Death of a terrorist

Print edition : September 26, 2003

THE body of Shahbaz Khan alias Ghazi Baba lies in a corner of Srinagar's Safakadal graveyard, along with indigents and those who died without a name.

The body of Ghazi Baba, in Srinagar on August 30.-NISSAR AHMAD

Almost 5,000 people had turned out for Ghazi Baba's burial at Srinagar's Idgah, mourning the passing away of a man they believe is a martyr. Communications traffic between different terrorist groups was full of homage and condolences. Although the Jaish-e-Mohammad denied that its top-most operations commander in India had been killed, the mourners had no doubt about his passing.

On August 28, troops at a Border Security Force (BSF) checkpoint in Srinagar randomly flagged down a passing cyclist. The man, unusually, attempted to run. Troops grappled him to the ground. When they found that his chest was covered with explosives, they bundled him into a passing car, and drove him to the headquarters of the BSF's 61 Battalion. Interrogators from the BSF's intelligence wing, the G-Branch, soon realised they had a windfall. The terrorist was a Pakistan national, and knew of half a dozen Jaish-e-Mohammad hideouts scattered across Srinagar.

One of the safehouses belonged to Mohammad Shafi Dar, a poor farmer from northern Kashmir who happened to be related to Hilal Ahmed Dar, a wanted Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist. Mohammad Dar had recently purchased a home in downtown Srinagar for Rs.6.50 lakh. BSF officials believed that the money had actually been provided by the Jaish-e-Mohammad. They also learnt that a mason had recently been called to the house to build a concealed hideout. G-Branch sources reported that the house probably accommodated the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief, Maulana Masood Azhar.

At 3-30 a.m. on August 29, a full-blown fire engagement was under way at the Dar residence. The fire ended a few hours later, but the house was blown apart with explosives to ensure Shahbaz Khan did not escape. By early morning, the BSF had the body of Shahbaz Khan, the man who ordered and planned the 2001 attack on Parliament House in New Delhi, which brought India and Pakistan to the edge of war. Shahbaz Khan is also believed to have participated in several major crimes, including the 1996 massacre of Kashmiri Pandits at Wandhama, near Ganderbal.

The 35-year-old Khan was a Pakistani national born in Chirchil Patni, near Bhawalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province. The terrorist sported a beard at the time of his death, but appears clean-shaven in past photographs. According to Jaish-e-Mohammad legend, the terrorist was an explosives expert who had also trained in driving armoured vehicles and flying helicopters. He is believed to have fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, before being despatched to India by the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief. Masood Azhar was released from a Jammu jail in December 1999 as part of the IC-814 hostages-for-prisoners deal.

While Shahbaz Khan mainly operated in southern Kashmir, notably in Shopian, Anantnag, and Pahalgam, he had an extensive network in Srinagar. The BSF claims that Khan had three wives in Kashmir, although the identity of one, a Srinagar resident, is disputed by local police officials. He operated under several names, frequently changing his wireless call-sign. At the time of his death, Shahbaz Khan identified himself on Jaish-e-Mohammad wireless conversations as "39". He had earlier used the call-signs `Kairwan', `Jihadi', `Sajjad', `Sajid Bhai', `M7', `V3', `Green Zero', `Usman Bhai', `Arman Bhai' and `Doctor'.

A Jaish-e-Mohammad spokesperson who identified himself as `Abu Muslim', told a Srinagar-based news agency that Khan was neither present at the hideout nor had he been killed. He claimed that three terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, headed by Irshad Kashmiri, and four terrorists of the Jaish-e-Mohammad were in a meeting when forces raided the hideout. He confirmed the death of two militants and identified them as Abu Zaid and Abu Kasha of the Jaish-e-Mohammad. According to the spokesman, five militants managed to escape and reached another hideout. He claimed that a Jaish militant, `Abu Huraira', returned to his hideout in another locality though he had sustained injuries in the gun battle.

One BSF soldier, Balbir Singh of 61 Battalion, was killed in the encounter, while Deputy Commandant N.N. Dubey, Assistant Commandant Vinod Chander and six others sustained injuries. Although the BSF is delighted with its success, there is some disappointment at the lack of support from Members of Parliament in New Delhi. "After all, this man tried to kill them," says one 61 Battalion official who participated in the encounter. "At least a word of congratulation would have been nice."

There has also been no word from New Delhi of the massive reward announced for the capture or killing of Khan in the wake of the Parliament House attack. Officially, the Jammu and Kashmir government had placed a price of Rs.2 lakh on his head.

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