Little children dressed in combat fatigues watched, bemused, as a gaggle of excited men splashed around in a swimming pool nestled in the shade of a mango grove under the searing sun of a south Punjab summer. Muhammad Umar Farooq, Talha Rasheed Alvi, Muhammad Ismail Alvi, Rasheed Billa, all brothers in blood: a selfie records this one strange moment of innocence, a celebration of their return home from military training at a flea-blown jihadi camp in southern Afghanistan.
Islamic tradition records the Prophet promising the faithful that they would gather on the day of resurrection around the cistern of al-Kawthar, its banks like domes of pearls and the earth scented of musk.
The pool at the Jaish-e-Muhammad's Sabir seminary, outside Bahawalpur, might have offered the men an earthly glimpse of what they hoped lay ahead. The men would head out, in small batches, across the Line of Control, beginning at the end of July, 2017, two weeks after they gathered at the pool.
Earlier this week, the only survivor of that group, Ismail"'Lamboo', or 'tall guy', to his friends, and a relative of Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar Alvi's brother, Ibrahim Alvi"was shot dead by police and Indian Army soldiers in the mountains above Dachigam, near Srinagar. The strange story of Ismail and his friends casts light on the bombing at Pulwama which changed the course of Kashmir's history and helps understand the grim shadow the jihadi group continues to cast across the region.
In 2015, a slight, balding man, his four-foot frame dwarfed by Srinagar Central Jail's giant gates, emerged from prison on parole and caught the bus to his remote south Kashmir village. Fifteen years earlier, Noor Muhammad Tantrey had crossed the Line of Control to train with the Jaish-e-Muhammad. He returned, hardened by six months of training, to serve in networks run by Shahbaz Khan, the terrorist who commanded the 2001 attack on Parliament House in New Delhi"a strike that led India to mass troops along its western border, taking it to the edge of war. Then, in August 2003, an Intelligence Bureau-led operation led to the arrest of Tantrey, along with his associates Feroze Bhat and Parvaiz Mir, from a safehouse in New Delhi. Within days, Shahbaz Khan"'Ghazi Baba', or 'Warrior-Saint', as he was known to the reverent Jaish-e-Muhammad rank and file"was shot dead.
Inside jihadi circles, rumours proliferated that Tantrey"'Noor Trali', as most knew him"had provided the intelligence that led to Khan's killing. Inside jail, though, Tantrey and Mir developed a reputation for being committed jihadists, and recruited several fellow prisoners to the Jaish-e-Muhammad.
The India-Pakistan near-war of 2001-2002 led General Pervez Musharraf to crack down on the Jaish-e-Muhammad"earning him the enmity of its chief, Masood Azhar, and leading its incensed jihadis to mount more than one attempt to assassinate the country's military ruler. To many, the crackdown seemed to mark sunset of the Jaish-e-Muhammad. In 2012 and 2013, not a single terrorist from the group was killed in Kashmir, demonstrating how marginal it had become.
From his home in the small village of Gund, near the south Kashmir town of Tral, Tantrey had, however, begun work to reassemble the Jaish-e-Muhammad's networks. The political tensions unleashed from 2008 on, as the National Conference and Peoples' Democratic Party competed to gain Islamist support, provided fertile ground for the pint-sized jihadist.
The men in the swimming pool in Bahawalpur had been trained for just this moment.
Left behind in the rubble: an assault rifle, ammunition, injectable painkillers, a small bottle of cheap perfume. The terrorist who carried these things, we know from the testimonies of others, would have risen early that morning, bathed, prayed, and shaved himself from head to foot. He would have darkened his eyes with kohl, like a traditional bridegroom, and then perfumed himself, so he did not stink of war when the houris he had been promised greeted him inside the gates of paradise.
Within days of India's cross-Line of Control strikes in September 2016, Jaish-e-Muhammad fidayeen had struck at an Indian Army base in Nagrota, killing seven soldiers. The detritus left behind in the building told the story. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate had nursed a new army of jihadists in the darkness; now it was finally showing its hand.
The months that followed saw multiple Jaish-e-Muhammad strikes, notably at Pulwama in August 2017, and in Srinagar's Humhama, in October. In December, teenage fidayeen Fardeen Khandey and 21-year-old Manzoor Baba struck again in Pulwama"the first known ethnic Kashmiris to have carried out such an operation.
Abdul Mateen, aka Abu Waqas posing with teenager Fardeen Khandey (to his right)
In 2016, following the killing of jihadi icon Burhan Wani, massive Islamist-led protests had led to the eviction of the Indian state from large swathes of southern Kashmir. For all practical purposes, jihadist groups ruled the region, even hoisting their flags and holding military parades. In villages where they operated, the Jaish-e-Muhammad's Pakistani cadre had become heroes, drawing crowds of frenzied young followers.
Led by Noor Tantrey, the Jaish-e-Muhammad's network had recruited what they considered to be the ablest of this new cohort of jihad volunteers. Few were highly educated; most came from underprivileged homes, part of a cohort that had ambitions shaped by access to education, but little opportunity. Samir Dar"who would emerge as one of Tantrey's star recruits"had dropped out of college while pursuing a master's degree in geology; his cousin, soon-to-be Pulwama suicide bomber Adil Dar, never finished school.
Another photograph tells the story of what happened after the summer afternoon at the swimming pool in Bahawalpur. Taken hours before an explosive-laden car rammed into a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Pulwama, the photograph shows Ismail and Umar Farooq standing alongside Samir and the suicide-bomber, Adil.
Talha Rasheed and Rasheed Billa, the two others at the pool in Bahawalpur, had been killed fighting the Indian Army in the mountains. Today, all of the men in both pictures are dead.
Jaish-e-Muhammad's infrastructure and logistics are intact, however, both in Kashmir and across the Line of Control. Like in 2001, it remains the most lethal of the many terrorist groups posing a threat to Kashmir.
Following the 2017 fidayeen attack in Pulwama, the Jammu and Kashmir Police issued the first of what would become a long series of warnings on a Jaish-e-Muhammad plot to execute a major bomb strike"the largest since it hit the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in 2001, killing 38 people.
The intelligence came from Arzoo Bashir, a Tral resident recruited by Tantrey, who was arrested soon after the Pulwama attack. Bashir's interrogation opened the door for multiple police-led operations targeting the Jaish-e-Muhammad, claiming the lives of several Jaish-e-Muhammad terrorists towards the end of 2017, including Tantrey, Billa and Rasheed.
Inside months, however, the Jaish-e-Muhammad sent in fresh operatives to resume work on the nascent bomb plot. Umar Farooq, and four other Pakistani nationals, are believed to have crossed the India-Pakistan border near Hiranagar in March, 2018. The 1996-born son of a lower-middle-class family from Bahawalpur's Kausar Colony, Umar is believed to have been schooled at the Jaish-e-Muhammad's seminary, before volunteering as a teenager to receive jihad training.
Ashiq Nengroo, a Tral-based truck driver alleged by the National Investigation Agency to have transported them to Kashmir and then provided his home to Umar, is the last fugitive wanted in the Pulwama case. Intelligence officials believe Nengroo fled to Pakistan late in 2018, and now works at the Jaish-e-Muhammad's headquarters in Bahawalpur.
Despite a long string of intelligence warnings, the Jammu and Kashmir Police proved unable to hunt down the bomb plotters. In March 2019"the month after the Pulwama bombing"the Jammu and Kashmir police finally killed Umar Farooq. His cellphone yielded photographs that National Investigation Agency detectives would later use to solve the Pulwama case. The offensive against the Jaish-e-Muhammad continued claiming, among them, the Jaish-e-Muhammad's charismatic overall chief in Kashmir, Abdul Mateen, a Bahawalpur resident widely known by the alias Mufti Waqas.
Led by Inspector-General of Police Vijay Kumar, the Jammu and Kashmir Police continued to target the Jaish-e-Muhammad's Pulwama perpetrators through 2020 and this year, a hunt that ended with the killing of the last surviving bombing perpetrators last week. The man killed with Ismail is believed to be Samir Dar; Dar's mother, however, has declined to identify the body, saying it is missing a birthmark, and forensic tests are awaited.
Following the Pulwama bombing, Indian Air Force jets struck across the Line of Control"leading to retaliatory strikes by the Pakistan Air Force. Faced with the prospect of war, Islamabad responded by turning the tap off on infiltration and ending major offensive operations. The past, however, teaches us that isn't likely to be the end of the Jaish-e-Muhammad story.
Last summer, a United Nations Security Council report warned that the Jaish, along with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, was facilitating the "trafficking of terrorist fighters into Afghanistan, who act as advisers, trainers and specialists in improvised explosive devices". The two groups, the report warned, are believed "to have approximately 800 and 200 armed fighters, respectively, co-located with Taliban forces".
Training facilities set up in Afghanistan have shifted, according to Indian intelligence, to camps near Dalbadin, in the district of Chagai in Baluchistan, as well as to the districts of Sangin, Nawa-i-Barakzai and Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan.
Even though Islamabad claims to have proscribed the Jaish-e-Muhammad, armed personnel remain stationed at its headquarters in Bahawalpur, as well as the sprawling seminary outside the city housing, among other things, the swimming pool used by the four jihadists who authored the Pulwama story. In recent weeks, Nengroo"the fugitive truck driver sought in the Pulwama case"is alleged to have worked out of that seminary to plan several major terrorist attacks, including a plot to assassinate National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
In the hours after Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar learned of the killing of Rasheed"his nephew"he wrote this elegy online: "The martyr's sins are forgiven when the first drop of his blood falls and he is spared the agony of the grave, the terrors of the day of judgment; he is married to seventy-two virgins; his family granted God's mercy".
The men Azhar's words raised are dead; the toxic cult of blood that seduced them is not.