Pakistan militant Maulana Masood Azhar resurfaces, ignites fears of attacks

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD Tue Feb 18, 2014 6:02am IST

Pakistani cleric Maulana Masood Azhar (L) adjusts his watch during a news conference February 4. REUTERS/Files

Pakistani cleric Maulana Masood Azhar (L) adjusts his watch during a news conference February 4.

Credit: Reuters/Files

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NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The Pakistani Islamic hardliner blamed for an attack on 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, 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.

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 a court as the prime suspect in a 2001 attack on 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 fidayeen (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 Reuters journalist who was present said a telephone was held next to a microphone which broadcast his comments to loudspeakers.

Flags of Jaish, inscribed with the words "jihad", fluttered in and around the venue of the gathering. Azhar spoke from an undisclosed location.

Intelligence analysts have described Azhar's resurgence as part of a change in tactics in Pakistan as U.S. 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 like 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."

REMAINS IN CONTROL

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, where commuters go through metal detectors, are patted down and have their bags checked in x-ray machines.

Staff of the Central Industrial Security Force now work 10-hour shifts in the metro system, so there were more guards at any point.

Azhar was arrested in Kashmir in 1994 while travelling on a forged Portuguese passport. 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 southern Afghanistan.

One of the other freed militants was British-born Omar Sheikh, a close associate of Azhar who was later convicted in the 2002 abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

After his release, 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. India has long accused Pakistan's powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of close links with hardline groups like Jaish.

"Jaish has an obsession with India that transcends Kashmir. They had so many plans. Any reactivation of Masood Azhar is cause for deep concern," said A.K. Doval, a former head of India's Intelligence Bureau and one of the foremost experts on militant groups in South Asia.

Other officials in India said the rally in Muzaffarabad and Azhar's address wouldn't have been possible without state clearance, a charge Pakistan strongly denies.

"He addressed a rally, but steps will be taken to ensure he doesn't do it again," said Tasnim Aslam, spokeswoman for Pakistan's foreign ministry.

"It is not possible we would allow his group to cause terrorism elsewhere when it is banned for causing terrorism in Pakistan."

She said independent investigations had often shown that attacks in India were blamed on Pakistan but sometimes caused by domestic politics or rogue members of the Indian security services.

"There's a tendency in India to hyperventilate without finding out all the facts," she said.

Rana Banerji, a former special secretary at India's main spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, and a leading expert on Pakistan, said Azhar could not have re-surfaced without approval from Pakistan's intelligence agencies.

"He has been allowed to exist in closely monitored conditions all these years on the premise he would keep his activities low key," said Banerji.

"But now that he has been allowed to emerge publicly suggests there is an attempt to allow them a platform for their malevolent energies," he said.

(Additional reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in SRINAGAR and Abu Arqam Narqash in MUZAFFARABAD; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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