Pulwama attack

Eleven intelligence inputs warning of Pulwama attack were ignored

Print edition : March 12, 2021

The site of the suicide bomb attack at Lethpora in Pulwama on February 14, 2019, which left 40 CRPF personnel dead. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigning for the general election at Bhawanipatna in Odisha on April 2, 2019. In his rallies he invoked the memory of the Pulwama attack to hype up nationalistic sentiments. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

Security personnel during a cordon-and-search operation near an encounter site in Sopore, Srinagar, in October 2018. Photo: The Hindu archives

A protest against the Pulwama terror attack, in Thane, Mumbai, on February 16, 2019. Photo: Vibhav Birwatkar

At the Ghazipur border in New Delhi on the second anniversary of the Pulwama attack, farmers hold a candlelight vigil in memory of the CRPF personnel who were killed in the attack. Photo: KAMAL KISHORE/PTI

Frontline’s investigation reveals that 11 intelligence inputs warning of the Pulwama terrorist attack of February 14, 2019, were ignored. Who was responsible for the “oversight”, which resulted in the death of 40 CRPF personnel, the Balakot surgical strike, and ultimately the thumping electoral victory of the BJP?

A year-long investigation by Frontline on the ghastly Pulwama attack on February 14, 2019, which left 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel dead, has led to several startling findings. All of them uphold the questions raised at the time by the government’s critics who found it implausible that the security agencies had no inkling of a terror strike that involved circumventing tiers of intricate and highly invasive surveillance in place in the Kashmir Valley in order to obtain, hoard and transport the massive quantity of explosives that were used to launch the ambush.

Frontline’s investigation has revealed that there were at least 11 intelligence inputs between January 2, 2019, and February 13, 2019, pointing to a macabre “Qisas (retribution) mission” in the making, one that culminated eventually in the attack on a security convoy in Lethpora, Pulwama. But the government was deaf to all these.

Precisely, the agencies, and invariably the government, knew that a terror strike could be launched in the route of the security forces. The agencies knew that Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) terror commander Mudasir Ahmed Khan, who was later identified as the Pulwama mastermind, was working along with four foreign mercenaries on a “major fidayeen attack in coming days”. They also had information that Mudasir Khan was moving around in Midoora and Lam Tral villages in the last week of January 2019.

Mudasir Khan was a fugitive wanted in connection with a terror attack at a CRPF camp in Lethpora in 2017 in which five security personnel were killed. It is extremely unusual that the security forces were not alert enough—or so it appears—to track down and apprehend or eliminate him in spite of intelligence reports of incontrovertible quality.

BJP capitalised on the terror attack

In the aftermath of the attack, which took place eight weeks before the 2019 general election, there was relentless mobilisation of emotion by the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), calling for avenging the attack and projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the sole protector of the national interest. Prime time television hugely aided the politicisation of national security issues, more so after the aerial raid at Balakot by the Indian Air Force on February 26, when one news bulletin after the other claimed, without evidence, that at least 300 Pakistani terrorists had been eliminated in that bombing. The election returns proved that the BJP’s muscular nationalism campaign was the predominant, if not the only, factor that facilitated Modi’s landslide victory.
Also read: Pulwama and after

During that time, the government, its large army of social media foot soldiers and a constellation of pliant media houses vilified and silenced anyone who demanded to know if there had been any oversight of intelligence inputs prior to the attack. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh alleged that when he shared an intelligence warning note dated February 8, 2019, on Twitter about a possible attack in Pulwama, implying oversight on behalf of the agencies, retweeting of that post was blocked.

Even as news reports indicated that there were at least two inputs in the week leading to February 14 that warned of a strike by an improvised explosive device (IED) on security personnel or establishments, the government ruled out intelligence failure. On June 19, 2019, while responding to a question in the Rajya Sabha whether the reason for the Pulwama terror attack was failure of intelligence, Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy stated in a written response, “No Sir”. He stated: “All agencies are working in a coordinated manner and the intelligence inputs are shared among various agencies on real time basis.”

A year later, on the first anniversary of the terror strike, on February 14, 2020, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi questioned: “Who benefited the most from the attack?” It immediately spurred furious allegations from BJP leaders that he had “insulted the martyrs”. That had been the government’s staple reaction since the day of the terror incident. Anyone asking a question on Pulwama was immediately accused of amplifying the anti-India message of Pakistan.

However, Frontline’s disclosure now validates the long and persistent theory among a cross section of people that vital intelligence inputs may have been ignored before the attack. This comes at a time when a WhatsApp leak found that the pro-government news anchor Arnab Goswami had rejoiced soon after the news of the attack, gloating “we won [will win the general election] like crazy”. Frontline’s investigation has found the Pulwama attack to be a part of the JeM’s “Qisas mission”, the warning bells of which were sounded as early as January 2, 2019. Why it did not jar the security apparatus into action is not known and is best left to the readers to decide.

“Qisas mission”, in plain terms, meant retribution strikes that the Jaish had been planning in response to the government’s “Operation All Out”, often described as a kill-all-militants policy aimed at putting an end to the insurgency in Kashmir. “Operation All Out” started in the Kashmir Valley in 2017.

February 13 input warned of ambush en route

The documents Frontline has in its possession reveal that barely 24 hours before the deadly strike took place, an intelligence input dated February 13, 2019, was shared with, among others, the Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, and the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Kashmir; it warned them of an IED attack by the JeM “along the routes of security forces”. Frontline is in possession of as many as six intelligence inputs, shared prior to the February 13 input, which identified Pulwama/Awantipora as a high-risk zone, indicating that it could be the JeM’s ghoulish playfield for executing the “Qisas” strike.
Also read: The attacker behind Pulwama

The February 13, 2019, input advised that the forces be put on alert. However, on February 14, the day of the attack, an unusually long convoy of 78 vehicles carrying 2,547 personnel set out from Jammu at 3:30 a.m. by road, notwithstanding the warning of a possible ambush. Apparently, there had been a pile-up at the Jammu transit camp owing to days of inclement weather. The convoy reached Srinagar, and by 3:30 p.m., the vehicles passed through the Ladoora crossing on the highway in the Awantipora area of Pulwama district.

Top-rung officials in Jammu and Kashmir’s security grid, who spoke to this reporter on condition of anonymity, are of the opinion that at least a couple of inputs gathered and disseminated in the last week of January 2019 were “actionable” and would have “staved off the strike” had they been acted upon. They were referring to two inputs of January 24 and January 25, which intercepted a terror plot of the JeM module led by Mudasir Ahmed Khan.

Investigations done after February 14, 2019, identified Mudasir Ahmed Khan as the main conspirator of the attack. He was eliminated in an anti-militancy operation by the security forces in Tral’s Pinglish area on March 11, 2019.

‘Pulwama conspirator’ was on agencies’ radar

The January 24 input read: “Reports reveal that (2/3) FTs of JeM outfit have reported to JeM militant Mudasir Khan @ Mohammad Bhai group Awantipora for carrying out some special task viz. major fidayeen attack in coming days. The group is also in contact with Shahid Baba group of JeM Rajpora Pulwama.”

Significantly, the January 25 input contained a tip-off on the whereabouts of Mudasir Ahmed Khan. It stated in bold letters that Mudasir Khan, along with four foreign mercenaries, “have been spotted in villages Midoora and Lam Tral”. The inputs underlined that the group was planning an attack in the coming days and had possibly zeroed in on Awantipora or Pampore as the location for executing it.

According to Ajai Sahni, executive director, Institute for Conflict Management, if an intelligence input is specific, say, an intelligence input on terrorists includes information on their whereabouts or their identity or any other detail thereof, it is regarded as “actionable intelligence”.

Inputs on JeM’s ‘Qisas strike’ ignored?

What merits attention is that the January 24 and January 25 inputs were not the only inputs warning of “Qisas mission”. As early as January 2, 2019, an intelligence input alerted the agencies about the JeM’s “Qisas mission” in south Kashmir to avenge the killings of four of its terrorists in Rajpora, Pulwama. The input, shared with the Director General of Police of Jammu and Kashmir and the Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, emphasised the veracity of the “Qisas” threat. It underlined the fact that Sameer Ahmad Mir, the Special Police Officer in Hajin Payeen in Pulwama, was killed on January 1, 2019, as part of “Qisas Mission” 2019.

On January 3, 2019, a detailed threat report was shared. This report upheld and amplified the impending danger. It pointed out that the inputs on “Qisas mission 2018” had translated into fatal attacks. “It is pertinent to mention that a similar message of ‘Qisas mission 2018’ followed an attack on CRPF camp 183 Battalion Newa Pulwama, [and] abduction and killing of alleged Army informer Mushtaq Ahmad Mir, S/O Gh Rasool Mir in Sopore in the same month by JeM outfit,” it stated.

Foreign terrorist trained locals to make IED

On January 7, 2019, an input revealed that local youths were being trained by a foreign mercenary to make and lay IEDs in south Kashmir. “It is reported that a group of three militants, one among them is believed to be a foreigner active in Shopian district, are imparting training to local youth in handling explosive devices. Reports further suggest that the youth are being educated in manufacturing the IEDs and throwing of hand grenade on forces.”
Also read: Terror next door

A January 18, 2019, report shed light on hostile mobilisation of local youths in the Awantipora area of Pulwama district and their coordination with foreign mercenaries. “There are reports of movement of as many [as] 20 local militants besides some foreign mercenaries in Awantipora area of Pulwama who have plans to carry out any sensational activity…,” it stated.

Avenging the encounter of Masood Azhar’s nephew

The same day, another intelligence report gave an idea about the magnitude of the “Qisas” threat, underlining that the terror plots that were being hatched were meant to avenge the killing of JeM chief Masood Azhar’s nephew, Talha Rashid. Talha Rashid; Mehmood Bhai, another Pakistan-based terrorist; and Wasim Ahmad, a resident of Drabgom in Pulwama, were gunned down by the security forces in an encounter at Rajpora, Pulwama, on November 6, 2017.

Informed sources in the security apparatus of Jammu and Kashmir told this reporter that certain developments in the summer of 2018 also upheld the January 2019 inputs on the JeM’s “Qisas mission”. A top-rung official in the intelligence grid explained: “Following the elimination of Masood Azhar’s nephew Talha Rashid in November 2017 and another of Masood Azhar’s relative in January 2018, posters vowing revenge for these killings appeared in pockets of Pulwama and Shopian in the summer of 2018.” The official said these posters had depicted terrorist commanders such as Ghazi Abdul Rasheed and conveyed the will for “Qisas”. Ghazi Abdul Rasheed was a Pakistani national and joint-mastermind of the February 14 strike. He was killed in a gun battle with the security forces in Pulwama on February 18, 2019.

Information gathered during an interaction with highly placed sources revealed that the term “Qisas mission” was first coined by the Afzal Guru Squad, which erupted under the aegis of the JeM soon after Afzal Guru, a convict in the Parliament House attack case, was hanged in February 2013. As “Operation All Out” went ahead across Kashmir by the middle of 2018, inflicting blows on terror networks, the JeM resolved to launch high-intensity “Qisas” strikes.

On January 21, 2019, there was information on sustained and coordinated activities of the terror cadre, adding more substance to an impending “Qisas” strike. The January 21, 2019, input reiterated in bold letters that the JeM was planning an attack to avenge the killing of Masood Azhar’s nephew Talha Rasheed.

Mudasir Khan was Adil’s handler?

It is perplexing that despite a persistent threat perception, the January 24 and January 25 inputs on Mudasir Khan were apparently not acted upon or at least not acted upon successfully. Anuradha Bhasin, Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, Jammu and Kashmir’s oldest English daily, says that “deliberate oversight is plausible”. She said: “[The findings] seem to be in line with many other incidents in the last 30 years in Kashmir. There were questions about these attacks; police theories were vague.” She said that the government, by ignoring questions of a lapse and building up a narrative and hysteria where there is complete obliteration of Kashmir and Pakistan in the national image, strengthened the questions about the attack.

It is pertinent to mention that at the time of generation of these inputs, Mudasir Khan was a known terrorist in south Kashmir. He was wanted in connection with the 2017 attack on a CRPF camp in Lethpora. He was leading not only the main JeM group in the region but also a subsidiary group of the Jaish that had hitherto been led by the terrorist Shahid Baba. On February 1, following the elimination of Shahid Baba, Mudasir Khan assumed leadership of the subgroup. Adil Ahmad Dar, the 19-year-old local suicide bomber who carried out the February 14 strike, was affiliated to the Shahid Baba group, and upon Baba’s elimination probably took instructions from Mudasir Khan.
Also read: Diplomatic slugfest

Informed sources in Jammu and Kashmir’s security grid explained to Frontline the effort that went into generating the January 24 and January 25 inputs: “Mudasir Khan and Shahid Baba were both locals. They had a network of overground workers [OGW]. It is natural for OGWs to have their own circle of friends and girlfriends, some of whom we tracked and used as human intelligence.

“Our local sources in Pulwama, who were close to Mudasir Khan and Shahid Baba, told us on January 22 that the two were planning something big, while also sharing information on the places where the two had been last seen.”

‘It was possible to nab Pulwama mastermind’

The sources said that the January 24 and January 25 inputs were “actionable intelligence” as Mudasir Khan was a local, and it would not have been much of a challenge to trace the OGWs associated with him and, through them, his hideouts. “Mudasir Khan was a local; it was possible to find out about his nexus and raid them. One could have also explored methods beyond normal policing, such as ‘harassing’ the family members [to coerce them into locating him].”

This reporter made phone calls to S.P. Pani, the then IGP, Kashmir, for his comment, but the calls were neither answered nor returned.

In February 2019, more inputs poured in about the impending “Qisas” strike. As reported in the media soon after the Pulwama strike, there was an important input on February 9, 2019, that warned of an attack by the JeM to avenge Afzal Guru’s hanging. This input was shared with the Additional Director General, CRPF, J&K Zone, among others.

A Twitter handle hinted at IED blast

On February 12, 2019, an input marked “top secret, matter most urgent” shared information about a Twitter handle, Shah GET 313 @313_get, which had been active since January 2019. The input underlined that the Twitter handle appeared to be operated by JeM handlers in Pakistan and that it had warned of a “Qisas mission”.

The input stated: “The handle was monitored on regular basis, and on 12.02.2019 the handle hinted to carry out IED blasts along the routes being used by security forces in Jammu and Kashmir along with a video demonstrating an IED blast. In this regard an input was shared on MAC/SMAC platform vide Input ID No. 334808 dated 12.02.2019 at 19:27:41 [hours].” MAC, or Multi-Agency-Centre, is an Intelligence Bureau platform. It is a nodal body functioning 24x7 for sharing of intelligence and facilitating coordination among representatives of numerous agencies.

On February 13, 2019, a final warning was sounded about “IED attacks along the routes of security forces across Jammu and Kashmir”.

Unanswered questions

A close inspection of the input trails between January 2, 2019, and February 13, 2019, triggers several pointed questions. Why could Mudasir Khan, the February 14 mastermind, not be eliminated when, in the aftermath of the attack, he was located and felled within just three weeks of the attack while his accomplice Abdul Rasheed Ghazi was eliminated in less than 100 hours? Was the security grid in Jammu and Kashmir complacent about an impending terror strike that was to eventually push two nuclear-armed countries, India and Pakistan, to the brink of a war, besides setting the tone for a general election in favour of the incumbent in power? Since the information on the “Qisas mission” was also shared on the MAC platform headed by the Intelligence Bureau, what was the I.B.’s counter-action strategy to scupper the JeM plot?
Also read: Pulwama attack happened despite 2 successive intelligence inputs

Was the government not aware of these series of inputs? Only a day before the Pulwama attack, on February 13, 2019, there was a reshuffle of the J&K Police, leading to the transfer of Mohammad Zaid, Superintendent of Police, Awantipora, who would have played a key role in acting on the inputs. Was it prudent to go ahead with a reshuffle at a time when a terror threat was looming? Who is accountable for the “oversight” of a range of sensitive and categorical intelligence inputs and, in two instances, “actionable intelligence” on the “Qisas mission” that culminated in the grisly Pulwama strike?

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