After a decade of trying, finally, on May 1, Masood Azhar, founder of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), was listed as a “global terrorist” by the UN Security Council’s 1267 Committee. This was manna from heaven for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, dependent on national security rhetoric and self-projection as the saviour of India in an evil world. He wasted no time, as in the same evening’s election rally he boasted of success in combating the global menace of terror.
Credit cannot be denied to the Prime Minister or India’s hard-working diplomatic corps, particularly foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, who finessed the Chinese reservations on a visit to Beijing a week earlier, or the redoubtable Syed Akbaruddin, India’s permanent representative at the UN in New York, who corralled the Chinese with increased multilateral consensus on countering terror. However, the gains from the listing need careful assessment, being mixed and having some strategic cost.
France, the United States and Britain had initiated the UN Security Council (UNSC) move. The non-permanent members of the UNSC then jumped on board. The French were the most vocal, specialy after the February attack happened in Pulwama. Concerned over the Rafale fighter controversy in India, they naturally wanted to be seen as strategically aligned with India regardless of any Sino-Pakistani objections. The US endorsed it, realising that intervention was necessary to contain any possible India-Pak military fallout, as the Narendra Modi government was just days from the Lok Sabha elections and under public pressure to retaliate. Britain, despite its Brexit travails, also showed solidarity as in a post-Brexit world it needs India as a market. The US was, however, not chary to link support some weeks later to India quietly accepting non-renewal of waivers on the import of Iranian oil. In fact, it wanted India to more forthrightly help in isolating Iran, although the use of Chabahar was allowed as an exception in view of its usefulness for stabilising the Afghan economy.
It is unclear what, if any, concession was made or promised to China, or whether the Chinese retreat is due to a careful cost-benefit analysis. It is possible that China handed Narendra Modi a “win” during a crucial phase of the Lok Sabha elections, hoping to benefit after his re-election if India gradually accepts the Belt and Road Initiative or waters down its stringent scrutiny of Chinese investment in critical sectors in India or even embraces Huawei and its G-5 technology, which the United States has warned is exploitative and with suspected backdoors to Chinese espionage. It is equally likely China realised that after the Sri Lankan Easter mayhem, for which ISIS took credit, the virus of radical Islam was mutating and slowly transferring from West Asia to South and East Asia. Thus, terrorists could not be mollycoddled, whatever their usefulness in ensuring the security of their $60 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
It is, however, obvious that China would have discussed the final wording of the listing notification with Pakistan to ascertain acceptability. That neither Pulwama nor Kashmir nor indeed India as a terror target is noted as the reason for listing Masood Azhar as the 422nd “global terrorist” means that a compromise was reached. The listing was conceded by China, with Pakistan’s grudging concurrence, but any reference to Pakistani nexus to the terrorist, his group or the attack was dropped. The justification would have been that the UNSC 1267 Committee, dating from 1999 when Al Qaeda attacked US embassies in East Africa, is really about listing entities with nexus to that group. That is why the group of Masood Azhar was promptly listed in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks on America, as JeM had been running training camps in Afghanistan and was suspected to have been created under Osama bin Laden’s patronage. There were reports then that some JeM jihadis under training there died in the US bombing in 1999.
What then would be the practical result of the listing? By way of example, it has been quoted that Hafiz Saeed continued to gather funds, run facilities and generally move unhampered in Pakistan even after his listing, except when he was detained episodically under international pressure. The courts have eventually let him go unpunished even for his clear complicity in the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. The 1267 Committee only enforces the seizure of assets, denial of arms and restrictions on travel. The last two are irrelevant as Masood Azhar is sick and fearful of travel abroad, worried that he may be grabbed by India or another obliging nation. The first is overcome by creating new front organisations, after a pause, once the heat and international scrutiny diminishes. The declaration of Masood Azhar as an Al Qaeda affiliate by the UN Security Council in a sense absolves Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence of its sponsorship of India-specific terror groups like JeM.
However, the psychological and moral aspects of the Indian success cannot be overstated. Pakistan has allowed Masood Azhar to strut around as a freedom fighter, a Che Guevara-like icon, recruiting, spreading poison against India and exhorting jihad to “liberate” Kashmir. That veneer is now off. It also compels Pakistan to disrupt his financial network as Pakistan is in any case on the watchlist of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), at the next meeting of which would be discussed whether Pakistan moves from currently being on the “Grey List” to the “Black List”. As Pakistan is seeking a financial bailout from the IMF, the last thing it wants is focus on its complicity in terror funding. However, past experience teaches us that the Pakistani Army facilitates the rebirth of internationally-listed groups under new names and shapes. Masood Azhar is reportedly ailing and hospitalised, and his group is run by his brother and associates.
Pakistan has recently notified the procedures to implement action against listed entities. In any case, under UNSC 1373 (2001), all states must make laws to prosecute terrorists and masterminds. Thus, token action, without arrest and prosecution, cannot suffice. Pakistan may cut its losses, wait till the FATF meeting ends, assess the Indian election outcome and then decide if it is business as usual for Masood Azhar’s replacement. Meanwhile, till May 19, when the last votes are polled, the BJP will chest-thump its success. But with Pakistan, it is always best to remember the adage: “old habits die hard”.