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SOURCE: OPINDIA

Twenty-one years ago, on December 24, 1999, the Indian Airlines IC 814 carrying 178 passengers and 11 crew members from Kathmandu to Delhi was hijacked by Pakistan-based Islamic terrorists. The airline was hijacked by Harkat-ul-Mujahideen with the active support and assistance of Pakistan Army before landing at Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The Indian Airlines IC-814 was en route from Kathmandu to New Delhi. The hijackers directed the pilot Captain Devi Sharan to fly to Lahore initially. The captain, realising the imminent danger, flew to Amritsar citing insufficient fuel and persuaded the hijackers to allow him to land the plane at Amritsar. Before the Indian bureaucracy jumped into taking stock of the situation, the aircraft had already left Indian airspace.

According to people who were part of the decision-making process during the incident, there was a 45-50 minute window to carry out an operation to end the hostage crisis, however, the government of the day did not prefer to take the risk, fearing the casualties. The reluctance from the government to go for an NSG operation also came from the fact that the opposition led by the Congress party, aided by its friendly media had put severe pressure to make sure that the Vajpayee government did not consider any military operation to release the hostages.

After briefly touching down at Lahore and Dubai, IC 814 was eventually taken to Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan. After the IC-814 reached Kandahar, which incidentally was the base of the Taliban government, headed by Mullah Mohammed Omar. The hijackers demanded the release of 35 terrorists from Indian prisons, including the dreaded terrorist Maulana Masood Azhar in addition to $200mn in cash.

The Indian government sent in a team of negotiators headed by Diplomat Vivek Katju, Ajit Doval, who was a high ranking Intelligence Bureau officer then, Nehchal Sandhu, and CD Sahay, along with few other representatives of Bureau of Civil Aviation Security. During these negotiations, Doval was also effective in bringing down the number of terrorists to be released from 35 to just three.

On December 31, 1999, after seven days, the hostage crisis came to an end as India agreed to release three of the top militants including Masood Azhar, the founder of the terrorist outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar.

What are these three released terrorists now?

Masood Azhar, Jaish-e-Mohammed

After his release, Maulana Masood Azhar regrouped his terror organisation, renamed his terror outfit ‘Harkat-ul-Ansar’ to ‘Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’ (HuM). A year later, Maulana Azhar, with a renewed vigour, started a new outfit – ‘Jaish-e-Mohammed’ (JeM). Azhar was actively backed up by Pakistan Army, who provided all the assistance.

Even the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and multiple Sunni sectarian organisations based in Pakistan backed Azhar to set up his new terror organisation. Within a year of its inception, Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed launched a series of deadly attacks that almost brought India and Pakistan to the brink of a full-scale war.

Maulana Masood Azhar, since his release, has been responsible for several direct attacks on Indian soil including on the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and the Pathankot airbase attack in January 2016. The most recent terror attack carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammad was the 2019 Pulwama terror attacks. An Islamic-terrorist carried out a suicide attack with his explosives-laden vehicle into a CRPF convoy in Pulwama killing 40 personnel.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, Harkat-ul-Ansar

Omar Sheikh, just like Maulana Masood Azhar, became one of the biggest security threats not just for India, but for the United States as well due to not only his connections inside Pakistan’s military but also his links with the innermost circles of Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda. Sheikh is the most infamous for the 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was investigating the financing of Al-Qaeda.

Reportedly, Sheikh had lured Pearl into a trap by lying to arrange an interview with an Islamic cleric and kidnapped him. Sheikh had demanded the release of halted US shipment of F-16 fighter jets to the Pakistani government in exchange of Pearl. After nine days of captivity, Sheikh had released a videotape showing Pearl’s severed head.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the US investigators had discovered that Omar Sheikh used aliases to send money from the United Arab Emirates to Mohamed Atta –  the main terrorist leader of the 9/11 attacks.

Sheikh, who was born in the UK and a student at the London School of Economics, has worked with several terrorist organisations such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed, Al-Qaeda and even the Taliban. Currently, Sheikh, who was arrested in 2002 in Lahore in connection with Daniel Pearl’s murder, has been sentenced to death.

Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Al-Umar Mujahideen

After his release, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, who belonged to the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), has carried out several terror attacks in Kashmir. Zargar is believed to have picked up the activity of Al-Umar Mujahideen in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir initially, close to the LoC. Zargar has recruited and trained youngsters for ‘Jihad’ in Kashmir and is believed to have been working to renew the sleeper cells.

The intelligence officials believe that Zargar is suspected to be the man behind the June 2019 terror attack in Kashmir’s Anantnag, in which five CRPF personnel were killed and three others were injured after terrorists attacked them with grenades. In 2017, Zargar claimed responsibility for many of the grenade attacks on the security forces in the Kashmir valley.

Zargar, sponsored by Pakistan’s intelligence agency – ISI to send terrorists and carry out attacks inside India, is currently believed to be living in Muzaffarabad without any restrictions.