May 3, 2016 4:09:00 am
Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has ordered relocation of a secret facility used to train the Jaish-e-Muhammad team which carried out the assault on the Pathankot airbase, highly-placed Indian government sources have told The Indian Express.
Located in the shadows of Fort Maujgarh, built by Muhammad Maroof Khan Kehrani in the 18th century to guard camel caravans linking the ports of the Indus and the Gulf of Kutch to Punjab’s cities, the base is believed by Indian intelligence to have been used to train élite Jaish units for special missions.
Intelligence sources say they believe training units have now been housed at the the Jaish-e-Muhammad’s main seminary at Bahawalpur, 62 km away, but without their weapons.
Images gathered from commercially-available satellite images, as well as amateur photographs, show two large complexes built behind the fort’s ruined walls, one to the east and the other to the south, each some 750 sq m in area.
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The western complex, walled off by high earthworks, includes several barrack-like buildings, small patches of farmland, and a modern, rectangular water reservoir. The southern complex, built in a sandy depression, also has a main building protected by a high perimeter wall, and houses a similar water reservoir.
Home to the Bhatti clan, who are reputed to have been settled in the area by Bahawalpur’s rulers, the area around Fort Maujgarh has little other permanent construction, with families leaving their toba settlements to enter the desert with their herds for several months at a time.
Until 2011, tourists occasionally visited Fort Maujgarh, but there are few accounts from recent visitors. Local journalists told this newspaper that visitors seeking to visit the buildings beyond the ruins were waved away by men in plain clothes.
The Jaish-e-Muhammad seminary at Bahawalpur continues to operate normally, despite Islamabad’s acceptance that at least one telephone number publicly tied to the group’s leadership was used to direct the Pathankot attackers — Fort Maujgarh is believed by Indian intelligence to have been used, in particular, for tactical training in cross-border infiltration.
Large parts of the hands-on training, Indian intelligence officials say, appear to have taken place in a sprawling patch of desert west of an agrarian settlement known as Chak 48, well to the west of Maujgarh along a road running along the desert parallel to the India-Pakistan desert.
“Flash floods create a network of gullies and ravines which are not dissimilar to the terrain along the India-Pakistan border in Punjab and Jammu,” an Indian military official said. “In the winter months, there’s also decent scrub vegetation in the desert, and fields that are quite similar in their character.”
In addition, the official said, the region is thought by Pakistani counter-intelligence to be less vulnerable to Indian espionage than Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Fort Maujgarh is the second major desert facility known to have been used by the Jaish-e-Muhammad. In 2009, Indian intelligence detected that the organisation was training personnel at Fort Abbas, 72 km as the crow flies from Fort Maujgarh. The base’s location set off alarms in New Delhi, since it is just a short distance from Faqirwali, on the India-Pakistan border.
In addition, Fort Abbas houses an airstrip which led to fears in the intelligence community that the Jaish may have been planning to use it to train personnel in handling remote-controlled aircraft as airborne improvised explosive devices.
The base, a Pakistani source familiar with its operations said, was made available to the Jaish because of help from the anti-Shi’a sectarian terror group, the Sipah-e-Sahaba, an organisation for long headquartered at the Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband seminary in Faqirwali. The site had been used by the Sipah-e-Sahaba to train its own assault teams, and it was ready to provide aid to the Jaish-e-Muhammad as it sought to revive itself.
In addition, the two organisations also had a shared base of funding from small-town shopkeepers. In an October, 2000, speech, Masood Azhar had announced that “now we go hand-in-hand, and Sipah-e-Sahaba stands shoulder to shoulder with Jaish-e-Muhammad in jihad”.
Following the December 2001 Parliament attack, Pakistan had been forced to crack down on the Jaish-e-Muhammad — and Masood Azhar’s woes multiplied after leaders of his organisation were found to be linked to an attempt to assassinate Pakistan’s then military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf.
In July 2007, elements of the Jaish were involved in a bloody standoff between the army and jihadists who had occupied the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, one that would lead to a decisive rupture between the jihadists and Musharraf.
In 2007, though, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani succeeded Musharraf as chief of Pakistan’s army, and launched an effort to restore the relationship between the institution and its estranged jihadist allies.
Masood Azhar was among the key beneficiaries of the project. In 2013, he was granted land to begin construction of his new seminary in Bahawalpur. It has continued to operate normally despite Pakistani media reports of a crackdown after the Pathankot attacks, and an anti-jihadist military operation April.
The slogan at the seminary gate reads: Delhi, Delhi ya hanood, Jaish-e-Muhammad sauf yauood (to Delhi, O’ Hindus, the army of the Prophet will soon return).
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