Masood Azhar, militant leader at the heart of the Kashmir crisis

Indian Muslims hold a scratched photo of Jaish-e-Mohammad group chief, Maulana Masood Azhar, as they protest in Mumbai against Pakistan on February 15, 2019, the day after an attack on a paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in the Lethpora area of Kashmir.(AFP / Indranil Mukherjee)
Updated 22 February 2019
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Masood Azhar, militant leader at the heart of the Kashmir crisis

  • Masood Azhar freed from Indian prison when Kashmiri militants hijacked an Indian Airlines flight in 1999
  • He went on to found Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which claimed responsibility a deadly attack in Kashmir

ISLAMABAD: For eight days in 1999 the world watched in horror as hijackers diverted an Indian Airlines flight to Afghanistan and held the passengers hostage, the drama ending only when Delhi agreed to release three Kashmiri militants.
Nearly 20 years later, India is still paying the price for that decision.
One of the militants freed was Masood Azhar, who later went on to found Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the militant group which claimed responsibility this month for the deadliest attack in three decades in Indian-held Kashmir.
More than 40 Indian paramilitaries were killed in the suicide blast on February 14, kindling a fresh diplomatic crisis between nuclear-armed arch-rivals India and Pakistan.
JeM is based in Pakistan, one of several anti-Indian militant groups fighting in Kashmir which are officially banned in the country, but which are alleged to be used by Islamabad as proxies in India.
Azar, also, is believed to be in Pakistan — but his exact whereabouts remain shrouded in mystery.
He was born the son of an elementary school teacher in Punjab province in 1968, according to Amir Rana, a security analyst who has carried out extensive research on Pakistani militant groups.
The US Treasury Department website still gives Azhar’s home address as a location in the province’s Bahawalpur district.
Azhar entered Indian-held Kashmir on a Portuguese passport, security officials there told AFP, and established contact with numerous militant groups.
At the peak of the insurgency in the early 1990s, one retired official told AFP, he had not yet picked up arms.
A common figure in the streets of Srinagar, he was known for his fiery speeches, and for mediating between the many groups flocking to the insurgency.
“His greatest value for the militant groups was as a motivator and recruiter, but more significantly he displayed a good capacity to reconcile their differences,” the official told AFP.
Azhar was detained by Indian authorities on terrorism charges in 1994. He reportedly bragged to his jailers that they would not be able to keep him in custody.
At one point, another security official told AFP, he and other militants dug an escape tunnel. When the moment came, Azhar insisted on going first.
“But he got stuck in the narrow tunnel because of his bulky physique and the whole attempt was thwarted,” the official said.
He remained in prison until the Indian Airlines flight from Katmandu to New Delhi was hijacked on Christmas Eve in 1999 and eventually landed in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, at the time under Taliban rule.
One of the hijackers, Ibrahim Athar, was reported to be Azhar’s younger brother.

Allies of Al Qaeda and Taliban
Azhar reportedly met with Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar in Afghanistan after he was freed, said Rana.
He formed JeM in 2000, Rana said. Just a year later, JeM was blamed for a brazen attack on the Indian parliament in which militants killed 10 people, and which brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
Azhar was detained and placed under house arrest. But a court in the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore ordered his release in 2002, citing “lack of evidence.”
As homegrown Pakistani militant groups turned their guns on the state after 9/11, Rana said Azhar was one of the few who kept a low profile.
The group struck again in 2016, with Delhi blaming them for an infamous attack on a military base in Indian-held Kashmir that left seven soldiers dead and once more sent tensions spiralling.
Azhar was again taken in to “protective custody,” but never formally charged.
His whereabouts remained a mystery for months, with speculation he was being kept under house arrest in Bahawalpur.
Last July he addressed supporters in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-held Kashmir, by telephone from an undisclosed location, claiming he had hundreds of militants ready to fight to the death.
The speech prompted Indian authorities to tighten security at airports in anticipation of another hijacking.
Azhar, meanwhile, has not been directly heard from since.

Marked as a global terrorist
Azhar’s JeM is banned by the United Nations, India and Pakistan, and listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. But the man himself has never been declared a terrorist.
Delhi and others have tried multiple times to get the UN Security Council to declare Azhar a global terrorist, including in 2016 and 2017.
The move has been blocked each time by Pakistan’s ally China, however — despite its own fears of domestic Islamist militancy.
Diplomats told AFP this week that, in response to the rising tensions, France, Britain and the United States were considering a new push at the Security Council to place Azhar on the UN terror list — but once more face opposition by China.


Destiny’s child: Philippines’ Robredo refuses to rule out presidency just yet

Updated 22 September 2019

Destiny’s child: Philippines’ Robredo refuses to rule out presidency just yet

  • In an exclusive interview with Arab News, the vice president talks about her frosty relationship with Duterte and the need to ensure OFW rights

MANILA: She is one of his most vocal critics, while he never misses an opportunity to mock her in public speeches across the Philippines.

But when it comes to upholding the sanctity of their office, both President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo ensure they bring a finely scripted civility to the table.

“I do not meet him often. I do not get invited to functions in the presidential palace, but I get invited to military events. I try as much as I can to attend ... and I see the president there. Our meetings have always been cordial. The president has been very civil when we see each other,” Robredo said in an exclusive interview with Arab News in Manila.

Robredo was elected separately to Duterte and was not his running mate. Amid rumors that she is the obvious choice to take on the mantle once Duterte finishes his term, Robredo says that she is not ready to rule out the idea just yet.

“I do not rule it out completely only because of what happened during the last two elections where I ruled out running for Congress and I ruled out running for the vice-presidency, and I had to eat my words after that,” she said, adding that as far as the Philippines is concerned, it’s all about “destiny.”

“Our history has shown that a lot of people have aspired for the presidency, but have not been successful. And we have had a lot of presidents who won the elections where they had not prepared as much as the other candidates. It is something that will be given to you if it is really meant for you. So there is no point in preparing for it at this point,” she said.

In recent years, Robredo and Duterte have had a frosty relationship over issues ranging from the government’s controversial war on drugs to the Philippines ties with China.

Recently, Robredo called out Duterte for his “shoot, but don’t kill” orders.

The president made his comments on Thursday during the inauguration of the Bataan government center and business hub dubbed “The Bunker,” urging Filipinos to “shoot but not kill” public officials who were demanding money in exchange for their services and vowing to defend any person who attacked a corrupt official.

The statement drew flak from several rights organizations and, most significantly, from the vice president herself.

“I do not agree with killings per se, whether they are against drug addicts or corrupt officials. We have laws; we have the judicial system, and we should make sure that we have a strong judicial system, safe from political intrusion and corruption,” she said.

Robredo also explained why she has been at loggerheads with Duterte over his stance on the South China Sea.

Last week, she described as “reckless” his suggestion that he would consider bypassing an arbitration ruling — in favor of the Philippines — over a territorial dispute with China in order to finalize an energy pact with Beijing.

“I have always been vocal about statements by the president, which may be interpreted in a manner that would be against the constitution. It has been the reason of some friction between us. There has been a lot of confusion as far as the seriousness of the president’s remarks is concerned. Whenever he makes controversial statements, some officials around him try to correct those statements,” she said, adding that her retorts have “been a source of criticism from many of the president’s supporters.”

Adding to their constant tug-of-war is the issue of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and sending manpower to countries in the Middle East.

The issue intensified with the murder of 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait last year. A Syrian woman, one of Demafelis’ employers, was found guilty of her murder this month.

Following the incident, the Philippines placed a ban on sending workers to Kuwait.

Duterte lifted the ban after Demafelis’ killer was tried, and there have been efforts to negotiate the terms and conditions of labor contracts by both the countries.

“The issues in Kuwait became a little too unbearable and we entered into a memorandum of agreement last year ... it was a reaction to many of the complaints that overseas Filipinos in Kuwait have. Some say that their passports are being confiscated by employers as soon as they reach Kuwait, and there are complaints about the working conditions, hours, etc,” Robredo said.

However, the agreement was a “short-term” initiative and a more formal bilateral agreement would have been “better in the sense that both countries will be made accountable,” she said.

“This is our desire not just in Kuwait, but also in many other parts of the Middle East, and in Saudi Arabia for example, where most of our Filipino workers are. There has been a UN convention on the protection of the rights of overseas workers — migrant workers — but, unfortunately, most of the countries hosting our migrant workers are not signatories to that convention yet,” she said.

Robredo described the agreement a “work in progress,” saying “it is something that we have been working on for several years.”

The Philippines signed two agreements with Saudi Arabia — the first in 2015, and another two years later —  on labor contracts and recruitment.

According to the Philippines Statistics Authority, the Kingdom continued to be the top destination for OFWs until May this year, with an estimated 2.3 million Filipinos working there.

Remittances from the period totalled P235.9 billion ($4.5 billion), up from P205.2 billion a year earlier.

“It is our desire that the countries hosting our migrant workers will be signatories to the UN convention because at the very least, the basic rights of our workers will be protected. It is something that not just our Foreign Affairs Department is working on, but our Labor Department as well,” she said, adding that this and a few other issues are subjects on which she and the president agree.

In June this year, when both Robredo and Duterte entered the final stretch of their six-year terms, the vice president said that she wanted a “better working relationship” with the president.

It is a sentiment that she voiced strongly while talking to Arab News as well.

“I think if our meetings are to be the gauge of our relationship, we are OK. It is just that there have been a lot of side remarks, issues and criticisms outside of our meetings that I think complicates the relationship,” she said.