NEW DELHI: The ‘global terrorist’ tag for Jaish-e-Muhammed chief Masood Azhar may complicate matters for Pakistan’s ISI that has propped Jaish as the dominant terror outfit in J&K, while strategically keeping Lashkar-e-Taiba in the background in view of the international pressure on the outfit and its chief Hafiz Mohammed Saeed.

As per intelligence agencies, Jaish currently has around 60-70 leaders and cadres in the Valley, of which two-thirds are foreign terrorists. While LeT also has an equal number of men holed up in J&K, half of them are believed to be of foreign origin and the other half locals.

“Given that Jaish has carried out most ‘Fidayeen’ attacks in Kashmir, many of which have inflicted high casualties, the outfit’s appeal has been growing among local Kashmiri youth. In this age of spectacular suicide attacks, the youth appear to be more drawn towards Jaish,” an intelligence officer said.

The agencies have discounted reports that Azhar’s alleged illness, possibly renal failure, has dented his clout or say in Jaish. “He was indeed hospitalised earlier but continues to be fully in charge, taking decisions including on major attacks to be carried out in J&K, the February 14 Pulwama attack being one,” the officer said.

However, sources said the ‘global terrorist’ tag for its chief is bound to affect Jaish operations, particularly funding as accounts or any funds transfer, if linked to Jaish, will attract scrutiny and action by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). “Indian forces, meanwhile, are aggressively pursuing counter-terror operations against Jaish in Kashmir and have killed over two dozen leaders and cadres, including in recent months. All this is bound to have a cumulative effect, affecting Jaish’s position and capabilities in J&K,” another intelligence functionary told TOI.

Azhar had created Jaish barely three months after he was released by the Indian government as part of a swap deal to secure the release of over 150 passengers aboard an Indian Airlines flight hijacked to Kandahar in 1999.

After being freed, Azhar was reportedly greeted in Kandahar by Mullah Mansoor, a senior representative of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s emir. Mansoor went on to replace Omar and was killed in a US drone strike in 2016. On the same night in 1999, Osama bin Laden is known to have hosted a banquet for him, recalling how he and Azhar had first worked together in 1993.

Jaish’s first strike in J&K was in April 2000, when Azhar organised the first-ever suicide bombing in Srinagar, outside the Army headquarters at Badami Bagh cantonment. The bomber, Asif Sadiq, was one of Azhar’s earliest recruits and was a student from Birmingham. At this time, Azhar also began using several al-Qaida recruits.

Then came 9/11 in 2001, and the hunt for Osama began. He was cornered in the Tora Bora caves and the Pakistan army was forced to hold one side of the cordon of these vast caves.

In order to help Osama flee, JeM planned two large attacks in India. First, on October 1, 2001, three weeks after 9/11, it bombed the J&K assembly, killing 35 people. A few weeks later, it attacked the Parliament House complex in New Delhi, killing nine. This led to a war-like situation and, as per intelligence sources, provided a pretext to Pakistan army to withdraw much of its forces from its western border, which were in cordon of the Tora Bora caves.

In January 2016, JeM attacked the Pathankot IAF station, in which a civilian and seven security personnel were killed. The same year on September 18, a group of four Jaish terrorists attacked the Army’s brigade headquarters in Uri, killing 17 personnel.