Terror factory's new Trojan horse
Pakistan's new pawn on terrorism's chess board is Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, a Kashmiri whose whereabouts in Pakistan remain a mystery. He was last seen in Kandahar, where he was exchanged along with Maulana Azhar Masood and Omar Saeed Sheikh for passengers of the hijacked IC-814 Indian Airlines flight. He was driven out of the Kandahar airport in a Taliban vehicle. A day later, a Pakistani newspaper, Jang, reported that Zargar was moving towards Quetta. Another newspaper, Dawn, said members of the Muzzaffarabad-based Al-Omar Mujahideen had left for Afghanistan to receive their leader. A few days later, Lt General Hamid Gul, one-time powerful chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, told an Indian news magazine that "there is a possibility that the hijackers may have entered Pakistan".
There is no surprise element in the Zargar factor. It is part of a calculated, phased plan-to revive terrorism in Kashmir-conceived soon after General Pervez Musharraf took over the reins in October 1999. The Kandahar hijacking was the first phase: Three terrorists housed in various Indian jails taken aboard a special plane to Kandahar to be exchanged for 150-odd passengers. Two of them later came to be known the world over for various acts of terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere. Maulana Azhar Masood established one of the most notorious terrorist organisations, Jaish-e-Mohammad, within weeks of his release. In fact, he announced the group's formation during a press conference at the Karachi Press Club in the first week of January 2000.
Jaish expanded rapidly, courtesy ISI benevolence. Its recruitment centres mushroomed in every big city in Pakistan. Not only were recruitments for terrorist activities made, but funds were openly collected for the Kashmir jihad. The Pakistani Army established training camps for Jaish recruits at the Pakistani-Afghan border where senior Army officials monitored the training. Arms and communications equipment were handed out freely to Jaish terrorists bound for Kashmir. Over the next two years, Jaish was involved in every major terrorist attack in that State and elsewhere in India, notably those involving attacks on security forces, the Red Fort and the December 13 raid on Parliament. The second terrorist, Omar Sheikh, with his extensive knowledge of Delhi's topography and life, masterminded most of these strikes.
Jaish had only one problem: It could not find a foothold in Kashmir primarily because its members were either Pakistanis or foreign mercenaries. It relied heavily on Kashmiri militant organisations to carry out terrorist attacks. One such outfit was Al-Omar Mujahideen, kept alive by the ISI despite severe setbacks in the early 1990s. Its chief was Zargar, the third Kandahar terrorist who remained low key for the last two years. He was being primed for a decisive battle in Kashmir-Kargil Part II.
The plan was to revive Al-Omar's activities with men and material to fulfil two objectives. One, disrupt Assembly elections in Kashmir. Two, launch a series of attacks on security forces and acts of sabotage in the event of a war with India. Zargar had the requisite knowledge and gumption to lead such a mission.
Cataclysmic events overtook the ISI plan. The WTC attack led to a global realisation that Pakistan was using terrorism as an instrument of state policy. The subsequent Afghan war and the terror that ran through the Western world exposed Pakistan's deep involvement with several terror groups. This forced the US State Department to ban many of them, including Jaish. With US President George Bush turning the screws on President Musharraf, there was no alternative to dismantling the Jaish infrastructure and locking up Maulana Azhar Masood. Then came the Daniel Pearl murder. The ISI watched helplessly as US pressure forced a guilty verdict on Omar Sheikh and he was sentenced to death. The ISI was left with no option but to fast-forward the Zargar plan.
Zargar is an ideal linchpin for the ISI in Kashmir. He is a Kashmiri. He used to live in Srinagar's Jama Masjid area (Gani Mohalla) before he took up the gun. He is a brutal serial killer. There are at least three dozen murder cases registered against him in Srinagar. He was known throughout the city for his sadistic brutality. He was first arrested in 1984; he was only 17 years of age at the time. Four years later, Zargar was picked up by Zahoor Sheikh, a member of the People's League, one of the precursors of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). In August 1988, he first crossed over to Pakistan for training. His second trip to Pakistan was in May 1989, for another round of training before launching himself into an orgy of violence. He killed several Kashmiri Pandits and was involved in attacks on security personnel. He was part of the group that kidnapped Rubaiya Sayeed, the daughter of the then Indian Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
Zargar fell out with JKLF Chief Yasin Malik soon after and, in December 1989, established Al-Omar Mujahideen in Srinagar. He later opened an office in Muzzafarabad. The ISI found Al-Omar a perfect foil for the JKLF, given that the latter-keen on azadi -was showing signs of upsetting Pakistan's plans to annex Kashmir. The ISI pumped money and material to Al-Omar that set up an extensive extortion racket in Srinagar. Zargar was involved in at least seven kidnappings for ransom. To help a businessman friend, he even ordered a ban on the use of Maruti vehicles in Srinagar. The reason: His friend was a dealer for a rival car manufacturer.
Zargar was the undisputed mafia don of Srinagar from 1989 to 1993, indulging in terrorist and criminal acts with equal felicity. In 1993, security forces gunned down several of his top commanders. Zargar himself was arrested by the Border Security Force in Srinagar. He remained in Kotbalwal Jail in Jammu till the then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh was compelled to escort him to freedom in Kandahar.
In Pakistan, Zargar remained out of sight, but not exactly out of touch. There is evidence that he was constantly in touch with Jaish leader Maulana Azhar Masood. In an interview posted on an Islamic website, the Maulana described "two notable qualities" of Zargar: "One is his deep concern for his mujahideen. He always took the group across the border himself. If he continues to do so now, the movement will undoubtedly gain. The second is that all the mujahideen gather around him. Those who, because of his arrest, have given up jihad or have left for other countries will now come back again. The movement will thus get a new impetus and gain momentum.''
There should be no doubts about the fact that the Maulana was enunciating the ISI plan, which bears a clear imprint of President Musharraf. It is no secret that the latter's sole grudge against India is his humiliating defeat at Kargil in the summer of 1999. He is now planning to use Zargar to establish a terrorist group within Kashmir, comprising only Kashmiris. The network established for Jaish and Lashkar operations in India will now work for Zargar's Al-Omar.
By playing Zargar against India, President Musharraf's ploy is to effectively neutralise the Indian allegation that Pakistan-based groups are indulging in terrorism in Kashmir. He also seeks to rev up violence in the Valley to such an extent that India would have no option but to postpone the elections and prepare for a war.
Is Zargar President Musharraf's Trojan horse in Kashmir? Perhaps. But, like in the past, the General could be horribly wrong in his assessment and end up facing his final nemesis.