Late in June, the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s (LeT) top commander for north Kashmir emerged from the forests above the small mountain hamlet of Sumlar, and ordered its residents to gather in the local mosque.
"I don’t want to see young girls and boys roaming around with mobile phones, for it will lead to immorality and vice," said the imposing 6-foot 6-inch Pakistani national, who is, so far, known only by the multiple aliases ‘Bilal,’ ‘Salahuddin and ‘Haider’. Three terrified teenage girls found in possession of the offending instruments were dragged into the centre of the mosque and tonsured in full public view.
Bilal’s concerns in fact had little to do with morals, for text messaging allows Indian informants to report Bilal’s rare movements out of the dense forests that run north from the mountains above Bandipora to the Line of Control (LoC). His forest fortress is at the centre of new Lashkar strategies designed to demonstrate its reach and power in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), despite the degradation of its cadre strength and war resources.
Where Taliban-linked terror groups in Afghanistan or Islamist insurgents in Iraq have, in recent months, demonstrated quasi-conventional military abilities, the Lashkar in J&K seems to be going down the opposite route. It seeks to use untrained, expendable cadre to execute strikes of little military value, hoping that these will act as an instrument through which the dialogue process in J&K may be subverted.
The J&K Police, last week, identified Bilal – who helped organise the October 29, 2005, serial bombings at New Delhi as well as an abortive 2004 attempt on the life of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – as the architect of the recent terror offensive which has rocked J&K’s summer capital, Srinagar. Director-General of Police Gopal Sharma has now announced a INR 500,000 reward for information on the Lashkar ‘commander’.
Sharma made the declaration at a press conference organised to announce the arrest of twelve alleged Lashkar operatives who helped execute the fidayeen (suicide squad cadre) attack, which targeted a Congress rally in Srinagar on the eve of the Prime Minister’s Round Table Conference on Jammu and Kashmir on May 24-25, 2006. Five people were killed in the attack and twenty-one, including Inspector-General of Police K. Rajendra, were seriously injured.
Along with his key lieutenant, a north Kashmir resident identified as Mudasir Gojri, Bilal also directed twelve separate grenade attacks on civilian and military targets – seven of which took place simultaneously on April 14 – as well a series of assassinations. Members of the cell assassinated two policemen on May 11, and murdered Mohammad Riyaz, a Sopore resident whom the Lashkar had earlier attempted to kill for the ‘crime’ of gambling.
Investigators have found that the two fidayeen who attacked the Congress rally had been dispatched by ‘Bilal’ to Srinagar on May 20, accompanied by two still-unidentified women. Gojri, according to the police, separately arranged for a Srinagar-based Lashkar operative, Mohammad Yusuf Dagga, to ship the weapons and explosives used in the attack from a cache in the Bandipora mountains. Both the fidayeen-squad members and the weapons were hidden overnight at a hotel that is being constructed near Regal Chowk, a prominent Srinagar landmark. The next morning, Gojri, Dagga and a third terrorist, Wasim Zargar, provided the two fidayeen with the fake police uniforms which helped them penetrate the security around the rally.
While the use of Bandipora as a base to funnel fidayeen into major cities across India isn’t news, the profile of the twelve arrested Lashkar operatives demonstrates changing tactics and intentions. For long a magnet for ideology-driven Islamists with computer and engineering skills, the LeT has now started to fish for recruits amongst Srinagar’s urban underclass, using cash as bait.
Notably, not one of the members of the cell had received weapons or explosives training at the Lashkar’s camps in Pakistan, or been given pre- or post-recruitment ideological indoctrination at seminaries. Instead, the Lashkar drew its new cadre from the ranks of Srinagar’s ill-educated and low-skilled artisans and vendors, offering cash in return for their participation in terrorist strikes, including grenade attacks.
Mohammad Yusuf Dagga, the principal organiser of the Lashkar cell, was perhaps the only terrorist hand with operational experience – and even this was negligible. Dagga was pulled out of school after his sixth grade by his father and put to work selling vegetables on the streets. Bored and frustrated, he began to act as a courier for Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) weapons and explosives at the age of just twelve. Dagga’s parents promptly handed him over to the Border Security Force (BSF) – and, after a brief stint under detention, he resumed work selling vegetables. However, the street business just didn’t yield the kind of income or excitement Dagga craved. In January, Javed Sofi, an old associate from his HM days, approached Dagga with a simple offer: INR 1,000 – roughly US$ 22 – for each grenade thrown at Indian forces.
Wasim Zargar, who, after Dagga and Sofi, was perhaps the most important member of the cell, also dropped out of school in 1999. He succeeded in passing his eight-grade examinations at the age of sixteen. Zargar then worked as an apprentice shawl weaver until 2001, when he agreed to start supplying cellphone SIM cards to a Srinagar-based Lashkar operative, Ijaz Ahmad Kital. Part of the profits Zargar made from this enterprise went into setting up his own cosmetics store. More cash was promised when he was recruited by Dagga to execute grenade strikes and shootouts in Srinagar. Like Dagga himself, though, Zargar was paid only small sums for his actions. Most of the dozen-odd grenade strikes and shootouts he participated in between January and May this year brought in just INR 1,000 each.
Others, like Bilal Ahmad Mir, seem to have been driven by personal frustration. The eldest of five sons of a National Conference-affiliated municipal politician, Mir dropped out of school after the fifth grade. He apprenticed with a local tailor from 1989, but proved unable to make a living. Moreover, Mir’s three younger brothers continued their studies with some success – a fact which further eroded his self-esteem. Like Mir, Mohammad Yaqoob Sheikh was the least successful of his four brothers. A copper-work artisan, Mir dropped out of school after the third grade to learn his trade. However, the long-standing decline in demand for hand-made utensils meant that his brothers, all of whom worked as truck drivers, made a far better living. Desperate for cash, Sheikh agreed to throw a grenade at a bus carrying tourists on May 25, 2006.
For the Lashkar, which has suffered a series of command-level losses in Indian counter-terrorist operations, such tactics make eminent sense. While conserving its leadership and crack fidayeen-squad personnel for high-profile operations of particular significance, the Lashkar’s outsourcing of terrorist acts helps the organisation execute enough attacks to demonstrate its presence and resolve.
Consider the facts: the numbers of violent incidents in J&K since 2001 have declined markedly, but fidayeen attacks, bombings and grenade attacks in the first six months of 2006, have almost doubled compared with the same period in 2005. And, while Indian Security Force fatalities have also fallen, killings of policemen – the principal security actors in cities – have also increased this year.
For Indian strategists, this hold holds out two challenges. The first is clearing the Bandipora forests and other mountain regions used as secure bases by terrorist groups, such as the Yaripora-Shopian-Tral belt in south Kashmir or Harwan near Srinagar. Ever since 1999-2000, the Lashkar started developing well-hidden and fortified hideouts in these areas, defended by an elaborate system of lookouts. Now, though, matters have begun to come to a head. Sources indicate that, at a June 20 briefing organised for United Progressive Alliance chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, the Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Deepak Kapoor, argued that the real problem was lack of will among the 31,000 men of the J&K Police and Central Reserve Police Force committed to protecting the State capital. At a subsequent meeting with National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, though, police and intelligence personnel hit back. Officials argued that it was impossible to secure Srinagar unless the Lashkar’s mountain bases were destroyed. Local operatives working for the Lashkar had repeatedly been arrested since 2002, Narayanan was told, but their commanders in Bandipora continued to operate with relative impunity.
What can be done? Since 2000-2001, military strategists have discussed a division-strength operation involving pushing troops south from the Bod Kol river near Gurez, along the LoC, and north through Patwan and Chatarnar, above Bandipora town. However, such action has been deterred by the prospects that many of the estimated 50-75 Pakistani terrorists in the Bandipora forests will, most likely, evade such an operation. Military planners also fear that that an offensive push against well-defended positions could result in casualties not commensurate with the potential dividends: a public-relations disaster. Keeping the forests free of terrorists, once cleared, will also require additional troops – a tall order in the midst of a détente process where several actors are demanding a reduction in force levels.
A second option is to simply wait for attrition to take its course. Indian intelligence estimates suggest that 189 terrorists had succeeded in crossing the LoC between January and May 2006. Before snow closes the mountain passes in November, overall infiltration for 2006 is likely to be somewhat lower than the 2005 figure of 597. Several factors, including improved electronic surveillance, appear to have driven the decline. Although a precise determination of successful infiltration is nigh-impossible, official estimates suggest it has been in steady decline since 2001, when an estimated 2,417 terrorists crossed the LoC. The figure fell to 1,504 in 2002, 1,373 in 2003, and 537 in 2004, rising somewhat in 2005 because of the degradation of India’s forward defences and LoC fencing after the great Kashmir earthquake of October 8, 2005.
Despite the Army’s successes, though, terrorists appear to have been able to part-replenish the materials needed for their ongoing campaign. On June 20, two weeks after a large infiltration attempt was interdicted in the Macchal sector, troops recovered a multi-tonne cache of arms, equipment and explosives, including 338 hand-grenades – the weapon of choice in recent urban terrorist strikes. Large stocks of explosives and communication equipment were also found.
Terrorists have also improved their fencing-penetration skills. Days before a June 29 infiltration attempt in which eight terrorists were killed, another large Lashkar unit had succeeded in cutting the fencing without activating sensors. While the fencing has improved interdiction considerably, an estimated 30 to 40 per cent of the defensive line along the LoC has been destroyed by snowfall, leaving gaps which may take up to six months to repair.
Under other circumstances, current infiltration and violence levels would not be a matter for alarm. Indeed, Indian security planners could take heart from the Lashkar’s changing strategies and read them as a sign that terror groups are under very real pressure. However, continuing violence imposes significant costs on India’s political establishment, limiting its ability to push forward with the peace process.
Two areas of impasse are now key. With its northern Army reserve depleted by counter-insurgency operations in the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan, Pakistan has become increasingly worried about the integrity of its posture along the LoC, and this is the concern underlying President Pervez Musharaf’s frequent and strident demands for Force reduction on the Indian side. India, however, has rejected Pakistan’s calls for a reduction of troops in the region, pointing to continued cross-border infiltration and terrorism in J&K.
Second, and perhaps more important, terrorism restricts India’s ability to move forward on building up a broad-based dialogue with a wide spectrum of political opinion within J&K itself. Marketing political concessions on J&K to an electorate that perceives itself to be under terrorist siege is no easy task, as Prime Minister Singh and his advisors are discovering.
As things stand, the peace process resembles nothing so much as an arch without its keystone – in this case, an end to killing. Now as before, though, the keystone is stored in Islamabad, not New Delhi or Srinagar. Beset as he is with multiple internal crises, few believe that General Musharraf will be able to find the energy to haul it across the LoC any time soon.
Praveen Swami is Deputy Editor and Chief of Bureau, Frontline magazine, New Delhi. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal