Pakistan lied about JeM's Balakot camp; located at hilltop, centre offered housing and training for recruits

Francesca Marino

Pakistan recently took a group of journalists, from home and abroad, to the "site" targeted by the Indian Air Force on 26 February to drive home the point that Balakot didn't have a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training facility and the strike was a dud that didn't cause damage to life or property.

It is now certain that the journalists were not taken to the JeM camp. International news agency Reuters has said its teams were thrice prevented from reaching the hilltop facility in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in northeastern Pakistan.

Over the last two weeks, little has been written about the terrorist group's Balakot camp, known as Markaz Syed Ahmad Shaheed.

The JeM training camp in Balakot is 3 kms from Hotel Blue Pine on the Jaba-Bisian Road

The JeM training camp in Balakot is 3 kms from Hotel Blue Pine on the Jaba-Bisian Road

Pakistan is not allowing journalists to the facility but a local government official has described the complex, as it stood before the IAF strike.

Located in Balakot, the landmark to get to the camp is Hotel Blue Pine on the Jaba-Bisian Road.

From the hotel, a dirt road leads to the hilltop camp that is three kilometres away. Nearby, a signboard points to the complex, which is an hour's walk from the hotel as the climb is steep. Inmates and trainers have been seen using motorcycles to get to the camp, where a sign on the gate reads Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Another says, "no photographs allowed".

Spread over two kilometres, the Markaz Syed Ahmad Shaheed camp has multiple buildings used for residential and training purposes. There is a huge open space for outdoor activities.

The first building is an office block. A 10-minute walk and a right turn leads to a single-storey structure, the residence of head trainer Ustad Usman Ghouri. Before the strike, he used to share the house with his family.

New recruits live in a student hostel. Next to it is a house for trainers, and visitors are accommodated in a guest house. These three facilities are not too far from the office block.

At the heart of the complex, surrounded by trees, is the madrassa. There is a large hall, where trainers speak to the recruits. The seminary faces a large open ground for outdoor activities. JeM recruits are known to practice hand-to-hand combat, try their hands at sports other than cricket, which the terrorist group disapproves of, and other forms of physical activity to be 'fighting fit'.

Next to the seminary is a mosque that can accommodate close to 200 people. There is a tea stall as well. The far end of the camp is for the senior-most cadres, or, the mujahideen. There is a big hall for them to congregate and a shared living space as well.

The farther end of the campus is a sharp drop on the hillside. Most of that area is not fenced but trespassers will have to undertake a strenuous climb to get inside the complex.

Balakot's link to jihad goes back two centuries. The JeM camp is named after Syed Ahmed Barelvi, an Islamist cleric from Raebareli in India's Uttar Pradesh.

After spending two years in Arabia, Barelvi launched jihad against the "infidel" Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He and his followers arrived in the Peshawar valley and asked Pathans to renounce their tribal customs and accept sharia. Though he didn't find many takers for his cause, from 1826, Barelvi and his band of ghazis continue to have skirmishes with the Khalsa army. Barelvi and many of his mujahideen were killed on 6 May, 1831, in a battle with forces of Hari Singh, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's governor of Kashmir. Barelvi's mausoleum is in Balakot.

Balakot's association with the idea of jihad in South Asia was reinforced in the 1990s when terrorist groups set up training camps to prepare for their campaign against Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. For these terrorists, Barelvi is a great hero who they wish to emulate.

It was, for this reason, the JeM chose Balakot to set up a training centre in early 2000, with the support of the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan's Inter-Service's Intelligence (ISI) agency. The men who were trained at Balakot were not only sent to India but also complimented the Afghan Taliban in their Afghanistan operations.

The camp drew the attention of the United States after some arrested al-Qaida operatives talked about training at the Balakot camp.

The author is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written Apocalypse Pakistan with B Natale

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