The fidayeen attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Lethpora, Pulwama, on February 14, 2019, which claimed the lives of 40 personnel, raised vexed questions at the time, with sceptics suspecting it to be an outcome of intelligence failure and demanding to know how a massive quantity of explosives could be obtained, hoarded and transported by terrorists to execute the attack, given the intricate tiers of surveillance in place in the Kashmir valley.
In the aftermath of the attack, even as news reports indicated that there were at least two inputs in the week leading to February 14, which 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, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, G. Kishan Reddy, stated in a written response “No Sir”. “All agencies are working in a coordinated manner and the intelligence inputs are shared among various agencies on real time basis,” Kishan Reddy stated.
However, a year-long investigation by this reporter has revealed that between January 2, 2019, and February 13, 2019 a series of intelligence inputs were shared with various authorities responsible for maintaining internal security, all pointing to an impending fidayeen strike as part of the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s “Qisas mission”. At least two inputs carried details of the terror module led by Mudasir Ahmed Khan, which eventually carried out the Pulwama attack. Also read: Pulwama and after
‘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 insurgency. 'Operation All Out' had started in the Kashmir valley since 2017.
February 13 input warned of ambush en route
Frontline’ s investigations revealed 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 & Kashmir, and the Inspector General of Police, 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 field of execution of the “Qisas” strike.
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 adverse weather. The convoy reached Srinagar, and by 3:30 p.m. the vehicles passed through the Ladoora crossing on the highway, in Awantipora area of Pulwama district.
Top-rung officials in Jammu and Kashmir’s security grid, who spoke to this reporter on the 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 twin inputs on 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, seen by many as the most audacious and lethal terror attack in Kashmir’s three-decade-long militant history. Mudasir Khan 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. Also read: The attacker behind Pulwama
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”.
The documents in possession of Frontline establish three things: One, as early as on January 24, 2019 there was informed opinion that the Mudasir Khan-led JeM module, which turned out to be the conspirator of the Pulwama strike, was working on a nefarious plot. Two, as early as on January 25, 2019 there was knowledge of Mudasir Khan’s location. Three, there was at least three weeks’ time available to act on these specific intelligence and apprehend or exterminate Mudasir Khan and foil his [Pulwama] plot.
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 on 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 DGP of Jammu and Kashmir and Inspector General of Police, Kashmir, stressed on the veracity of the “Qisas” threat. It underlined that Sameer Ahmad Mir, the Special Police Officer in Hajin Payeen in Pulwama, was killed on January 1, 2019, as part of the “Qisas Mission” 2019.
On January 3, 2019, a detailed threat report was shared. The detailed report upheld and amplified the impending danger. It pointed out that 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 manufacture IED
On January 7, 2019, an input revealed that local youths were being trained by a foreign mercenary to manufacture and plant 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”.
A January 18, 2019, report shed light on hostile mobilisation of local youths in 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 sense of 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, along with Mehmood Bhai, another Pakistan-based terrorist, and Wasim Ahmad, a resident of Drabgom in Pulwama, was gunned down by the security forces in an encounter at Rajpora, Pulwama, on November 6, 2017.
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 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 depicted terrorist commanders such as Ghazi Abdul Rasheed, and conveyed will for ‘Qisas’ or retribution. 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. Also read: Terror next door
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 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 Massod 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 JeM commander Mudasir Khan were apparently not acted upon or at least not acted upon successfully. 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 Lethpora attack on a CRPF camp that claimed the lives of five personnel. He was not only leading the main JeM group in the region but also a subsidiary group of the Jaish which was hitherto led by terrorist Shahid Baba. On February 1, following the elimination of Shahid Baba, Mudasir Khan assumed leadership of the sub-group. 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.
Sources in J&K’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 girl-friends, 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 hide-outs. “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 the then IGP, Kashmir, S.P. Pani, for his comment, but the calls were neither answered nor returned. Also read: Diplomatic slugfest
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 JeM to reprise Afzal Guru’s hanging. This input was shared with ADG, 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 “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”.
A close inspection of the input trails between January 2, 201,9 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 co-mastermind 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 were to eventually push two nuclear-armed countries, India and Pakistan, to the brink of a war, besides setting the tone for a general election? Since the information on the ‘Qisas mission’ was also shared on the MAC platform headed by the Intelligence Bureau, what was the IB’s counter-action strategy to scupper the JeM plot? Was the government aware or not aware of these series of inputs? Only a day before the Pulwama attack, there was a reshuffle of the J&K Police on February 13, 2019, leading to the transfer of SP, Awantipora, Mohammad Zaid, who would have played a key role in acting on the inputs. Was it prudent to go ahead with a reshuffle at a time 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?