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Next-Door Kamikaze

Next-Door Kamikaze

Urbane, motivated, net-savvy—the new, deadlier crop of militants is from the middle class

Next-Door Kamikaze AP
Call him the jehadi of the cyber age. The "new" terrorist in Kashmir is not just an AK-47-wielding school dropout. With terrorism and the weaponry it employs having changed, the present-day militant is well-educated and knows how to handle sophisticated equipment. He takes the security forces on the ground by surprise and manages to elude intelligence agencies with relative ease. This 'neo-militant' who has also spread his operations to other parts of the country is in the terror game for varied reasons: extremist ideology, avenging the injustices done to Indian Muslims or, occasionally, for the plain, simple lust for lucre.

Strategies, too, have changed. There is now an effort on the part of the militant groups to involve locals. While a few years ago the foreign mercenary lived in his hideout in the mountains and ventured out only to strike targets, today there is a conscious attempt to cultivate friends in the neighbourhood and indoctrinate those who are favourably inclined. Also, women are being trained to liaison for militant outfits. Take for example Mehmooda, a resident of Bundgam, arrested in central Kashmir on September 9. She was allegedly working for the Hizbul Mujahideen, recruiting locals for the outfit.

But the most disturbing change is that educated, middle-class Kashmiris have begun to take to militancy. Their strikes are carefully planned, with the optimum use of modern technologies. Former RAW official B. Raman argues in a paper, 'Terrorism: Changing Profile', that "terrorist groups of today have been able to constantly have the quality of their weapons and means of communications upgraded". The increased use of the Net by terror outfits, he argues, has made the task of intelligence agencies and those who counter terrorism much more difficult. Breaking into someone's e-mail is a lot tougher than intercepting wireless messages.

Says J&K DGP Gopal Sharma: "The advent of high-tech gadgetry has been overwhelming. Satellite phones, web cameras and modern communication systems have given the militant an edge." In the recent encounter with Ghazi Baba of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, who masterminded the Parliament attack, BSF officials found he had installed web cameras outside his house to monitor passers-by.

In fact, encounters in the state in the last two years have led intelligence agencies to conclude that the profile of terrorists, particularly with the entry of suicide bombers, has changed dramatically. Points out a RAW official: "The earlier perception of suicide bombers was that they were poor, uneducated, picked up from madrassas or possibly mentally disturbed. In many ways, just footsoldiers. That understanding has changed."

It is for this reason that counter-terrorism agencies in Kashmir have begun to adjust their approach through the pooling in of operational expertise to penetrate terrorist networks. They have found that, increasingly, militant outfits are beginning to depend on the ingenuity and intelligence of those who carry out the strikes for them. They have also begun to bring in an element of surprise. The most unlikely of people—those who don't fit the traditional stereotype of a terrorist—are roped into the strike team. A sampling of some recent attacks and encounters in the state is an eye-opener.

Until his terrorist links stood exposed, Ishtiyaq Ahmad Matta, 26, was known to be a quiet computer engineering student living in downtown Srinagar. On August 28, when Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee chaired a high-profile inter-state council for chief ministers in Srinagar, Matta went missing. It was only after a night-long gun battle at the multi-storeyed Greenway Hotel, a couple of kilometres from where Vajpayee was addressing the meet, that the police discovered Matta was part of a fidayeen (suicide) group which had stormed the building."When his charred body was recovered from the debris, it shocked the security establishment, his family and friends," says a state police official. Five persons were killed in the 12-hour-long gun battle, including the surrendered militant-turned-mla, Javed Shah. For those who knew him, Matta was like any other Kashmiri youth of his age.

DGP Sharma does not believe there is a discernible pattern of educated, cultured youth taking to the gun. "These are exceptions. But yes, some of those who have been caught or killed in encounters are more high-tech, computer-savvy and well-turned-out than before."

"Relatives of deceased militants or those not rehabilitated have become part of terror groups," says an intelligence official. "They are aggressive and motivated." Nadeem Usmani, an educated youth who trained as a pilot in the US, is a case in point. As part of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, he received training in Pakistan in bomb-making. He was part of a group operating from Banihal. Recalls a police officer: "When he was killed in an encounter nobody could quite believe that Usmani was a terrorist. His brother used to play golf in Srinagar and hobnobbed with ministers and government officials. He was part of a conspiracy to set off a car bomb on Gupkar Road where vvips live." In fact, it was much after Usmani's death that the police discovered that his brother was one of the financial chiefs of the militant group Al-Badr.

"It's not simply individuals acting out of rage. We should see them as a guided missile carefully launched by big groups," says former Mumbai commissioner Julio Riberio, who handled terrorism in Punjab. In his reckoning, Kashmir has a different culture of terrorism. "It is different from Punjab, where terrorists made a provision for a plan of escape. The only exception was the suicide bombing of chief minister Beant Singh," he says.

The first suicide bomber in Kashmir, Afaq Ahmad, was also a computer trainee. From downtown Srinagar, he helped the Lashkar-e-Toiba launch its suicide strike. According to army officials, he strapped himself with explosives which he detonated outside the high-security 15 Corps HQ. Neither his family nor his friends were aware of Ahmad's militant links. As suicide bombers can get closer to targets than other weapon-delivery methods, their attacks are more deadly. That is why the priority of security agencies is to crack down on terrorist groups who strike through human bombs. The police have met with some success. In February, they arrested Mohammed Sheikh of Pulwama, a post-graduate in commerce and a member of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Sheikh was "motivating" a group of 17 youths who had infiltrated from Pakistan to launch suicide attacks on security installations in the state.

While ideology and anger draw many to the gun, some do it for the money. Joint Commissioner Neeraj Kumar of the Delhi police, whose team has been credited with busting many Jaish and LeT modules in the capital, believes that not all Kashmir militants have been fired by the jehadi fervour. Last month, they arrested Noor Mohammed Tantray, barely four feet tall, an important conduit for the JeM. "Because of his size, he successfully evaded detection and brought crores of rupees into Delhi from the Valley. Nobody suspected him." Noor confessed that he worked purely for money.

But officials in the intelligence agencies are aware that suicide bombers are a committed lot, the very nature of their job demands it. New outfits like Al Qanoon and Al Madina, which have claimed responsibility for some of the suicide strikes, are mushrooming ominously. Reliable, timely intelligence is the key to keeping the neo-militants at bay. But that, as always, is easier said than done.
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