Jaish building new base in Pakistan’s south Punjab-report

September 13, 2009

Saeed Shah at McClatchy has an interesting story about Jaish-e-Mohammad, an al Qaeda linked militant group, building a big new base in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

The group, which was blamed for killing U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl and for an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, already has a headquarters in the town of Bahawalpur in south Punjab.

But Shah writes that it has now walled off a big new compound outside the town. The new facility, he says, is surrounded by a high brick and mud wall, has a tiled swimming pool, stabling for more than a dozen horses, an ornamental fountain and even swings and a slide for children.

“There are jihadist inscriptions painted on the inside walls, including a proclamation that “Jaish-e-Mohammad will return”, alongside a picture of Delhi’s historic Red Fort, implying further terrorist attacks against the Indian capital,” he says. 

It’s unclear what the new base is meant to be used for – Shah quotes Jaish and Pakistani officials as saying that the facility, which is still under construction, is simply a small farm to keep cattle.

What is clear is that many countries have an interest in what is happening with the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

The group was set up in 2000 after its founder, Maulana Masood Azhar, was released by India in return for the freeing of passengers aboard an Indian Airlines plane hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in Afghanistan.  While its focus was on fighting in Indian Kashmir, it had links to Afghanistan dating back to the militant campaign against the Soviet occupation.  Shah says in his article that Jaish and other Punjab-based militant groups now recruit and train thousands of young men to fight western forces in Afghanistan.

“Bahawalpur also serves as a safe “R&R” stopover for jihadists battling in Afghanistan,” Shah quotes western intelligence officers as saying. “In Bahawalpur, militants can rest and recuperate away from the U.S. unmanned aerial drones that patrol Pakistan’s tribal area in the northwest.”

British nationals of Pakistani origin involved in militancy have also been linked to Jaish, making the group a major worry for the British government. These include Omar Sheikh, who was released along with Maulana Azhar after the Kathmandu to Kandahar hijacking and later convicted of organising Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping; and Rashid Rauf, accused of masterminding the plot to bring down multiple airliners over the Atlantic.

India, which has demanded Pakistan take action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group accused of involvement in last year’s attack on Mumbai, is also pushing for it to crack down on Jaish-e-Mohammad. Like Jaish, the LeT is also based in Pakistan’s Punjab province; unlike Jaish its focus has remained on targetting India. And while Jaish has been blamed for attacks inside Pakistan, including an attempt to assault then president Pervez Musharraf, the LeT is not believed to be behind any attacks on Pakistan.

Maulana Azhar has also been reported to have acted as the link between al Qaeda and Islamist militants who attacked U.S. forces in Somalia in 1993.

And if that is not already complicated enough, there are serious concerns about the danger posed to Pakistan itself from militants based in south Punjab.

(Reuters file photos: Maulana Azhar; the hijacked Indian Airlines plane at Kandahar; Rashid Rauf)

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