A bloody trail

Published : Mar 24, 2006 00:00 IST

At the funeral of Harkat ul-Mujahideen leader Javed Ahmad Bhat at Khrew, Srinagar, on December 19, 2005. - NISSAR AHMAD

At the funeral of Harkat ul-Mujahideen leader Javed Ahmad Bhat at Khrew, Srinagar, on December 19, 2005. - NISSAR AHMAD

The Harkat ul-Mujahideen, once the most formidable terrorist organisation operating in Jammu and Kashmir, has returned strongly to jehad.

INSIDE the Harkat ul-Mujahideen's Islamabad offices, a register listing the names and histories of those who gave their lives for its causes occupied pride of place. Two hundred and thirty-eight Harkat cadre, the register recorded, had died fighting the forces of first the Soviet Union and then the United States in Afghanistan. Another 433 had been sacrificed in Jammu and Kashmir. After October, 2001, when intense U.S. pressure led Pakistan to shut down the Harkat's operations, the list stopped growing. Since December, though, someone in the office has been expending ink - and lives - once again.

For the past six months, as Indians have watched terror attacks take place across the country, attention has been focussed on one single Islamist terror group: the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. Some attention has been paid, too, to the growing influence and power of the Harkat ul-Jihad Islami (HuJI) and the Jamaat ul-Mujahideen in Bangladesh, both of which have executed successful terror strikes both in that country and in major Indian cities. Now, a new threat is evident from an organisation that for decades was the flag-bearer of the jehad but seemed to have been buried by history.

"The Harkat ul-Mujahideen has not been dissolved," thundered the Pakistani cleric Nizamuddin Shamzai at a rally in February 2000, "and nor do we wish to please Clinton, Vajpayee, the Jews of Israel, Russian communists and other infidels by announcing its end. This is an organisation our elders built and has set about the business of jehad in a very organised manner." Shamzai, long the patron-saint of Islamist terror groups in Pakistan, was assassinated in a 2004 shootout near his seminary in Karachi. His words, though, are starting to appear prophetic.

Ever since late last year, the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) had become increasingly concerned about the Harkat's efforts to rebuild itself as a credible organisation. Counter-terrorism investigators learned that a new commander, operating under the code-names `Talha' and `Shahbaz' had been despatched across the Line of Control (LoC) to rebuild the terror group's apparatus. The commander, they discovered, had hidden out in the Bandipora forests in northern Kashmir before moving to a safe house in Srinagar. Of just where he was in the city, though, little was known.

Weeks of painstaking efforts to plant informants inside the Harkat's networks, as well as signals-intelligence work targeting the organisation's communications, led the police's crack Special Operations Group to a small shop in Srinagar's Soura area. Local residents thought the shop, which specialised in embroidering intricate patterns on wool shawls and cloaks, was owned by an Urdu-speaking migrant from Uttar Pradesh. Officers of the Special Operations Group, however, learned he was a long-standing Harkat operative named Mohammad Shehzad, a resident of Sialkot in Pakistan.

On December 21, a brief fire fight outside the shop led to Shehzad's death - and to the uncovering of a communications centre equipped with satellite phones. Before the week was out the Harkat appointed a successor. Abdul Qadir Mughal, a resident of Rawlakot in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, was given charge of the networks Shehzad had begun to build. Mughal's term in office proved remarkably short; before dawn on January 1, Special Operations Group personnel shot him dead at a safe house in Srinagar.

Several second-rung Harkat commanders were eliminated as a consequence of these decapitation strikes. Mohammad Iqbal Khan, the Pakistani national who was ordered to succeed Mughal, was shot dead by police in Baramulla hours after he met with Harkat operatives in Srinagar to reconsider the group's strategy. So too was Azad Ahmad Bhatti, a Harkat commander from the Pakistani city of Multan who had served as the terrorist group's division commander forss southern Kashmir for over five years.

As investigators interrogated suspects detained during these operations, it became apparent that the Harkat had succeeded in building a network of overground operatives in Jammu and Kashmir, networks that were critical to its revival plans. Between January 14 and February 18, nine Jammu and Kashmir residents were arrested on charges of helping the Harkat. Each member of the network had been assigned specific tasks. Pulwama resident Mohammad Yunus Mir, for example, had applied for passports for the Harkat's commanders, using fake names and photographs.

Little is known as yet about how wide the geographical reach of the Harkat's new networks might be - but the information that is available gives reason for disquiet. Intelligence sources said at least one senior Pakistan-based Harkat operative, who identified himself to contacts using a welter of aliases and cover-identities, had visited Ahmedabad and Mumbai late last year. The visit took place at around the time Shehzad had set about rebuilding the organisation in Jammu and Kashmir, and was most likely intended to give the Harkat a pan-India capability.

Some in the intelligence community believe the Harkat may have been responsible for the February 19 bomb explosion on the railway platform in Ahmedabad that injured 25 people - the first time an RDX-based explosive was used in Gujarat. Investigators have determined that the suitcase containing the explosive device had been left inside a Mumbai-Ahmedabad train, and it was stolen by a railway guard, who hid it on the platform. As a result of this theft - and a malfunctioning electronic timer that led to the bomb going off 12 hours later than intended - dozens of lives were saved.

If the Harkat has in fact developed operational capabilities outside Jammu and Kashmir, it could well have tapped the resources of the Karachi-based mafia of Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar. Much of the Harkat's cadre are drawn from Karachi seminaries, notably the Jamia Islamia at Banori, the Jamia Ehteshamia and the Jamia Farooqia; more likely than not, there has been at least some informal contact with the mafia. Like some elements in the mafia, moreover, several top Harkat cadre are drawn from followers of the Tablighi Jamaat, a right-wing religious organisation with strong influence in Pakistan's intelligence services.

Organised crime cartels have had an increasing role in terror operations. For example, the services of Dawood Ibrahim-affiliated gang lord `Chhota' Shakeel Ahmad Babu were used to obtain passage through Dhaka for several Ahmedabad residents recruited by the Jaish-e-Mohammad in 2001. Mafia operative Javed Hamidullah Siddiqui, who was arrested in 2004, told Indian authorities that Shakeel had arranged to have the group flown from Dhaka to Karachi on fake passports. Mafia operative Rasool Khan `Party' received the recruits in Pakistan and arranged for their transfer to Jaish training camps.

Another Dawood aide, Fahim Machmach, helped a group of terror recruits transit through Bangkok, including two Bangalore residents who identified themselves by the code-names `Iqbal' and 'Sohail.' Machmach, interestingly, is alleged to have supervised a 2003 attempt on the lives of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Bharat Banot and Ashok Bhat, using the services of a long-standing mafia hit-man Vikram Parmar. After converting to Islam during his time in Karachi, Parmar had started to use the name Ali Mohammad Kanjari and developed contacts with the Lashkar.

Why should the efforts of the Harkat to rebuild its infrastructure be of concern, particularly when there are more powerful terror networks like those of the Lashkar, the HuJI or the Jamaat ul-Mujahideen already in place? Part of the reason, of course, is simple: it could add to the aggregate capabilities of jehadi groups active across India. A more fundamental problem lies in the Harkat's history: its revival is significant because it would suggest that Pakistan's fitful post-2001 efforts to contain and degrade jehadi terror capabilities are starting to unravel.

Like most other Islamist terror organisations, the Harkat was a child of the U.S.-funded jehad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Until 1984, the HuJI was the sole Islamist organisation affiliated to Deobandi seminaries engaged in that jehad. After the death of its founder, Maulana Mohammad Irshad, the HuJI began to disintegrate. Maulana Qari Saifullah's succession as the HuJI's supreme leader, led his opponents to form the Harkat, under the command of Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil. By 1991, the Harkat had dramatically increased its presence in both Afghanistan and Jammu and Kashmir.

Factional disputes with the HuJI, however, continued to be a serious concern. In June 1993, a committee of clerics arranged for both organisations to merge into a new group, the Harkat ul-Ansar (HuA). Maulana Azhar Masood Alvi, the terrorist released from jail in return for the hostages on board Indian Airlines flight 814 in 1999, was one of the key figures in this new group. The HuA gained international attention when it kidnapped European and U.S. hostages in 1994 and 1995, in murderous efforts to secure Azhar Masood's release, both directly and through a front called al-Faran.

In 1997, the U.S. declared the HuA a terrorist organisation, which led the group to resume calling itself the Harkat ul-Mujahideen. A year later, the U. S. fired missiles at two Harkat-run camps in Afghanistan, Khalid bin-Waleed and Mu'awiya. The hijacking of IC 814, however, demonstrated that its capabilities had not been diminished. Ironically, however, Azhar Masood's first action on his return to Pakistan was to found the Jaish-e-Mohammad. Much of the Harkat's cadre defected to the new group, which also took over its offices and financial assets.

Matters came to a head in 2001 when the Harkat provided support to the Taliban in Afghanistan against the U.S. Pakistan took no serious action against its leadership - Maulana Khalil was briefly subjected to house imprisonment after he returned to Islamabad in January 2002 with the remnants of the Harkat's forces in Afghanistan - but the organisation's resources were steadily degraded. For its part, the Jaish's links with Al Qaeda forced Pakistan to contain Azhar Masood's activities. By 2003, both organisations had lost their primacy to the Lashkar, seemingly forever.

Now, though, it seems clear that the Harkat is being reborn from the ashes it was reduced to by the events of September 11, 2001, and the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Indian intelligence officials estimate that of the 240-odd terrorists who have crossed the LoC since the great Kashmir earthquake in October, upwards of 80 owe allegiance to the Harkat. If these figures are accurate, it would suggest that the group is rivalled, in terms of cadre recently pumped into Jammu and Kashmir, only by the Lashkar - a remarkable achievement for an organisation that seemed near-defunct.

It is clear that this revival has been planned for some time. Maulana Farooq Kashmiri, the Harkat's military head, had long argued that the Harkat focus on Jammu and Kashmir. Maulana Kashmiri had even suggested that the Harkat merge with the HuJI to this end. Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil had rejected these proposals, and some believe the organisation's revival suggests that Maulana Kashmiri has come to acquire a decisive say in the Harkat's affairs. Others suggest the Harkat's growth could be linked to the renewed influence of pro-Taliban forces in Pakistan's north-west.

What, though, is driving this rebirth? Harkat leaders might, some believe, be attempting to capitalise on the growing anti-U.S. anger amongst many Muslim communities to regain the generous financial patronage the Harkat once enjoyed. Alternatively, Pakistan's military may be signalling its frustration with the pace of the dialogue process on Jammu and Kashmir by allowing a careful escalation of terrorist violence. Pakistan may, by allowing the Harkat to revive, also be making known its ire with the U.S.' refusal to allow it significant strategic equities in southern Afghanistan.

Whatever the truth, India will have to be brace itself to face one more enemy, an enemy which had been reduced to ashes, but has demonstrated that it can once again draw blood.

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