Masood Azhar’s Jash-e-Mohammed is said to have been close to the Taliban, and has been running its own training camps in Afghanistan where it controls territory where it does not face any challenge from the Taliban. Masood Azhar’s terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed is a “Deobandi group that is ideologically closer to the Taliban”, according to a UN sanctions monitoring team report

NEW DELHI: Reports have emerged of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar’s presence in Afghanistan amid pressure on Pakistan to act against the UN-designated terrorist ahead of a crucial meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in October.

The Pakistan government and the Taliban setup have engaged in a war of words in recent days over the whereabouts of Azhar, who formed JeM after being freed along with two other terrorists in exchange for the passengers of an Indian airliner hijacked to Kandahar in 1999.

People familiar with the matter said it is believed that Masood Azhar was in Kabul in the recent past and travelled to Kunar and Khost provinces, located in eastern Afghanistan and bordering Pakistan. The JeM has for long had a sizeable presence in this region. A UN report earlier this year said the group has eight training camps in Nangarhar province, which is situated between Kunar and Khost.

One of the key demands made by Western powers ahead of the FATF’s plenary meeting in Paris during October 18-21 is action against Masood Azhar. The Pakistani side contacted the Taliban setup in Kabul twice this year – once in January and again earlier this month – and asked for Azhar to be traced and detained.

Following the latest request from Pakistan’s Foreign Office, the Taliban rejected reports about Azhar seeking refuge in Afghanistan and said it would not allow any “armed opposition” groups to operate from Afghan soil. Despite this assertion by the Taliban, Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told the reporters on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Uzbekistan last week that Azhar was “in Afghanistan”.

Azhar has not been seen in public in recent years and the people cited above, who closely track developments in Afghanistan on behalf of their governments, said the reports of the JeM chief’s presence in Afghanistan could not be ruled out.

“Except for al-Qaeda, no other group is as close to the Taliban as the JeM, not even Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or Jundullah,” said one of the people cited above.

The UN sanctions monitoring team too noted in its report in May this year that the JeM is a “Deobandi group that is ideologically closer to the Taliban”, while the people said between 1,500 and 2,000 JeM fighters had fought alongside the Taliban over the past 20 years. The JeM runs its own training camps and controls territory where it does not face any challenge from the Taliban, the people added.

“In such circumstances, it would be easy for a top JeM leader to take shelter in Afghanistan,” a second person said.

Though Pakistan is widely expected to get out of FATF’s “grey list”, or the list of countries facing enhanced monitoring over money laundering and terror financing, during the multilateral watchdog’s upcoming plenary meeting, Islamabad is still facing pressure to investigate and prosecute UN-designated terrorists such as Azhar.

This is one of the reasons for some degree of scepticism among Indian security officials about the reports of Azhar’s presence in Afghanistan. “Whether he is really in Afghanistan or this is just a move by the Pakistani side to get itself off the hook remains to be seen,” one official said on condition of anonymity.