By Ajit Kumar Singh
June 10, 2013
At a time when the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the most active group in the State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has suffered major setbacks with the elimination, arrest and surrender of its top cadres, the 'indigenous' Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) - headquartered in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) - has escalated operations in an effort to re-establish its operational supremacy in the State, after a long eclipse. The LeT's latest and major loss came with the arrest of its 'operational commander' for North Kashmir, Qari Naved aliasFahad Ullah, in the evening of April 17, 2013. However, an abrupt spike in HM attacks at this time has disturbed the deepening equilibrium in the State, and caused renewed concern among Security Forces (SFs).
Three Rashtriya Rifles (RR) personnel were killed and another sustained injuries when HM militants opened fire on SFs engaged in search operation at Buchoo Bala village in the Tral area of Pulwama District early in the morning of May 24, 2013. The injured trooper died later in the day. In retaliatory fire, the SFs killed an HM militant, identified as Rafiq Ahmad Ahangar alias Saifullah Ahangar. Claiming responsibility for the attack, HM's 'spokesman' Baleguddin claimed, "It was a five member squad who killed five Army men and wounded seven others. Four members have reached to their hide outs safely while one was killed." Subsequently, on May 25, 2013, the 'Hizb Command Council' (HCC) reiterated its firm resolve to "take the ongoing struggle [in Kashmir] to its logical conclusion."
On April 26, HM militants had laid an ambush and killed four Police personnel near the Haigam locality along the Sopore-Kupwara road in Baramulla District.
On March 13, 2013, HM terrorists executed a suicide attack on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp in Bemina in Srinagar, killing five troopers and injuring another seven. The two terrorists who carried out the attack were also killed. Claiming responsibility, an unnamed Hizb 'spokesman' warned, "The guerrilla attack was carried out by our men and similar attacks will be carried out in future as well."
The last suicide attack in J&K was on January 6, 2010, when terrorists had hit a CRPF camp at Lal Chowk in Srinagar, killing a Policeman and injuring nine persons, including one CRPF trooper.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, a total of 39 persons, including 19 SFs, 10 civilians and an equal number of militants have been killed in the State in the first five months of the current year, as compared to 37 fatalities, including 28 militants, seven civilians and two SFs personnel during the corresponding period of the preceding year. Indeed, the total number of fatalities among the SFs through 2012 stood at 17. Another seven persons, including six militants and a trooper, have been killed in the current month, June 2013.
Referring to the escalating attacks on SFs in 2013, Director General of Police (DGP) Ashok Prasad told the media on May 28, 2013:
These attacks are worrying. Except Pulwama where an ASI [Assistant Sub-Inspector] was killed, all attacks were reportedly carried out by HM [ASI Farooq Ahmad Sheikh, was shot dead in Rajpora Chowk in Pulwama on May 10, 2013]. There seems a changing trend in attacks and that is being studied. The matter was discussed in Core Group meeting and every security agency has been asked to study the trend. It needs to be seen whether only HM has changed attack trends or other militant groups also. The study will take some time.
Earlier, an April 29, 2013, a report quoted an unnamed senior Police official as stating, "Special Task Force (STF) has been given the task to track down commanders, militants and supporters of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen to stop revival of the militant outfit in north Kashmir. Although Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Toiba has been almost wiped out from Sopore town, the resurgence of Hizb would be major challenge for forces in future. It has been decided to invest concrete efforts to target Hizb's leadership and local cadres."
According to the SATP database, out of the 46 fatalities in 2013, the HM is connected with at least 24 - 18 SF personnel, five of its cadres (killed by SFs) and one civilian. The database has recorded HM's connection in at least 361 incidents of killing in J&K, resulting in 752 fatalities - including 86 civilians, 61 SF personnel and 605 of its own cadres - between March 2000 and June 9, 2013). Out of the 361 incidents of killing, 90 were major (each involving three or more fatalities).
Adopting various tactics, including military-style ambushes, bomb blasts and Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks, the HM mainly targets SFs as well as moderate elements who try to initiate a dialogue with the Government. In one prominent incident of this kind, on December 4, 2009, HM cadres shot at and critically injured moderate Hurriyat leader Fazl-ul-Haq Qureshi, who played a key role in 'secret' talks between the Mirwaiz Umer Farooq-led All Party Hurriyat Conference and the then Union Minister for Home Affairs, P. Chidambaram.
The HM has also issued a radical Islamist 'moral code', imposing bans on cinema, music, beauty parlours and any form of entertainment. According to a May 1, 2013, report, the J&K Police recovered HM posters from Sopore town in Baramulla District warning women to keep away "from latest fashion, tight clothes and observe dress code'' and threatened 'dire consequences' if they do not follow the diktat. The posters also declared, "We warn those young boys and girls who propagate immorality and work for the Army as informers.''
The HM has also spread its network outside Kashmir. For instance, a Hizb role is being investigated by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), in the Delhi High Court bombing of September 7, 2011, which killed 15 civilians and injured another 87.
The HM has also declared war against the US and other 'anti-Islamist' forces. Yusuf Shahaka Syed Salahuddin, chief of HM and of the United Jihad Council (UJC), a conglomerate of 16 terrorist outfits fighting in J&K, stated, on July 8, 2012, "Pakistan is the target of the US-Israeli nexus. Our fighters are defending Pakistan at a time when its geographical boundaries, its security and Islamic identity are at risk. We are fighting in Kashmir. It doesn't matter to us if we are labelled terrorists. We are proud to be called terrorists for fighting the US and its allies in Afghanistan."
Formed as the militant wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir (JeI-JK) at the behest of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's external intelligence agency, to counter the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) which had advocated complete independence of the State, the HM is presently led by Yusuf Shah, who is based in Muzaffarabad in PoK. The HM's ideological base arises from the JeI-JK, which adheres to the Deobandi school of thought. Unsurprisingly, the JeI-JK generates a significant proportion of HM's funding, in addition to direct aid from the ISI, including a proportion received in Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICNs). According to an April 10, 2013, NIA press release, for instance, the Agency filed a charge sheet against two Indian nationals, Badal Sheikh and Fayaz Ahmed Rather, and one Bangladeshi national, Shafiq, before the Special Court, NIA, Jammu, in a case pertaining to the recovery and circulation of FICNs to raise funds for HM. Earlier in this case, five persons, including three from the Malda District of West Bengal and two from Kashmir, had been charge sheeted by NIA.
Soon after its formation, HM emerged as the most lethal outfit operating in J&K. However, after subsequent rifts within the rank and file, as well as the decimation of its top leadership by the SFs in the State, HM was forced to slow down its operations, even as the ISI escalated support to LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). At this stage, LeT and JeM became more central to Pakistan's strategic objectives in India. More recently, however, with the LeT and JeM bases and networks in Pakistan coming under increasing international scrutiny, there has been some effort to restore HM's operational ascendancy in J&K.
HM has a number of training camps in Pakistan and PoK. On May 26, 2011, Salahuddin openly admitted that the Pakistani military permits his fighters to move freely and run training camps in the region. Talking to a local news Agency he observed, "Ourmujahideen can come and go at their own will. There is no question that the Army can stop us. And we have hundreds of training camps in the State, where we recruit and train the Mujahideen." HM's top leadership is based in Pakistan, with some of them frequently visiting Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, as well as Bangladesh.
With HM re-emerging as the ISI's 'first choice', its activities have gained momentum. On March 21, 2012, the Indian Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) noted, "Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) accounts for nearly 35%-40% of all terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir and is the most active outfit in the Valley next to Lashkar-e-Toiba in terms of strength and capability to carry out terror strikes." Earlier, on January 31, 2012, the HM 'supreme commander' Salahuddin reaffirmed his organisation's 'healthiness', declaring that HM's "infrastructure is intact" and that "J&K will be freed soon."
The HM, which draws its cadre base from both indigenous and foreign (principally Pakistani) sources, joined hands with Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) according to a March 2012 report. It has widely used slain al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden's videos to motivate Kashmiri youth for jihad. Significantly, the outfit has made inroads into the J&K security system and administration as well. On August 21, 2012, the J&K Police neutralized a militant involved in all the 13 attacks that Srinagar had witnessed since January 1, 2011, with the arrest of two persons: a Policeman, Abdul Rashid Shigan, and a released HM militant, Imtiyaz Ahmad Gojri alias Raashid. Operating under the aliases Omar Mukhtar and General Usman, Shigan was acting as 'spokesman' for the Kashmir Islamic Movement (KIM), a shadow HM outfit. Shigan was both co-conspirator and executor.
More recently, on April 14, 2013, Police claimed that it had neutralized another HM module by arresting two persons, a released Hizb militant and a local Panch (member of a Panchayat, a village level local self Government institution), from Bandarpora village in Kakapora Tehsil (revenue unit) in Pulwama District. The duo was trying to revive militancy in the region, Police claimed. Explaining the HM's 'healthy' relations with elements within the administration, an unnamed senior Police officer noted, "Jamaat-e-Islami has a strong support base within the Police, bureaucracy and judiciary due to which tracking HM militants is tougher than those of LeT."
The operational resurgence of HM is clearly a set back to the deepening peace in Kashmir. On a wider front, it augur ill for improved Indo-Pak relations, despite the new Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's reported eagerness for peace with India. HM chief Salahuddin, in a media interview on May 14, 2013, declared, "No government in Pakistan, whether it is Nawaz Sharif or anybody else, will remain in the chair if it abandons the Kashmir cause." He advised the incoming Government "not to repeat the mistake of putting Kashmir on the back burner and try to foster friendship with New Delhi through trade, cultural exchanges and tourism."
Despite the abrupt escalation of violence by the HM, there is little to suggest that this is a trend that can be sustained within the current environment. Indeed, SF successes against the group are mounting, even as the group secures greater prominence in the profile of violence in the State. In one such successful operation, the SFs eliminated the 'divisional commander' and 'financial chief' of HM for South Kashmir, Sajad Ahmed Mir, and the 'district commander' of the outfit, Mohammed Ashraf Maulvi, at Wandena village in Pulwama District, in an operation that continued overnight, from May 31 to June 1. Again on June 5-6, the SFs killed two JeM leaders, 'battalion commander', Mohammad Abbas Nengroo, and 'divisional commander', Altaf Baba alias Ghazi Baba, in village Ichgosa in the Rajpora area of Pulwama District. The Hizb has been able to consolidate its position in the State, essentially, by lying low for an extended period of time, while the LeT and JeM took the lead in the State. With a clearer SF and intelligence focus on its surviving networks, it is unlikely that the group - despite its safe havens in PoK and Pakistan - will be able to sustain any significant resurrection of terrorism over an extended period of time.
Ajit Kumar Singh is a Research Fellow; Institute for Conflict Management
Source: South Asia Intelligence Review