Crackdown in Bahawalpur

Pakistan goes after Jaish-e-Muhammad

Crackdown in Bahawalpur
While the Prime Minister Nawaz chaired a high level security meeting in Islamabad attended by Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Raheel Sahrif, Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar on Wednesday, Pakistan security forces were conducting a search operation in Bahawalpur.

A madrassa on Azam Chowk was raided around 2 pm, with alleged militants said to be affiliated with a ‘banned terrorist organization’ arrested. Around 6:30pm, it was reported that security agencies had arrested Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar from Bahawalpur. The arrests were announced 48 hours before the scheduled meeting between the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries.

After the Pathankot terrorist attack earlier this month, Indian intelligence reports had linked the origin of the attackers to the Southern Punjab city of Bahawalpur, after getting hold of calls that the ‘Seraiki-speaking’ militants had made to their families back home. The Pathankot perpetrators, allegedly JeM militants, had penetrated the Gurdaspur border in Punjab on New Year’s Eve and attacked the Indian airbase in the early hours of January 2.

“JeM’s offices are being traced and sealed,” the PM office said in a statement. “The government wants to send a team of special investigators to the Pathankot air base in India for further investigation.”

A government source said the security meeting in Islamabad had reiterated Pakistan’s stance on cooperation with India with regards to investigating Pathankot attack. “The PM and security officials have assured the Indian government that Islamabad is completely on board in targeting all forms of terrorists, and is willing to work together in tracing the roots of the attack on the Indian airbase at Pathankot,” the official said. “The raid was planned accordingly, and the PM has been informed about the militants captured in Bahawalpur.”

JeM had been designated as a “foreign terrorist organization” in December 2001. Pakistan banned the organisation in 2002, after its alleged involvement in the attack on the Indian parliament the previous year.

Bahawalpur has been the JeM hub since it reportedly moved their base from Kashmir to Punjab. Jihadist inscriptions began emerging in 2009 with banners proclaiming that “Jaish-e-Mohammad will return”, alongside Delhi Red Fort’s image.
India has been asking Pakistan to locate Masood Azhar

“The picture of the historic fort in the Indian capital was believed to be a statement for JeM’s cross-border terror,” says a professor at Bahawalpur’s Islamia University, wishing not to be named. “It was also a means for JeM to recruit east-bound militants by cashing in on anti-India sentiments,” he added.

The professor, who lives close to Azam chowk, says the locals have long been aware of the madrassa and its links to militancy. “Some of us have been too scared to say anything to the officials who have long complied with Islamist militants any way,” he says. “Others have been proudly sending their children to this madrassa and its affiliates to get educated about Islam and jihad.”

JeM overlapped with Al Qaeda, the Punjabi Taliban and sectarian groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba to expand its network and enhance its militants’ training. India has been regularly asking Pakistan to locate Masood Azhar, especially since the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Islamabad has regularly reiterated that it isn’t aware of Azhar’s whereabouts.

Punjab Police Inspector General Mushtaq Sukhera had been quoted in a Wall Street Journal report on JeM in 2009 as saying that “nothing suspicious has been found” in Bahawalpur. “There is no problem of militancy (in south Punjab), there’s no problem of Talibanization,” Sukhera had said seven years ago. “It’s just media hype.”

While Indian Interior Minister Rajnath Singh said on Tuesday that it is ‘not right’ to pressurize Pakistan over the Pathankot attack investigation, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had suggested otherwise on Monday.

“The foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan won’t happen if Pakistan does not act against the Pathankot attack masterminds,” Doval told NDTV. A day before that, external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup had also highlighted how the ball was in Pakistan’s court. “The immediate issue is Pakistan’s response to the Pathankot attack and actionable intelligence provided to it,” he said.

On January 9, before Swarup and Doval’s statements, Foreign Affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz had said that the Foreign Secretary-level talks were ‘intact’.  “Pakistan is following the leads provided by New Delhi,” Aziz said in a function at the National College of Arts Lahore. The next day, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Muhammad Bin Salman arrived in Islamabad to discuss Pakistan’s participation in the Saudi-led ‘counter-terror’ alliance.

“We’re facing two crucial diplomatic challenges at the same time,” says a government official. “And I strongly believe that Islamabad is making the right calls on both the Saudi and Indian fronts.”