Islamabad: Jaish-e-Mohammad terror group is constructing a massive new madrassa, spread over about 10 acres outside garrison city of Bahawalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province, extending its reach in the country despite a ban by the UN and the US.
JeM, led by India's one of the most wanted terrorists Masood Azhar, has ties to al Qaeda and the group continues to operate openly at its base in Bahawalpur, which is also headquarters of the Pakistani army's XXXI Corps.
"On a recent visit, a bearded gunman lounged by the entrance of Jaish-e-Mohammad's four-story compound downtown, which also houses an affiliated seminary. Residents and a member of the group said there hadn't been any crackdown even after India accused Jaish of being behind a cross-border attack in January," the Wall Street Journal reported.
A sign outside the JeM complex in central Bahawalpur says it houses a madrassa "under the guidance" of Azhar, who has written a four-volume treatise on jihad, it said.
"Outside town, an even bigger Jaish installation is under construction, spread over at least 10 acres just off a highway. A new madrassa, crowned with white domes, loomed over the surrounding farmland," the paper reported.
A cleric affiliated with JeM told the Journal, "We don?t hide who we are. We are a jihadist group."
Punjab, home to more than half of Pakistan's population, has seen a far more low-key approach to fighting extremists, run largely by the provincial police.
"Operations are only against those that shoot the police or army," Riaz Husain Pirzada, minister of federal-provincial coordination and a member of parliament from Bahawalpur, was quoted as saying by the Journal.
It said Pakistan's military spokesman did not respond to repeated requests to comment. A security official said the authorities would confront "all militants in time."
Citing a retired senior security official in Punjab, the Journal said members of domestically focused militant groups in the province are taking shelter with JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba to escape counter-terrorism operations.
"While there seems to be an increasing recognition that the India-focused groups - Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad - represent real risks to Pakistan itself, it is not clear that anyone has settled on whether or how to address them," the paper quoted an unnamed Western diplomat as saying.
The JeM cleric said his group opposes attacks in Pakistan. "We carry out attacks against the infidel in their country," he added.
India has blamed JeM for the January 2 attack on a key air force base in Pathankot in which seven security personnel were killed. It has given Pakistan "leads" connecting JeM to the attack and sought strong action against the group.
Pakistan had assured India that it was "tracing and sealing" the JeM offices, which has been banned in Pakistan since 2002 and is also labeled a terrorist organization by the US. The UN had banned JeM in 2001.