Death Valley

COVER STORY


Until the video claiming credit for killing the 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel on February 14 afternoon popped up on social media, Adil Ahmad Dar’s family believed their son was a C-category militant. They privately hoped the boy would surrender and serve jail time like his cousin Tauseef Ahmad. There was disbelief and shock in Gundibagh, the family’s village in the southern Pulwama district, when the news came out. Almost everyone who knew the 19-year-old before he dropped out of Class 12 to sign up with the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Afzal Guru squad (a homegrown Kashmiri cadre) a year ago, remembers him as “shy and quiet”. On the rare occasion when he would open up, his friends say, it was always about cricket. Unusual in these troubled times in the Valley, but Dar was a big fan of the Indian cricket team. M.S. Dhoni was his idol.

But something changed for him (as it did for the Valley) after the killing of the ‘charismatic’ Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in the summer of 2016. A gunshot injury to his leg during the month-long agitation after Wani’s death and his reported humiliation at the hands of the SOG (Special Operations Group) may have also played a part. “The SOG made Adil rub his nose on the ground as a school student in 2016. It always haunted him,” says uncle Abdul Rashid Dar, whose two sons had also turned militants. One is dead now, the other has given up arms. Whatever the truth, 11 months after he joined the JeM, Dar’s transformation was radical-from a helpful youngster supplementing the family income as best as he could to the deadly suicide bomber the like of whom India has never seen.

On the day, Dar (‘Waqas Commando’ to his cohorts in the Jaish), drove a Maruti Eeco van packed with explosives into a bus carrying CRPF personnel at Lethpora on the Jammu-Srinagar highway. The target was part of an unusually large, 78-vehicle convoy, transporting a total of 2,547 paramilitary personnel, many of them returning from leave. Dar had evidently reconnoitred this particular stretch of NH-44 in some detail, and perhaps even made a number of dry runs. The spot, an isolated, steeply curving section where heavy vehicles are forced to slow down, was chosen so as to inflict maximum damage. And the impact was devastating: the 45-seater CRPF bus was atomised, with the remains of the troopers inside scattered over 200 metres. Five others, from the vehicles closest to the target bus, are struggling for life in the army’s base hospital in Srinagar.

Since early January, terror groups have carried out a series of grenade attacks on security force (SF) establishments and checkpoints, both in Srinagar and south Kashmir. This had led to a heightened vigil along the Jawahar tunnel-Srinagar section of the national highway. But senior officers admit that complacency had also crept in after the “success” of Operation All Out, launched in early 2017, in the wake of the turmoil after Wani’s killing. More than 600 militants were eliminated, they say, including many local ‘commanders’.

Dar acknowledged this in the 10-minute video put out by the JeM minutes after the young Kashmiri blew himself up. “Don’t be under the ass­umption that killing a few of our commanders will end us. We will become your nightmare,” he says, posing with an M4 carbine in front of a JeM flag.

There’s a disconcerting aspect to Dar’s decision to offer himself for a suicide-bombing mission. Up until now, though the Jaish has resorted to some seven VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) bombings in the Valley, this is only the second instance when a local Kashmiri was used as a ‘bomb’. Before this, the outfit used Ashfaq Shah, a 17-year-old student from downtown Srinagar, to blow up an explosive-laden Maruti car at the entry gates of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps headquarters in Badamibagh in April 2000. In his ‘suicide’ video, Dar lauded Shah.

In a spiralling cycle of attacks the year it was founded by Masood Azhar, the JeM hit the Srinagar Cantonment a second time on December 25, 2000, when 24-year-old Birmingham (UK) resident Mohammad Bilal blew himself up in another bomb-laden Maruti car. Eleven people, including five army soldiers, were killed in the explosion. But Azhar’s growing audacity, particularly the October 1, 2001, car bomb attack on the Jammu & Kashmir assembly, which resulted in the death of 38 people, and the Parliament attack in Delhi on December 13 the same year, led to the Pervez Musharraf-led Pakistani establishment distancing itself from the terror outfit. In fact, the outrage in the Valley over the assembly bombing even prompted the Pakistan foreign office to condemn the attack as an act of “terrorism”.

Things only started easing off in 2003. For a while, the JeM also lost the backing of Pakistan’s security establishment after it carried out two assassination attempts on Musharraf. Proscribed in Pakistan, the group saw further reverses that year when the BSF gunned down its Valley chief Shahbaz Khan aka Gazi Baba in Srinagar’s Waniyar area. Without the ISI’s support, the JeM lost its legs in Kashmir. Helped by active intelligence, the Indian security forces succeeded in wiping out most of its cadre within two years of Gazi’s killing.

Intelligence officials link the JeM’s revival in Kashmir to the infiltration of two groups a month after Wani’s killing in July 2016. Since then, the outfit has pulled off some of its most audacious strikes, including the Pathankot air base attack in January 2016 and the deadly strike on the brigade headquarters in Uri. Security officials see the JeM’s stepped-up operations as an ISI-directed attempt to give the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) a breather. Both outfits suffered huge casualties in Operation All Out.

In 2017, the JeM returned to centre stage in the Valley with a series of spectacular strikes orchestrated by new commander Noor Mohammad Tantray alias Noor Trali, a local Kashmiri who successfully recruited several other locals. Among them were Fardeen Mohiuddin, 16, and Manzoor Baba, 21, who were part of the fidayeen attack on a CRPF camp (December 31, 2017), not far from the site of the February 14 bomb attack.

But even as the JeM re-established itself in the Valley, it lost a number of its top leaders. Tantray was slain in December 2017 as was his successor Mufti Waqas, a Pakistani terrorist who carried out the February 2018 attack on the Sunjuwan army camp in Jammu. Waqas was taken out in March 2018. Others killed by the SFs include two of Azhar’s own nephews-Talha Rashid and Usman Ibrahim-both trained snipers. Security experts say by sending his own kin to be ‘martyred’ in the Valley, Azhar has signalled that he has no plans to back down.

Officials believe it is part of the legend used to motivate Kashmiri youngsters like Adil Dar. In fact, the JeM’s online weekly, Alqalam, keeps reminding the Valley’s youth of Afzal Guru’s ‘mission’ and the others who followed him.

The JeM’s latest push started towards the end of last year with the arrival of Ghazi Abdul Rashid Afghani, a trusted aide of Azhar and a battle-hardened veteran from the Tali­ban trenches in Afghanistan. Said to be in his late 30s, intel reports say Ghazi infiltrated across the Pir Panjal in Jammu with two others. Police say he’s since been joined by nine others, all trained and highly-motivated fighters.

The group is said to have been involved in the firefight that happened three days after the suicide blast at Pulwama’s Pinglina, about 12 km from the site. Four army soldiers, including a major and a J&K policeman were killed in the shootout. A brigadier, Harbir Singh, and south Kashmir’s DIG of police, Amit Kumar, were among the nine injured. Army sources described it as one of the “toughest encounters” since Operation All Out was launched in 2017. Three militants, including top Jaish commanders Rashid and Ubaid, and a local militant Hilal Ahmad Naik, were killed. Media reports initially said that Ghazi was also killed but senior intelligence sources have confirmed that this is not true. The JeM has gone incommunicado since the international outrage over the Pulwama blast.

Worryingly, the little that is known about Ghazi points to a change in the JeM’s tactics. An expert bomb-maker, he’s said to be averse to directly engaging with the SFs until absolutely necessary. Since his arrival, he has also stopped the practice of posting photographs of new JeM recruits on social media. Started by Wani in 2014, this helped groups like the Hizb attr­act new cadre, but it also helped police track them down more quickly.

But perhaps to demonstrate his own ‘fearlessness’, the JeM has posted Ghazi’s pictures, including one of him sporting a baseball cap over shoulder length hair and beard. The caption alongside promises that 2019 will be India’s “deadliest” year yet. J&K police officials are aware of the escalated threat. “People like him have the capability to plan and execute attacks as well as motivate and train locals,” says a senior police officer.

The Pulwama bombing triggered a host of tactical changes by the security forces, including the halting of all civilian traffic during convoy movements; increased security checks and rummaging of random vehicles; and intensified night time cordon and search operations (CASO), particularly in Pulwama district. Predictably, it has led to greater resentment against the security forces, with many residents, particularly the youth, even hailing Dar for his ‘sacrifice’. Significantly, both the Hizb and Lashkar, which comprise the majority of the active militants in the Valley, have been characteristically reticent on the subject of suicide bombings, including the Pulwama incident.

First introduced by the Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s, the tactic was soon adopted by Hamas in Palestine, after Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian theologian, condoned its use in the conflict with Israel. In the late 1980s, however, the issue drove a wedge within Al Qaeda, with founding member Abdullah Azzam disagreeing with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri on the use of suicide bombing as a weapon of jihad.

This was precisely why the LeT, founded by Azzam, Hafiz Saeed and Zafar Iqbal in Afghanistan in 1987, continues to shun suicide bombings. Thirteen years later, finding little success in its campaign in Kashmir, the outfit convened a three-day shoora in Pakistan’s Punjab province, where Saeed and other religious scholars restated their disapproval. That said, the LeT, the acknowledged biggest and most active jihadist outfit in South Asia, continues to send out fidayeen fighters.

Adil Dar’s decision to then choose what was hitherto abhorred as an un-Islamic death, police officers say, could lead to a turn for the worse. “You have to understand the situation now. Kashmir has become a breeding ground…the youth want retribution for everything that has happened in the past 30 years. They want to bleed,” was one senior police officer’s ominous assessment.

If there is one thing the events of the past two years prove decisively, it is that the Narendra Modi government’s muscular approach in Kashmir has failed miserably. The promised engagement with “all stakeholders” is still a way off, and the Indian army’s Operation All Out, which despite felling over 600 ‘militants’ across the bruised Kashmiri hinterland, is clearly unable to extinguish the insurgent threat.

Former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief A.S. Dulat says a dialogue with Kashmir and Pakistan is the only way out of the current conundrum. Widely acknowledged as then PM A.B. Vajpayee’s point man for Kashmir during NDA-I, he’s shy about spelling out what needs to be done given the present climate of belligerent political rhetoric in India. But he points to former J&K CMs Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti: “If two Kashmiri leaders are saying the same thing in different words [calling for a dialogue with Pakistan], then somebody should take



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