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The Death Knell Sounds Again


By Baba Umar

04 Aug 2012

ONE IS a tailor. Another is a college student. They are young, bold and come from different localities of Sopore town in north Kashmir. But the dots that connect the disparate group imply that they are the local recruits of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).

So far, the LeT had mostly relied on foreign fighters to battle Indian forces in Kashmir. But the 3 July arrest of seven Sopore boys with alleged LeT links offers an illustration of how deep the militant outfit can go to make itself relevant in the low-intensity conflict of Kashmir.

Police sources say that Fahadullah, the only surviving LeT militant of Pakistani origin in Sopore, had recruited the youth and assigned them tasks such as couriering weapons and money. Some of them were supposed to visit Pakistan to get specialist training in bomb-making.

The weapons allegedly seized from the youth included one Pika Gun, one Under barrel Grenade Launcher, detonators, a rocket launcher and eight hand grenades.

However, the boys’ families deny the police claims. “My brother is just a tailor. He is too young to embrace any ideology. He is innocent,” says Abdul Sheikh, whose brother Farooq Sheikh is now under judicial remand. Abdul, who gave his brother’s age as 18, revealed that Farooq was arrested along with his friend Mudasir Majeed, 19, a first-year college student in Sopore.

Mudasir’s father Abdul Majeed Dar too denies the police charge. “We have no militant links. My son is innocent. God knows how authentic the police version is,” he says. But he told TEHELKA that his son had stayed at Farooq’s house the night they were arrested and that “Farooq had made some calls from Mudasir’s number”.

If the police version is to be believed, it suggests that the LeT is trying to indigenise itself by recruiting locals. The militant outfit’s ability to engage in point-blank hit-and-run shootouts and disarming policemen in the past few months is also being seen as a major shift in its strategy.

As the Afghanistan endgame is being worked out by world powers, speculation is rife in Kashmir that the Taliban’s possible resurgence could inspire Kashmiri youth to pick up arms once again.

“The LeT is facing a dearth of foreign fighters, that’s why they are desperate to recruit locals,” says Sopore SP Imtiyaz Hussein Mir. Another top police officer adds: “To some extent, the LeT will succeed because locals are available. If I have to recruit 200 SPOs, I will get 400 applications. If the LeT wants to recruit 200 boys, they will also get a huge response. But the LeT’s lack of weapons and cash is stopping the boys from becoming militants.”

Hussein’s evaluation may be correct because recently at a huge rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, al Badr Mujahideen, a breakaway faction of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and a group linked to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami (which has vowed to target Indian installations in Afghanistan) organised a two-day Martyrs’ Conference to seek funds and weapons.

According to The Express Tribune, al Badr Mujahideen chief Bakht Zameen sought funds from a 1,000-strong crowd to keep the Jihadi fire burning in Kashmir and Afghanistan. “Our commanders in Kashmir and Afghanistan say they will carry out big attacks if they are provided with resources. They have the spirit but they are facing a shortage of supplies,” he said.

But police sources say it’s not al Badr Mujahideen but the LeT, which has a bigger presence in the Valley than any other group and is desperate for recruits and arms.

THE LASHKAR has nearly 90 battle-hardened fighters in Kashmir, mostly concentrated in the northern border areas, while the HM has around 80 hardcore fighters, mostly in south Kashmir. Al Badr has not more than 10 hardcore militants in its ranks. But there is no record on how many over-ground workers/couriers/informers each of these groups have managed to recruit.

After almost wiping out HM in north Kashmir, the LeT is clearly taking ascendency. Its strategy to revitalise militancy and inflict maximum damage on troops, too, has changed. The attacks carried out by the militant outfit indicate so.

On 3 July, the LeT carried out separate attacks in south Kashmir’s Pulwama and Kulgam areas in which two policemen were shot dead from a point-blank range. The militants also snatched a dead policeman’s rifle. Earlier, on 25 May, LeT cadres disarmed four policemen in Tral in south Kashmir. They snatched three SLRs, one INSAS rifle and a wireless set. On 4 May, militants decamped with the service rifles of four policemen in Shopian district.

‘The LeT is facing a dearth of foreign fighters, that’s why they are desperate to recruit locals,’ says Sopore SP Imtiyaz Hussein Mir

On 7 July, LeT militants’ shot two 50 Rashtriya Rifles troopers from point-blank range in Pampore town. Police sources say a rifle was also snatched from the slain trooper while another was injured before the militants managed to escape. They say, many times, a single pistol was used on multiple targets at different places.

The army’s Chinar Corps GoC, Lt Gen Om Prakash, recently said that the strategy is aimed at “inciting the army to fire in public” to cause “collateral damage”. “In spite of suffering casualties, our soldiers displayed utmost restraint and did not fire at the fleeing terrorists to avoid collateral damage to the people,” he said.

Police sources say the major problem in future could be LeT’s bomb makers. “Militants can buy nuts and bolts, sulphuric acid and fertilisers to target troops and policemen. Such men do normal chores in the day but at night could be running LeT cells that are dangerous,” they say while referring to the Taliban strategy of blasting NATO troops using concealed IEDs.

Far from common understanding, the LeT has also shown that it can recruit educated youngsters. For example, when the police arrested Muzafar Ahmad Mir of Kangan, 28 km from Srinagar, they were surprised to learn that the alleged LeT member was a graduate. Mir had shot dead policeman Sajjad Ahmad Parray from a point-blank range outside Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar on 14 October 2011. It was reported later that Mir was motivated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In November 2010, LeT operative Mohammad Saleem Ganai alias Faisal, a final-year college student, had given a tough fight to security forces before getting killed in an encounter in Kulgam.

On 22 March, when the LeT exploded a car bomb in Bijbehara that killed its driver and injured 21 people, including three CRPF men, the attack was traced to Mohammad Iqbal Bhatt, a local computer engineer.

Senior journalist Wasim Khalid says the current “sophisticated” militancy is the outcome of the “brutal suppression” that ensued after the 2010 mass agitation. “When you talk to the boys who are mistreated in adult jails after being charged for murder, they question why the killers of over 120 youth remain scot-free. They want the soldiers charged too,” he says.

“In fact, when a few senior police officials realised that the situation is taking a turn for the worse, they counselled many youth in the inner city where anti-India sentiments run deep,” says Khalid. “When they listened to these boys, they found the youth were angry, they were subjected to abuse and torture in jail. Some of them paid bribes to lower-ranked officials and some of them had even gone to Sopore to try to seek weapons from LeT commanders. These are the same category of boys who are politically conscious, unlike the masses of the 1990s, and are brazenly disarming or killing the troops. Their conviction and morale is high. Infiltration is down but a small intrusion of weapons and Taliban’s victory will lead to chaos in Kashmir.”

The story of Masiullah Khan, a certified mechanical engineer from Tral in south Kashmir before he joined the HM, supports this argument. When his father Abdul Ghaffar Khan found Jihadi literature in Masiullah’s room, he reprimanded his son. However, Masiullah’s reply that he won’t pick up the gun “because it has lost significance” pacified his father. Masiullah was soon preparing for his exams and even completed his degree in mechanical engineering from SSM College at Pattan.

In May 2009, the Shopian double rape and murder, allegedly by the security forces, saw the Valley engulfed in protests. Masiullah led the protests in Tral, which would often result in teargas shelling and baton beating. The “brutal assault” had undermined his belief in the success of non-violent protests and the “irrelevance of gun”, says his father. Masiullah joined the HM three months later and was shot dead by security forces in August 2009.

Kashmir IGP Shiv Murari Sahai agrees that radicalisation is a matter of concern and “there is an element of youth that is susceptible to or motivated by extremist thinking”. He adds, “There is always a fringe element that is anti-State by conviction, ideological commitment or political inclination. But they aren’t in a majority. There are only few die-hard pockets and these are very much under control.”

The future of militancy, he says, will depend on external and internal dynamics of Kashmir. “We have to see how much the US will allow the LeT to expand and hit targets in India,” says Sahai. “We understand that their Foreign Office recently pronounced that LeT has global ambitions. We have to see Pakistan’s control on it and receptiveness of business-minded Kashmiris.

‘After 2014, Kashmir will once again be sandwiched between troops and militants,’ says Ajaz Kotroo, a houseboat owner

On why the LeT is making inroads and outdating HM when it comes to launching attacks and recruitment, Sahai says, “Pakistan doesn’t trust local leaders. The ISI wants to depend more on motivated cadres. That’s why the LeT is gaining ascendancy over HM. And that’s why the LeT is trying to indigenise itself in Kashmir.”

AWAY FROM army pickets and police intelligence quarters, the leT’s gains and Taliban’s re-emergence are being watched closely by Kashmir’s youth on the ground.

“A US defeat in Afghanistan will be akin to a massive quake in the Hindukush, which will shake Kashmir too. No border, fence or modern gadgetry can stop its impact from reaching Kashmir,” says Bilal, a Srinagar youth. “The militancy in Kashmir is already out of Pakistan’s control. Global Islamist militant movements are beyond the imagination and control of states.”

Ajaz Kotroo, who operates a houseboat in Dal Lake, is also apprehensive about the post-2014 effects on Kashmir. “Kashmir is on the global jihad radar,” he says. “It’s no longer an issue restricted between India and Pakistan because both failed to resolve it. It has become an Islamic problem along with Palestine and Chechnya. In the past 22 years, only 2011-12 has been relatively stable. What happens in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal will have spill over effects. Kashmir will once again be sandwiched between troops and militants.”

GoC Om Prakash too sounds an alert. “I believe the Afghanistan withdrawal should not be abrupt. Who will fill the vacuum?” he asked at an informal press gathering. “It will be catastrophic for Afghanistan and Kashmir just as it was in 2001 when 2,000 militants were killed here. In fact, I’m worried that it could be even worse.”

But Ambreen Anjum, who studies international relations and lives next to what many believe is the world’s largest army cantonment in Srinagar, begs to differ. “Taliban-like movements won’t be welcomed here because Kashmiris have never been followers of orthodox Islam,” she says. “Taliban fought in the name of religion. We aren’t fighting a religious war. We are fighting against military occupation.”

Many, including former fighters, are averse to the takeover of indigenous militancy by foreign groups. In his modest house in Srinagar’s Lasjan area, Ghulam Qadir Rather, 66, turns page after page of a local Urdu newspaper to read how Kashmir’s political situation is shaping up amid fractures in the separatist leadership.

Rather, a former commander of the pro-Azadi Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), who even shook hands with al Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden during the jihad against Russia in the late 1980s, says it was the victory of Afghans and Chechens over the Russians that had inspired Kashmiri youth to wage war against India.

“When the atrocities are infinite, the gun remains the only answer,” says Rather. “But the gun should remain in the hands of the Kashmiris. Not foreign fighters, but Kashmiris have to negotiate with both New Delhi and Islamabad.”

JKLF Chairman Yasin Malik says the 2008-10 agitation in Kashmir was mostly a non-violent one, “but New Delhi has given us an impression that we were defeated”. “Does New Delhi want our youth to pick up guns like the Taliban and then negotiate on the dispute?” he asks.

Malik says whatever the reasons for talking to the Taliban; the mood has consequences for Kashmir. “The natural conclusion Kashmiris will draw from this is that violence pays,” he warns.

But observers such as senior journalist Shujaat Bukahri believes that Pakistan’s internal disturbances do not suggest that they could go so long in embroiling the situation by allowing any such “adventure” to pass through the Kashmir mountains.

“But it is also true that in case Delhi does not move towards addressing the political realities in a time-framed manner, there is every scope of further exploiting it. It necessarily would not mean Taliban or al Qaeda coming to Kashmir. The indigenous problem has more potential of having a spiralling effect than importing something from outside,” he says.

While everyone in Kashmir is deriving meaning from the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, Rather says the youth picking up guns will die “meaningless deaths” because of an “immature” separatist leadership, which has failed to negotiate with New Delhi from the pulpit of power.

“We say we will draw inspiration from Taliban. But even after becoming politicians, Taliban leaders fought alongside the cadres. They didn’t leave guns and start negotiations. It wasn’t the case in Kashmir. It won’t be in the future too,” he says.

Baba Umar is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.