The tales of a bloody November

Print edition : December 05, 1998

Talk of an Osama bin Laden hand may be fanciful, but for the first time, foreign terrorists in the Kashmir valley have not moved back across the Line of Control to Pakistan with the onset of winter. This represents a distinct change in terrorist tactics.

DOES the winter mist over Kashmir veil the armies of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban? Ever since The Sunday Times of London claimed that Jammu and Kashmir had become a key target for Taliban expansionism, bin Laden's role in the area has been talked about. The recovery of photographs of the Saudi billionaire from slain terrorists has been cited as evidence of an imminent transformation in the scale of violence in Kashmir.

But a serious analysis of recent events shows that such claims have a degree of hype. Although Pakistan-based revanchist groups are seeking to disrupt the transfigured political landscape in Kashmir, key organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Ansar and the Lashkar-e-Toiba are themselves in disarray to a considerable extent.

Much of the fear of growing infiltration by Taliban-backed terrorists has been founded on the events of a particularly bloody month of November this time. On November 24, six members of the Jammu and Kashmir Police were killed at Sirigufwara near Bijbehara, when a 30-kg Research Department Explosive (RDX) device was set off under their bullet-proof jeep. In a second blast a few minutes later, four members of a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) rescue team were seriously injured. The Sirigufwara killings marked the largest loss of police personnel's lives in a single incident since 1989. Days earlier, a similar but smaller improvised explosive device had led to the death of a constable escorting former Union Minister Maqbool Dar's son, and a grenade blast next to the office of the Senior Superintendent of Police in Anantnag had killed one passer-by and injured 35 persons.

The body of a militant, who was killed as he tried to snatch BSF weapons, being carried through a Srinagar locality on November 13.-NISSAR AHMED

These events were part of a long chain of violent incidents through November, a level of concentrated violence unprecedented since 1995. Urban Srinagar, for one, saw its first major firefight in years when four terrorists were killed in the Peerbagh area. Three of these were Pakistani nationals led by the Srinagar "divisional commander" of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Shariq Bakshi. Bakshi, a one-time medical student, was the brother of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Shakeel Bakshi. Three Pakistani nationals had been killed earlier in a joint Border Security Force (BSF)-Special Operations Group (SOG) operation in Nowgam on Srinagar's outskirts. Far worse is the situation in the Rajouri, Poonch and Doda regions, where Army operations have led to major encounters with groups of Pakistani and Afghan nationals on a nearly-daily basis. Police officials in Rajouri even recovered two remote-controlled flying craft modified to carry small amounts of explosives.

What is far from clear, however, is whether these events have even a causal relationship with the events in Afghanistan. The killings at Sirigufwara, for example, were executed by the Hizbul Mujahideen on the instructions of its Kashmir valley area commander, Khalid Saifullah, better known as Aamir Khan. Intelligence officials believe that the bomb itself was assembled by another Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist from the Bijbehara area, Gul Drange, a resident of Marhama village. Indeed, several recent attacks appear to have been efforts by the Hizbul Mujahideen to secure its local authority, threatened by events in its parent political grouping, the Jamaat-e-Islami (see box). Students and their parents at an examination centre were attacked with a grenade at Dooru on November 17, leading to three deaths. On November 20, at the last Juma (Friday) prayers of the Mehraj Alam religious festival, pilgrims at the Hazratbal shrine were similarly targeted.

BUT the fact remains that this winter has seen a distinct shift in terrorist tactics. For the first time, foreign terrorists in the Kashmir valley have not moved back to Pakistan across the Line of Control with the coming of the winter snow. Traditionally, foreign terrorists operated on six-month or one-year contracts, and each October would see a lull in violence as the passes into Pakistan became impenetrable. Now, as biting cold forces terrorists down to inhabited areas from their forest hideouts, engagements with security forces have become more regular than in past years.

The strategy of keeping cadres within Kashmir through the winter serves two key purposes. One, operating in larger numbers in inhabited areas provides the terrorists with valuable public visibility. Secondly, it helps avoid the casualties suffered each year at the time of returning across the Line of Control.

New strategies adopted by terrorist groups, however, seem to be at least in part driven by severe internal problems. Intelligence officials monitoring the Srinagar and Ganderbal operations of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, for example, suggest that the group simply cannot afford to send back its Pakistani and Afghan cadres because of the difficulty in bringing in new recruits from abroad. The Srinagar chief commander of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, Bilal Ahmad Sheikh, is now believed to command 30 active personnel, half of them foreigners. By contrast, the Harkat-ul-Jihad unit, which he commanded in 1990, had over 300 active members. Given that 15 foreign terrorists were killed in and around Srinagar this year, the manpower shortage the Harkat-ul-Ansar faces is evident. Local recruitment has been almost non-existent in recent years, and this is a key factor that led terrorist groups to ship in Pakistanis and Afghans since 1993.

Yet, the bringing in of foreign terrorists has in a key sense impaired the operational abilities of terrorist groups. As Frontline's exclusive interview of Pakistani terrorist Mohammad Asim illustrates, tensions between local and foreign members of the Hizbul Mujahideen have in some areas led to a near-vertical split on regional lines. In Doda, similar tensions have on several occasions led to shootouts between foreign and Kashmiri members of the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Other organisations, too, face similar problems. While Kashmiri and Pakistani members of these organisations blame each other for the internecine disputes, the fact is that they are deeply rooted in cultural and linguistic antagonisms. Kashmiri folk culture is replete with legends of atrocities committed under Afghan rule, and Punjabi-speaking Pakistani terrorists are viewed with similar suspicion.

Finally, the unforgiving fundamentalism of the Harkat-ul-Ansar and the Lashkar-e-Toiba often leads them to conflict with Kashmir's syncretic religious traditions. Although the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hizbul Mujahideen also reject Kashmir's popular religious traditions, including the worship of the Moe-e-Muqaddas at Hazratbal, sensitivity to ground reality has prevented local operatives from interfering with these practices. By contrast, madrassa-educated Pakistani and Afghan recruits are often dismissive of local custom. The endorsement of Afghan terrorists operating in Kashmir by All-Party Hurriyat Conference leader Abdul Ghani Lone in October, for example, led to howls of protest from mainstream and pro-independence groupings, which are appalled over the Taliban's patently illiberal politics.

IT is in this context that security officials in Kashmir are dismissive about claims of massive Taliban entry into Kashmir. "I estimate that there are perhaps a maximum of 500 foreign terrorists in Kashmir today," says Inspector-General of Police P.S. Gill. "If there has been an escalation in violence, it is not because their numbers have increased, but because they are desperate to make their presence felt." Field-level officers too are dismissive of the prospects of a large-scale entry of Taliban-affiliated groupings. "I have found a Taliban sticker or a picture of bin Laden on the bodies of foreigners we have killed," says Baramulla Superintendent of Police (Operations) Ramesh Jalla, "but that does not mean very much." "In past years, you would find pictures of Saddam Hussein or even Ayatollah Khomeini in people's pockets, but it did not mean Iran or Iraq were sending terrorists here."

The body of the Srinagar "divisional commander" of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Shariq Bakshi, who was killed in an encounter at Peerbagh in Srinagar.-NISSAR AHMED

There is, however, good reason not to dismiss the long-term consequences of the processes at play in Kashmir. For one, the effective control of all three major terrorist groups active in the region has passed into the hands of Pakistan nationals. Shahbaz Khan 'Jihadi', the supreme commander of the Harkat-ul- Ansar, is a Punjabi-speaking Pakistani, as is Salamatullah Shaji of the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The revanchist Markaz Dawa Wal' Irshad, the parent organisation that controls the Lashkar-e-Toiba politically, is also in Pakistan. While the supreme commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Ali Mohammad Dar alias Syed Salahuddin, is from Kashmir, his authority is somewhat tenuous. With the breakdown of the Jamaat-e-Islami structure in Kashmir, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) officials have acquired control of the organisation.

WHAT do these developments mean? For one, Pakistan-controlled terrorist groups are likely to look increasingly towards an all-India operational theatre, seeking to exploit the violent communal fissures generated by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Harkat-ul-Ansar, for one, is ideologically committed to the idea of a pan-Islamic entity spanning from all of South Asia to Turkey, for securing which Kashmir is merely one platform. The Hizbul Mujahideen, for its part, has made similar noises. In a recent communique, Ali Mohammed Dar claimed that guerilla cells set up nationwide would ensure that "Jammu and Kashmir would be freed from her yoke, the country itself would disintegrate and its 20-crore Muslim population would win its sovereignty." The Lashkar-e-Toiba has carried out several bombings in New Delhi and elsewhere through its Dhaka-based operative Abdul Karim 'Tunda'.

If Indian Muslims, who have so far shown little interest in Kashmir or pan-Islamic adventures, might be surprised by Ali Mohammed Dar's rantings, signs of trouble have for long been evident. In 1995, religious magazines in Pakistan carried photographs of Ibrahim Abdul Razaq 'Tiger' Memon, an accused in the Mumbai serial bombing incidents in 1993, sharing a platform with Sajjad Kenu of the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF). The JKIF was responsible for a bombing incident in New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar market in 1996. While there is some dispute about just where the photographs were taken, there is little doubt that far-right Kashmiri secessionist groups have sought to associate themselves with Mumbai underworld elements driven to communal terrorism by the Shiv Sena-led 1992-93 anti-Muslim pogrom in the city.

Earlier this year, diaries recovered from Burhanuddin Hijazi, Aamir Khan's predecessor as the supremo of the Hizbul Mujahideen in the Kashmir Valley, also outlined plans to use Dawood Ibrahim's smuggling network to bring in arms. Hijazi's diaries and communications with Salahuddin, discovered after the SOG raid that ended his life, suggested that the organisation needed both shelter outside the State and an alternative to the perilous Line of Control supply route. Bilal Ahmad Sheikh of the Harkat-ul-Ansar is also known to have used a network of fundamentalist-run madrassas as hideouts outside Kashmir.

In the climate of hate and intolerance generated by the BJP, communalism peddled by terrorist groups in Kashmir has found at least some supporters among Muslims elsewhere. The future consequences of such linkages are self-evident.

Standing guard at the Peerbagh encounter site.-NISSAR AHMED

PERHAPS the most disturbing sign is that the United States is willing to tolerate increased levels of terrorist activity by Pakistani and Afghan groups in Kashmir. At a recent official dinner, senior officials of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi were asked by lawyer Niloufer Bhagwat about their tolerance of the systematic violation of women's and minority rights in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime. The officials astounded the gathering by arguing that U.S. policy consisted of accepting existing ground realities and by suggesting that oppression of women was part of Afghanistan's historical traditions. The stark reality is that U.S. oil interests in Central Asia mandate that it encourage instability in the region and have armed proxies at its command.

For India, with its conventional posture against Pakistan undermined by the nuclear tests at Pokhran and their fallout, these strategic U.S. interests could pose a serious challenge. Should Pakistan seek to escalate the conflict in Kashmir to a point where conventional war appears probable, international intervention would become inevitable. As the BJP's post-Pokhran lurch from adventurism to appeasement illustrates, its ability to stand up to U.S. pressures on Kashmir is questionable. Indian intelligence officials believe that far right elements in Pakistan's security establishment hope to launch a final assault on Kashmir early next year. If the skimishes this winter lie in the domain of internal security management, the coming spring could well demand a clarity of thought the BJP-led coalition Government has shown no signs of possessing.

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