The new face of terror

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

A string of intelligence-led police operations against the Lashkar-e-Taiba offer glimpses into the terror cells behind the series of high-profile strikes in Jammu and Kashmir and outside it since October.


DIRECTOR-GENERAL of Police Gopal Sharma applauded politely as the young university student standing on the podium at Srinagar's Mahatma Gandhi Bhawan denounced terrorist violence and delivered a well-structured speech defending Jammu and Kashmir's accession to India. The year: 2003. But Shabbir Bukhari's speech did not come as a surprise to his friends or his peers at Kashmir University's Law Faculty.

Bukhari had maintained a studied distance from campus Islamists and Kashmir nationalists, the two main ideological tendencies amongst the university's largely bourgeois student body. Besides, his father, Syed Ghulam Mohiuddin Bukhari, was a well-known Sufi mystic, a repository of a religious tradition hostile to Islamists and their pro-Pakistan political project.

At the Lashkar-e-Taiba's command headquarters in Muzaffarabad, however, Bukhari went by the code-name `Abu Sumama', a top covert operative of the terrorist group in Jammu and Kashmir. Bukhari had been recruited by the Lashkar in 2002, and worked undercover as a courier, recruiter and propagandist. Less than a year after his 2003 speech, Bukhari commanded a unit which carried out a series of fidayeen suicide-squad attacks in which dozens of civilians and security force personnel, many of them DGP Sharma's men, died.

Today Shabbir Bukhari is in police custody in Srinagar following a recent series of intelligence-led operations by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, which also delivered to them the most vivid picture yet of the Lashkar's operations in the State. The investigators found that even as terrorist activity in the State went into decline after the India-Pakistan near-war of 2001-2002, the Lashkar focussed its energies on building up successive rings of highly organised covert cells, drawing on individuals with high levels of education and technical skills as well as foot-soldiers from among Pakistan's rural poor. It penetrated systematically Jammu and Kashmir's political system to ensure that its cells were immune to suspicion, variously coercing and bribing potential supporters.

Now, in the wake of the great earthquake that destroyed much of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) in October, the Lashkar has unleashed the formidable capabilities of its covert cells. "Everyone thinks the jihad is drawing to a close," Bukhari says quietly, "but they are wrong. Just plain wrong."

Perched below the towering, densely forested mountains that run along the Line of Control (LoC), the small village of Kreeri has long been something of a base for the Lashkar's armies. By day, Indian patrols dominate the village and the roads around it. By night, the soldiers of jihad rule.

One winter night in 2002, at a house in the village, which was also used as a hideout by these soldiers, one of them struck up a life-transforming conversation with Bukhari. Abdul Wahab, a resident of Multan in Pakistan, educated at the prestigious International Islamic University in Islamabad, had abandoned his career as a chartered accountant to serve as a Lashkar operative in Jammu and Kashmir. "I was impressed by the fact that he was willing to sacrifice so much for a cause larger than his own - to fight for something other than just a career or wealth," says Bukhari. Over the next few months, Bukhari and Wahab forged a deep intellectual relationship over extended readings of Islamist tracts and discussions of theology and religious issues.

To Wahab, Kashmir's dominant Sufi traditions were a failure. Quiescent Islamic practices, he argued, had led to wars of oppression against Muslims across the globe, from Kashmir to Chechnya and Palestine, and to the ascendance of the West. Jihad - not the traditionalist piety represented by Bukhari's father - was the answer. Although Bukhari never embraced the external manifestations of the Lashkar's Salafi-school ritual practices - "I never had the courage to fold my hands across my chest as they do during namaaz for fear of my father's wrath" - he was persuaded by the arguments. Bukhari was slowly assigned low-level tasks. He wrote leaflets and newspaper articles defending the Lashkar under a pseudonym. On one occasion, in late 2003, he carried a defective satellite phone to a Lashkar unit near Anantnag for repair.

Bukhari's most abiding contribution to the north Kashmir Lashkar, however, was to provide it a steady flow of useful local intelligence. In 2003, after the Special Operations Group of the Jammu and Kashmir Police established a unit in Kreeri, Bukhari helped organise efforts to have it removed. Pressure was brought to bear on local People's Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mushtaq Bukhari, a distant relative of the Lashkar operative, by threatening to kidnap his brother, a Srinagar-based journalist. The efforts did not yield results, but Shabbir Bukhari had proved his utility. Operating under the command of the then north Kashmir Lashkar divisional commander, who is known only by his aliases `Khalid' and `Sierra-7', Bukhari built a covert cell in Srinagar, which would act as a base for Lashkar terror strikes.

Lashkar commanders knew that Bukhari's operations were vital to the organisation's future. In 2003, an Intelligence Bureau operation led to the arrest of 22 Lashkar operatives and decimated the organisation's operational infrastructure. This forced its main city commander, Abdul Rehman `Mota', to shift to northern Kashmir. Drawing on the lessons of this debacle, the Lashkar went about building multiple cells under strong protective cover. For example, Bukhari recruited Shakeel Ahmad Sofi, a long-standing Youth National Conference activist who had been given secure official accommodation in 2002. Apart from letting the Lashkar use his quarters for its work, Sofi provided party identification cards for its terrorists moving in and out of the city. Bukhari also purchased a white Maruti Gypsy, of the type used by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, allowing for easy transport of weapons and operatives.

The funds and operational instructions for Bukhari's cell were provided by the Lashkar commander who had replaced Abdul Rehman. The new commander, a Pakistani national known only by his aliases `Bilal', `Haider' and `Salahuddin', is shown in police records as a person who is over six feet six inches (two metres) tall, wears size 14 shoes and had earlier served under `Khalid' in northern Kashmir. By the end of 2004 the group had executed several sensational fidayeen operations, including an attempt on the life of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November that year. It was also involved in the recent assassination of Jammu and Kashmir Minister of State Ghulam Nabi Lone. After the attack, in which well-known Jammu and Kashmir Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader M.Y. Tarigami was the target, Bukhari succeeded in evacuating one member of the two-man fidayeen squad.

Similar to Bhukari's cell, the Lashkar also set up cells run by ethnic Kashmiris in Srinagar, but each under the command of a senior Pakistani operative. Abdul Rashid Khanday, a Srinagar resident who spent two years in jail after he was arrested in connection with an abortive fidayeen attack in 2000, ran what was codenamed the `Dar' cell. Operating under the command of Abdul Ahad, a Pakistani national who used the codename `Dawood', the cell was responsible for several fidayeen attacks before the elimination of the terrorist and the subsequent arrest of its key members in August this year. Abdul Rahman `Mota' himself, meanwhile, activated a third cell, codenamed `Iqbal'. Little is known about the mechanics of this cell, which police sources believe carried out several high-profile fidayeen attacks in 2004.

Who were the soldiers that the Lashkar's covert operatives such as Bukhari were sending to their deaths?

In recent months, Indian newspaper readers have become familiar with one face of the Lashkar: highly educated, impeccably middle-class terror cell organisers like Tariq Dar, the multinational-firm executive who helped fund the Diwali serial bombings in New Delhi; Mohammad Rafiq Shah, the Srinagar college student who carried out one of those blasts; and, of course, Bukhari.

Another one of them is Ejaz Ahmad Butt, a chirpy and smiling 19-year-old who is a familiar face to personnel at the Shergari Police Station in Srinagar. He claims to have watched the romance movie Devdas over a dozen times, and can fluently mime the ultra-cool gangster character played by action hero Ajay Devgan in Company. He wears a blue winter cap with the letters `N.Y.' emblazoned on it, homage to the city he has come to know from the Hindi pop film he so loves, along with Mumbai and Manali.

Ejaz, at first glance, seems like the boy next door - until one notices the handcuffs on his wrists. On the afternoon of November 14, Butt threw a grenade at police personnel near Palladium Cinema in Srinagar's Lal Chowk and then lay in ambush for the senior officials he knew would arrive on the scene. Two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and two civilians were killed in the attack and 17 people were injured seriously. By early next morning, however, police commandos succeeded in eliminating Butt's comrade-in-arms whom he knew by the Lashkar-assigned nom de guerre Abu Furq. Unable to execute his mission, Butt attempted to escape from the hotel where he was hiding and was arrested - the reason why he is known today by his real name instead of lying in an unmarked grave.

Butt is the other face of the Lashkar: the son of a poor peasant family from the village of Mansoorabad, near the south Punjab city of Faislabad, who joined the jihad for a paltry Pakistani Rs.35,000. Educated in a government-run school until grade VII, Butt abandoned his studies after his father, Riyaz Ahmad, a daily-wage agricultural labourer, died. Soon his mother Rashida Butt too passed away, leaving on him the responsibility of bringing up his younger brother Nazir and sister Nahila. Butt found work at Gauhar Bakery, a small biscuit- and confectionary-making unit in Mansoorabad, which paid him Rs.2,000 a month. While the money met his siblings' needs, the work was hard and held out no real prospects.

This was when he came into contact with Abu Khubair, a young Faislabad resident who arrived in Mansoorabad in mid-2003. Khubair had joined the Lashkar some years earlier and had everything Butt aspired to: a job that seemed suffused with purpose and adventure, respectability in the community, and, above all, money.

Butt volunteered to join the Lashkar and was despatched for a daura, or training course, at the Dar-ul-Andlus camp near Muzaffarabad, the capital of POK. He was among the several dozen recruits who learnt basic combat skills, including the use of pistols, grenades and assault rifles, from a former Pakistan Army soldier, Javed Iqbal. Much of the training time, however, was devoted to imbuing the Lashkar's peasant recruits with a rudimentary ideological framework for their task. "We were told that Muslims in India were being murdered on a large scale," says Butt, "and that they were even prohibited from performing namaaz."

During the Ramzan period in 2004, Butt was sent back to Mansoorabad and given a small stipend while he awaited orders. In October this year, just after the earthquake that devastated much of POK, Butt received instructions to report to a Lashkar launching camp near the LoC in the Dudhniyal sector. On October 25, after three failed infiltration attempts, Butt and five other Lashkar men cut the fencing along the LoC and made their way to a hideout in the Rajwar forests in the mountains above the north Kashmir town of Kupwara. Had Butt escaped from Lal Chowk and made his way back to Rajwar and then across the LoC, he would possibly have, like Abu Khubair, served as a recruiter for the Lashkar.

"If you have fought in the jihad in Kashmir," says Butt, "you are a hero for young people in my village." In Mansoorabad, and hundreds of other villages, there are no other ways for a young person with no money and no education to find respect and self-worth. To sociologists who have studied recruitment into urban gangs, the phenomenon will be familiar.

Butt could spend at least two decades in Indian jails. His action at Lal Chowk could lead to his conviction on murder charges, which carry at least a life term. And after his release, as past experience shows, Pakistan is unlikely to accept him back unless his family in Pakistan is able to produce documentation that establishes his nationality. Asked if he would like to send a letter to his family in Mansoorabad, Butt pauses before answering slowly: "It is better that they think that I am dead."

Many young men like Butt lie in unmarked graves around Jammu and Kashmir, remembered perhaps by their parents and in the State they fought for by the photographs of their corpses posted on the walls of local police stations.

Early in December, a Lashkar cell commanded by Shabbir Bukhari attempted to rob a branch of the Jammu and Kashmir Bank in Srinagar. Funds meant for the Lashkar's expanding operations had been held up because of the destruction of its offices in Muzaffarabad, so Bukhari attempted to raise what he needed on his own. In the event, the robbery went horribly wrong.

Besides taking money from the bank's cashiers, Bukhari's unit also robbed individual customers. On the way out of the bank, one of the ethnic-Kashmiri operatives, Mushtaq Akhoon, slipped and fell. While the rest of the unit escaped, Akhoon was surrounded by irate customers and almost lynched. His interrogation led to the wiping out of the cell.

Bukhari was arrested along with Sofi on December 1, while driving into Srinagar. The police had found a satellite phone, grenades and ammunition stuffed inside a washing machine in his house. A few hours later, the key members of the squad who had participated in the bank robbery were killed after a brief fire-fight with the police. Ubaid-ur-Rahman, a resident of Mohalla Gulistan in Faislabad, Mohammad Salim, a resident of Lalookhet in Karachi, and Sadaqat Ali, a resident of Wah Cantonment, had crossed the LoC around the same time as Butt; it is possible that they even trained together.

A separate counter-Lashkar operation also led to the elimination of Bukhari's overall military boss, Abdul Rahman `Mota', on December 1 night. Operations against other senior Lashkar military commanders as well as at least two other covert cells in Srinagar are under way.

To analysts of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, the unravelling of Bukhari's cell and the intelligence that has emerged from it hold out several lessons. First, the Lashkar has demonstrated the ability to recruit ethnic Kashmiri cadre - individuals with significant educational and technical skills. Even if Indian policy-makers do arrive at an accommodation of the mainly ethnic-Kashmiri Hizbul Mujahideen, this suggests that groups like the Lashkar can pose an independent threat. Second, the Lashkar has demonstrated both that its infrastructure is still intact and that its jihadist agenda remains in place.

The Lashkar's renewal of pan-India operations after the October earthquake, illustrated dramatically through the Diwali serial bombings in New Delhi, makes clear just how ineffective Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's promises to act against terror groups have been. Indeed, Musharraf's failure suggests that the Lashkar has powerful allies within Pakistan's military establishment - allies who the President is either unable or unwilling to confront.

Given the fact that the earthquake disrupted Indian counter-infiltration positions along the LoC and newly inducted CRPF formations in Srinagar have yet to demonstrate an independent operational capability, the challenges to the peace process are significant. A series of major terrorist operations will make it increasingly difficult for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government to push ahead with the detente process, something organisations like the Lashkar, committed to a jihad intended to overwhelm not just India but the world, will be delighted by. With the Musharraf regime's credibility undermined by its dismal earthquake-relief performance, it is far from clear if Pakistan can act to stop a renewed jihadist offensive.

Indian policy-makers have to grapple with the difficult task of defending the detente process as the Islamist siege of the Pakistani state strengthens.

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