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A nation must think before it acts.
In December 1999, Indian Airlines flight 1C-814 was hijacked shortly after taking off from Kathmandu, Nepal, en route to New Delhi. After several stops, the hijackers flew the aircraft to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where they threatened to kill the hostages unless several incarcerated terrorists in India were released. Under considerable public pressure, the Indian government agreed to the swap. One of the terrorists was Maulana Masood Azhar, a key member of a Pakistan-based terrorist group, Harkat-ul-Ansar, known for its attacks in Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. Once the hostages were exchanged, all three of the released terrorists, along with the hijackers, were allowed to flee by the Taliban regime. Within a year of his release, Azhar founded another deadly terrorist organization, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), in the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
Barely a year later, in December 2001, JeM—in concert with another Pakistan-based terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)—carried out a brazen, but mostly unsuccessful, attack on the Indian parliament. The terrorist had used a car that resembled an official vehicle that enabled them to bypass the lax security; also the timely closure of the inner doorways to the parliament prevented any significant loss of life. In its wake, and under considerable American pressure, Pakistani authorities forced both entities to at least overtly curb their activities within Pakistan. This apparent crackdown obviously was of limited significance. Over the next decade, JeM, despite being declared a global terrorist organization under the auspices of the United Nations, carried out a series of attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir and subsequently in other parts of India. Most recently, on February 14, 2019, it was implicated in a suicide attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Pulwama. This attack precipitated a brief crisis in India-Pakistan relations with both sides carrying out air attacks.
On May 1, after persistent Indian diplomatic entreaties, the United Nations Sanctions Committee finally placed Masood Azhar on its global terrorist list. This decision was made possible because the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had placed what is known as a “technical hold” on the designation due to inadequate evidence, finally withdrew its objections. On four previous occasions, when the Sanctions Committee had considered the issue, Beijing, as a permanent member of the Security Council, had exercised its prerogatives and had prevented Azhar from being designated as a global terrorist.
What explains this seemingly abrupt shift on Beijing’s part? Also, what significance, if any, does this label have for Azhar and his future? Finally, does this declaration mean a significant diplomatic victory for India?
The reasons for Beijing’s apparent change of heart are complex. According to reliable Indian press reports, interlocutors from the PRC sounded out their counterparts in Islamabad before informing New Delhi that they would finally consent to lift their hold on Azhar. Beijing’s reasons for touching base with Islamabad are straightforward: the two have been staunch allies since the early 1960s—based upon a shared hostility toward India.
Not surprisingly, their decision came with caveats: among other matters, they informed New Delhi that despite the JeM’s involvement in the Pulwama attack, Azhar would not be implicated in it. Only after New Delhi gave its nod to these conditions did the PRC agree to allow the committee to proceed.
Beijing’s willingness to change its position apparently also stemmed from India’s willingness to limit its public displeasure with the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Until now, New Delhi had been a vocal critic of the project owing to fears that the BRI will impinge on the country’s security interests in South Asia. Furthermore, it is also believed that with greater global attention on international terrorism the PRC did not want to be increasingly isolated on this question.
Will this tagging of Azhar as a global terrorist have any material consequences for him and his group? Despite being described as a global terrorist organization and thereafter formally banned in Pakistan, JeM has been, for the most part, able to operate in an unfettered fashion from Pakistani soil. According to Indian authorities, the group has carried out at least four significant terrorist attacks in various parts of India in the past decade. That said, the UN sanctions may hobble the group some as now Pakistan will be obligated to prevent Azhar from raising funds; they also will result in a freezing of his assets, and he will be barred from traveling or acquiring weaponry. Whether or not this will effectively cripple the organization, of course, remains an open question. After all, the official ban on the group had hardly hindered its activities.
Indian authorities are, of course, touting this as a major diplomatic coup having doggedly pursued this goal for over a decade. Unfortunately, it may still turn out to be a useful but limited victory for India. Over the past several decades, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI-D), its principal counterintelligence agency, has forged ties with a range of homegrown terrorist organizations including JeM. It is not about to abruptly sunder these links merely because of a new set of UN sanctions. Indeed, as Paul Kapur, an American scholar of Pakistan, has argued in his book, Jihad as Grand Strategy, the use of terrorist forces has been an integral part of Pakistan’s security policy. It has enabled the country to inflict significant costs on its behemoth neighbor, India, at a relatively low cost to itself. It has simultaneously nurtured jihadi terrorists to prosecute its goals in Afghanistan most notably through the Haqqani network.
That said, the UN decision is not entirely bereft of value. The overweening Pakistani military establishment is not wholly insensitive to global public opinion. Consequently, in the foreseeable future, it will work to at least constrain the activities of JeM and rein in Azhar’s public rabble rousing. To ensure that these new sanctions do not end up as mere cosmetic gestures, India will need to prod other members of the Security Council to remain vigilant about Azhar, JeM, and its works. To that end, given the seamless features of jihadi terror, they will need to keep holding Pakistan to account as long as these groups enjoy sanctuaries on its soil.