar is listed by the US as a specially designated global terrorist. His brother, Abdul Rauf Azhar, senior leader in Jaish-e-Mohammed, is also listed as a global terrorist. The US has also listed Jaish-e-Mohammed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization for conducting terrorist attacks in South Asia.
Azhar is a longtime jihadi who trained at the same religious seminary as Afghanistan Taliban founder and former emir leader Mullah Omar. Azhar was captured by the Indian government in 1994 and imprisoned for terrorist activities. He was released from an Indian jail along with Omar Saeed Sheikh in exchange for hostages held in an Indian Airlines flight hijacking in December 1999 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. His brother, Mohammed Ibrahim Athar Alvi, took part in the hijacking.
Azhar established Jaish-e-Mohammed the next year as an offshoot of the Harkat-ul-Ansar (or Harakat-ul-Mujahideen), one of many terror groups created with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency to fight the Indians in India-occupied Kashmir.
Jaish-e-Mohammed was implicated along with the Lashkar-e-Taiba as being behind the Dec. 13, 2001, attack on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi. In October 2001, the US added Jaish-e-Mohammed as a foreign terrorist organization. In 2002, Sheikh Ahmed Saeed Omar, a close associate of Azhar, was behind the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Azhar and Jaish-e-Mohammed have been openly recruiting Pakistanis to fight in Afghanistan. “In 2008, JEM recruitment posters in Pakistan contained a call from Azhar for volunteers to join the fight in Afghanistan against Western forces,” according to the US Treasury’s 2010 designation of the group’s emir.
Azhar has been in Pakistani detention at least three other times in the past decade, only to be released shortly afterward. He was briefly detained after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, but was cleared of charges by a court in Lahore. Pakistani police detained Azhar after the 2003 assassination attempts against then-President Pervez Musharraf, but freed him months later. And in December 2008, in the wake of the Mumbai terror assault, Pakistan placed Azhar under house arrest (the government later denied this, it is thought he was placed under house arrest then quietly freed). In early 2009, Pakistan’s interior minister claimed that Azhar wasn’t in the country.