Has Kashmir's Militancy Entered its Most Lethal Phase Yet?

A new brand of insurgency – marked by techniques of asymmetrical warfare – might be emerging in response to a major crackdown on militant outfits in the valley.

Srinagar: Days after the February 14 suicide bombing, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) revealed that it had managed to trace the car used by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant Aadil Ahmed Dar to attack the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Pulwama.

The agency said the Maruti Eeco used for the bombing was sold to an Anantnag resident back in 2011 and “exchanged hands seven times” before reaching a youth named Sajjad Bhat. The youth is also believed to have joined the outfit, and a picture of him posing like Dar has been doing the rounds on social media since Monday evening.

Developments following the February 14 suicide bombing have led many in the security establishment to believe that the 30-year long insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir has entered a new and lethal phase.

The first reported suicide bombing in the state was carried out by a Kashmiri student named Afaq Shah, who targeted the 15-corps army headquarters in Badami Bagh back in 2000.

So, exactly what has changed, besides the massive increase in causalities?

Former senior security officials who have extensively worked in Kashmir, say that militants of the “new age insurgency” in the region might have begun using lethal techniques of asymmetrical warfare as a reaction to a major crackdown on them. The chief characteristic of this stage of generational warfare is marked by “spectacular attacks,” and this is where the Jaish-e-Mohammad comes into the picture.

Also read: India’s ‘Non-Military Pre-Emptive’ Strike on Pakistan: What We Know, What We Don’t Know

Resurgence of Jaish-e-Mohammad

The outfit was formed by Pakistan-based cleric and militant leader Maulana Masood Azhar after he was released by the Indian government  in 1999 in exchange for Indian passengers taken hostage during the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814. The group’s ranks were filled by militants who had previously been part of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen – an outfit formed during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Soon after Azhar’s release, Jaish-e-Mohammad engaged in major attacks in Kashmir and beyond. The biggest attack launched by the group was in 2001 – when it targeted the Indian Parliament.

Senior J&K police officials speaking to The Wire said Jaish had taken a backseat allowing Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) to gain a stronghold between 2005 and 2013, but that the group began to resurface following the hanging of parliament attack convict Afzal Guru – when they announced the arrival of the “Afzal Guru squad”.

The squad’s violent activities sought revenge for the hanging of Guru in 2013, and is suspected to have killed nearly 100 security forces personnel since then, including the 40 in the recent Pulwama attack.

Other officials of the police department said Jaish, by its structure and objectives, is very different from other militant groups operating in the Valley, including the Hizbul Mujahideen, which is mostly filled with local recruits and members of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba – thus comprising a mix of Kashmiri and Pakistani militants.

“Hizbul Mujahideen has its own texture; they have local interests and have an interest in local issues. The LeT is more of an indoctrinated outfit which uses Jihad as a currency to further their ideology. But Jaish, by its design and construct, is a different story all together,” the officer said.

Signs of the group’s resurgence were first seen in the Tral region of south Kashmir, known for being the native home of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

“Recruitment in Hizbul and Lashkar had reached a saturation point and that is one of the factors enabling Jaish to gain followers. Clear instructions were issued to other militant outfits to support JeM, and one man who played a key role in recruiting for Jaish was Noor Trali,” said another senior police officer, adding that the group first started to regain its foothold in Tral.

According to official police data, there are around 278 militants in the Valley itself, including 159 locals and 119 foreigners. Of the total militants Jaish had –around 60 recruits at the start of the month – nearly half of them were locals. Since the suicide bombing, eight of its members have been killed in gun battles across the Valley.

“By evoking the name of Afzal Guru, the group has re-branded itself as some sort of organisation seeking vengeance, and we believe they want other militant groups operating in the Valley to imbibe the so-called Jaish values,” said another officer.

While the Pulwama attack, by Jaish’s own accord, sought to avenge the killing of the two nephews of JeM’s chief, Maulana Masood Azhar – Talha and Osman – the last fidayeen attack, that took place not too far from the blast-site, was to avenge the killing of Jaish commander Noor Mohammad Tantray who was barely four feet tall.

Also read: India Says Many ‘Eliminated’ in Strike on Jaish Camp, ‘Grave Aggression’ Says Pakistan

Also known as Noor Trali, the Jaish commander was killed on December 26, 2017. Five days later, three Jaish militants lobbed grenades inside the training centre of 185th battalion of the CRPF, followed by storming the facility on foot.

For nearly two days, the militants engaged the CRPF in a fierce gun-battle killing five Indian troopers. It later emerged that the three local fidayeen included 17-year-old Fardeen Ahmad Khanday, son of a Jammu and Kashmir cop.

The attack catapulted the security establishment in Kashmir into taking strict “anti-fidayeen measures,” which included setting up new bunkers at strategic locations, increased frisking and checking of vehicles and going after top militant commanders of JeM. Yet, the February 14 attack took place as planned.

A senior security official said that owing to the recent activities of Jaish, the militant outfit, even though lesser in strength than Hizbul and LeT, is now top priority for counter insurgency forces in the Valley. One reason for this might be Jaish’s capability of orchestrating spectacular retaliatory attacks.

Intelligence inputs received by the state police suggest the campaign of attacks is being called ‘Operation Kisas’ by Jaish – which means revenge in Arabic, Urdu and Kashmiri language.

The officer said it is this “operation” that has made countering Jaish militants a top priority for government forces in Kashmir. In the week following the attack, nine militants of the outfit have been killed, including those who orchestrated the car bombing.

“The video of Aadil released by the militant outfit after the bombing is actually a discreet document of their activities. They [Jaish] clearly mention the attacks they have orchestrated in the last few years. We have been able to find out that the attacks are part of a sustained campaign called ‘Operation Kisas’, or revenge in Arabic,” a senior J&K police officer told The Wire under the condition of anonymity.

Is revenge the new dynamic in Kashmir’s Insurgency?

“Not exactly,” according to a senior police officer who was involved in a peer group analysis of militants, that claimed that most of the youth are driven by “revenge philosophy.” “In the empirical study of militant recruitment’s between 2010 and 2015 studied by the police department, it was found that 90% of those who joined militant groups had a mentor, friend, cousin or relative killed in counter insurgency operations,” said the officer. The officer further said that there were many examples to showcase that Kashmir’s insurgency has a strong quotient of revenge.

“While for some joining a militant group is in itself an act of revenge, for other like Aadil, a deadly attack like that on February 14 is the ultimate goal,” the officer said.

Also read: Full Text: Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s Statement on Strike on Jaish Camp

In Aadil’s case, his 21-year-old paternal cousin Manzoor Ahmad Dar was killed in 2016; he was associated with Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Aadil went missing on March 19 last year only to join the militant group. Though for Aadil, his cousin’s killing might have been one of the factors impelling him joining Jaish, militant recruitment in general has increased manifold after the killing of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani as reported by The Wire on December 27, 2018.

Last year marked the highest ever recruitment in nearly a decade. Nearly 200 locals joined militant groups despite the killing of nearly 260 militants in 2018.

Lieutenant General H.S. Panag, who served in the Indian Army for 40 years before his retirement, termed Kashmiris signing up for fidayeen attacks as “worrying” and added that India cannot “only have a military approach towards Kashmir.”

“Back in 2002-03, we had these people called IED doctors who were expert bomb makers, but almost all of them were foreigners. Extremist ideologies have tried to enter, but have not gained foothold. But local boys signing up to become fidayeen is not a good sign. We don’t want local youth to replicate them,” Panag said.