The use of locals to carry out attacks represents a changed tactic for militant groups including Jaish-e-Mohammad in the Valley.
Tral (Jammu and Kashmir): Fardeen Ahmad Khanday was an introvert who preferred the solace of his room to hanging out with friends. He was a “bookworm”, says his father Ghulam Mohammad, and had been rigorously preparing for his class X exams. On September 15 last year, after drinking his early morning tea, the 16-year-old boy told his mother that he was going out for a walk.
When he didn’t come back home till evening, Fardeen’s parents rang up relatives and his friends and asked them to look for their son. A week later, they had all but given up on the search when a picture of Fardeen – tall, lean and the eldest of four brothers – appeared on social media brandishing an AK-47 rifle. He had joined Jaish-e-Mohammad, a decision which “shocked” his parents and neighbours who had known Fardeen since he was a child.
“He won’t even keep a mobile phone, saying it will distract him from studies. He was a normal boy till he disappeared; he would attend tuition classes in the morning and after school hours, and then return to his room to prepare for exams,” Ghulam Mohammad told The Wire.
Fardeen’s life as a militant lasted for a little over three months. On the morning of December 31, when news broke out that a fidayeen squad of Jaish-e-Mohammad launched a pre-dawn attack on CRPF’s training-cum-induction centre at Lethpora in Pulwama, Mohammad, a police constable serving more than 200 km away in Kupwara, received a call from the district police lines. Fardeen, he was told, has been killed along with another local militant, Manzoor Ahmad Baba, in the fierce gun battle inside the camp that left five CRPF personnel dead. The next day, the body of a third militant, a foreigner, was recovered from the debris, bringing the 36-hour gunfight to an end.
The fidayeen attack was the first of its kind in the Valley, involving mostly Kashmiri militants, who succeeded in storming a security camp. It took place at a time when the Jammu and Kashmir police and other security agencies had killed 206 militants in a single year, the highest in the past seven years.
The last time such an attack happened was in 2000, when Kashmiri militant Afaq Ahmad Shah blew himself up at the entrance gate of the army’s 15-corps headquarter at Badamibagh in summer capital.
A ‘disturbing’ attack
For the security establishment, argued a senior police official, the December 31 attack was “disturbing” and a “cause for concern” on two accounts. First, there were prior inputs about a possible attack by Jaish-e-Mohammad to avenge the killing of its militant commander, Noor Muhammad Tantray alias Noor Trali, in a gunfight in Pampore area last week. Less than four feet tall, 45-year-old Tantray had jumped parole last year to become a militant.
But, more importantly, in a departure from its strategy, for the first time the outfit chose two local militant as fidayeens. Fardeen had even recorded a video message for Kashmiri youth to explain the “need for jihad”. This was also the first time that any militant organisation in Kashmir released a video of a recruit about to carry out a suicide attack.
In the past 28 years of insurgency, Kashmiri militants have rarely been a part of suicide squads which stormed security establishments within or outside the summer capital. The last such attack was on defence establishments in the Uri border town in September 2016, in which 17 army personnel were killed.
While Jaish-e-Mohammad has been the architect of such attacks in Kashmir, the group has always recruited foreigners for such strikes.
The Lethpora attack could, however, mark the beginning of a shift in strategy of militant outfits like Jaish-e-Mohammad to recruit Kashmiri militants as fidayeens.
Adding to the worries of the Jammu and Kashmir police and other security agencies is the video which surfaced hours after the gunfight, in which slain Fardeen asks Kashmiri youth to “join the fight against Indian aggression”.
In the video, a calm-looking Fardeen, who was from Tral, hometown of slain Hizbul militant commander Burhan Wani, speaks in chaste Urdu, emphasising that youth joining militancy has nothing to do with “propaganda of unemployment being run by the security agencies”.
“Our land has been occupied by infidels…so jihad becomes our duty. Youth, please realise your duties and join this fight for azadi,” he says in the nearly eight minute video while listing major strikes carried by the militant outfit in the past, including one on Pathankot airbase and Nagrota camp.
“By the time this video reaches you I would be a guest in heaven, God willing,” he says, indicating that the Lethpora attack had been planned before the video was shot.
“My friends and I have listened to the call for jihad and taken a plunge into the battlefield…even after repeated claims that Jaish-e-Mohammad is finished in Kashmir, I want to tell everyone it is impossible to stop Jaish-e-Mohammad now. Youth are sacrificing their lives for the nation as azadi can’t be achieved without sacrifices.” Fardeen speaks fluently, sitting with three Kalashnikovs and other ammunition around him.
The other slain militant, 22-year-old Manzoor Baba from the Drabgam area of Pulwama, was a fruit grower before joining militancy in October last year. His name was in the headlines in the local media recently, when his family in November made a fervent appeal to him to return home following the surrender of footballer-turned-militant Majid Khan from Anantnag.
Return of Jaish to the Valley
Led by Maulana Masood Azhar, Jaish-e-Mohammad was largely based in north Kashmir before it was almost wiped off from the Valley. But after Burhan Wani became the poster boy for militancy in Kashmir, a few of the outfit’s militants worked in close coordination with him in the south till 2013.
During the last 10-12 months, however, the group plotted some large-scale attacks to announce its revival. The first one was on the police lines in Pulwama, in which eight police and paramilitary forces and three militants were killed. Another was at the BSF camp near Srinagar airport, killing an assistant sub-inspector.
Behind the return of the outfit is believed to be 47-year-old slain militant Tantray. While he worked in south Kashmir and used his network to recruit “some youth” from the Pulwama-Shopian belt, said another police official, infiltration of around 80 militants last year from across the LoC, some of them belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad, also added numbers to the group.
Tantray had been convicted in a militancy-related case in 2003 and was in prison. In July last year, he jumped a parole to join the militant outfit and went on to act as coordinator for several militant groups operating in south Kashmir, said the police official.
While militant outfits like Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba are operating in coordination, particularly in south Kashmir, the Lethpora attack and, more importantly, the involvement of Kashmiri militants as fidayeens, many believe, should be a cause for deep worry for the security establishment.
“If we only go by statistics of security agencies, there are around 300 militants still operating in the Valley. It shows that militancy is far from over and maybe getting deadlier if this (Lethpora) attack is any indication,” said political analyst Noor M. Baba.
Mudasir Ahmad is a Srinagar-based reporter.