June 14, 2021
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The Red Hot Line

For the first time since 2005, the year-on-year reduction of infiltration across the LoC has reversed. Indian strategists would be ill-advised to assume that the militants are fated to lose their battle for renewal.

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The Red Hot Line

Early in February 2009, at a rally held by jihadi groups in Muzaffarabad, Hizb ul-Mujahideen (HM) chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah — widely known by the pseudonym Syed Salahuddin — ruled out the prospect of peace. 

"Jihad will continue", the Urdu-language newspaper Roznamcha Jasarat reported him as saying, "until the independence of Kashmir [from India]". He lashed out at the Pakistan government for proscribing the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) — both of which were represented at the rally, despite promises from Pakistan to put a stop to their activities. "If there is a setback to the war [in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)] due to the cowardice of the government", Shah said in his capacity as the head of the United Jihad Council, "then this war will need to be fought in Islamabad and Lahore".

Few took Shah’s threats seriously: his once-feared organisation is now estimated to consist of less than a few hundred operational cadre. The HM has not succeeded in carrying out a single operation of consequence in years, an indicator of the depth of its penetration by India’s intelligence and police services. Key commanders, fearful of elimination by the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP), have chosen to remain at their bases in Pakistan rather than take up field positions. Most humiliating of all, dozens of cadre have returned home from Pakistan to their homes in J&K, aided by quiet deals with the authorities.

But as the summer has unfolded, Indian authorities have realised Shah’s threats weren’t entirely idle. For the first time since 2005, the year-on-year reduction of infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC) has reversed. From an historic low of 126 in 2008, estimates compiled by the JKP show, 236 jihadis had crossed the LoC from January to July in 2009. Many of these were HM operatives, often working in close coordination with the LeT. By way of contrast, estimated infiltration stood at 1,504 in 2002, after which Pakistan scaled back support for jihadi groups in the face of Indian war-threats and mounting international pressure.

Not surprisingly, the slow escalation in infiltration threatens the ceasefire that went into place along the LoC in 2003. In July 2009, India’s Parliament was informed that there had been 77 ceasefire violations in 2008, up from 21 in 2007 and 3 in 2006. Most appear to have been the outcome of fire directed by jihadis at Indian forward positions to cover infiltration attempts.

What do these figures mean? And what long-term consequences might they have for J&K?

So far, the surge in infiltration is yet to bring about an increase in violence. JKP records show that 58 civilians have been killed from January to July, down from a total of 147 in 2008 and 170 in 2007. Losses of Indian Security Force (SF) personnel have also continued to decline. Thirty-nine police and military personnel have been killed between January and June, down from 85 in 2008 and 122 in 2007. The number of attacks targeting Indian Forces have also fallen, from 217 in 2007 to 129 in 2008 to just 51 until the end of June 2009.

J&K has seen a steady de-escalation of violence since 2001, when 1,098 civilians were killed and 1,258 were injured. Six hundred and thirteen Security Force personnel and 2,020 terrorists also died. The State has seen no fidayeen (suicide squad) attacks since 2007, when there were two strikes, down from a high of 28 in 2001. Nor have there been any car bombings over the last two years, where there were 13 in 2005.

But the reversal in infiltration trends obviously raises the prospect that J&K could see a renewed wave of violence. Pakistan’s apparent failure to shut down training camps run by anti-India jihadi groups lies at the heart of these fears. India’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony recently told reporters that "even today, dozens of terrorist camps are functioning actively on Pakistan soil."

Both the LeT and JeM, Indian intelligence officials say, have continued to operate facilities despite recent promises. JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar is building a sprawling new seminary outside of his home town, Bahawalpur. In addition, JeM recruits continue to be trained at a facility near Fort Abbas, near the India-Pakistan border in Punjab. 

Lashkar commander Muzammil Bhat, who is believed to have trained the fidayeen assault team that attacked Mumbai in November 2008, is now believed to have taken operational control of the organisation. His predecessor, ‘military chief’ Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, is in jail awaiting trial for his alleged role in the carnage. Last year, western media had reported that Bhat — also known by the aliases ‘Yusuf’ and ‘Mohammad Muzammil’ — had been arrested in a military raid on the Lashkar’s main training base in the Shawai Nullah, near Muzaffarabad. However, Pakistan did not confirm the claims. Indian intelligence sources said Bhat has been sighted at a new Lashkar training facility that has come up some thirty kilometres from Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-administered J&K. 

Earlier in 2009, Roznamcha Jasarat reported that a rally held in Muzaffarabad had attracted "thousands of people, including the representatives and leaders of Pakistan’s banned organizations Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkat-ul- Mujahideen, and Jamaatud Dawa, in addition to the leaders of the Muttahida Jihad Council." Later, Pakistani authorities had promised to shut down the Lashkar-linked Falah-i-Insanyiat ‘charitable trust’, after reports emerged in May 2009 that it was working among refugees from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. No action was, however, eventually taken. In many south Punjab towns and village, the Falah-i-Insaniyat label has been used to keep open Lashkar offices.

Most worrying, from India’s point of view, is Pakistan’s failure to legally proscribe the Lashkar’s parent organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and prosecute its chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. In July, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry chief, Rehman Malik, told its Parliament that the JuD was among twenty-five organisations proscribed in Pakistan. It later emerged, though, that the JuD had merely been removed from a list of charities, not banned. 

One plausible explanation for Pakistan’s refusal to give up its long-standing sponsorship of anti-India jihadis is that its efforts to gain political leverage in J&K have come to nothing. In 2008, massive Islamist-led protests rocked J&K in the wake of the grant of land-use rights to a trust which manages the Shri Amarnath Shrine in southern Kashmir. The protests were read by Kashmiri secessionists — as well as some commentators — as a generalised explosion of mass anti-India sentiment. Later in 2008, however, rural voters came out in overwhelming numbers and defied the secessionists calling for an election boycott.

In 2009, Kashmir has seen sporadic protests, notably in the wake of the alleged rape-murder of two women in the town of Shopian — a crime that secessionists have claimed, so far without evidence, as an atrocity carried out by Indian SFs. But it has become painfully clear both to political separatists and jihadis that the reach of Islamist groups is, at best, limited. Police logs documenting protests reported between May 30, 2009 — the date the bodies of two alleged rape-murder victims were recovered in Shopian — and June 30, 2009 cast interesting light on the real scale of the secessionist constituency. Of 111 protests and clashes recorded by the JKP from May 30, 2009, to June 30, 2009, just 17 took place in rural and semi-urban areas. More than half these rural incidents, moreover, occurred in villages just outside of Shopian town, mainly Meminder, Shirmal and Bonagam. Just four districts in the Kashmir Valley — Srinagar, Shopian, Baramulla and Pulwama — accounted for 92 of the documented protests and clashes. 

Second, the numbers involved in the protests were relatively small. In only ten cases did more than a thousand people participate in demonstrations. Half of these took place in Shopian itself. Of all the 38 protests which led to clashes between the Police and protestors, none involved more than a few hundred people. Most incidents in which Police used lethal force involved only a few dozen protestors, and were the outcome of poor training and discipline.

Finally, the figures contain bad news for the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Bar June 9, 2009, when thousands of students in nine urban centres and one village participated in protests linked to the Shopian case, the Hurriyat’s structured programme of agitation drew few followers. Protests staged by transport operators, lawyers and government employees between June 13 and June 16 led just a few dozen supporters to gather at each venue. Zamrooda Habib’s June 2 women-only sit-in at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk drew just 20 followers. Farida Behanji, who organised a similar protest on June 27, mustered an even smaller number. 

Most of the protests were spearheaded by supporters of Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Geelani’s hardline Tehreek-i-Hurriyat draws heavily on the cadre of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). Not surprisingly, three of four sites at the core of the summer’s protests — Shopian, Pulwama and Baramulla — are historical heartlands of the JeI, whose cadre forms the backbone of secessionist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s hardline Tehreek-i-Hurriyat.

Without the military backbone the HM had once provided, it is clear, the secessionist movement in J&K simply cannot sustain itself.

Can the Hizb ul-Mujahideen re-grow its backbone, destroyed by the haemorrhaging of top commanders to Indian forces from 2003 onwards? Police sources say the code-name ‘Ghazi Misbahuddin’, traditionally assigned to the HM’s overall commander for military operations in J&K is now used by Gandoh-based commander Ghulam Abbas. But beyond funnelling funds, both India’s intelligence services and the JKP say, Abbas has little work: there is no longer any army to command. 

In northern Kashmir, there are similar signs of disarray. Mohammad Shafi, who uses the code names ‘Dawood’ and ‘Doctor’, presides over the small group of operatives still active in northern Kashmir. Born in the village of Papchan, near Bandipora, Shafi is among the HM’s senior-most field operatives. He joined the organisation in 1992, soon after finishing school. But there have been signs in recent years that Shafi’s commitment to the jihad is waning. Police sources say he initiated communications with the authorities in 2007-2008, to explore an exit route.

Both Qayoom Najar and Majid Bisati, Shafi’s key lieutenants, are believed to have sought to integrate their operations with those of the LeT. However, the effort fell through because the Lashkar itself had haemorrhaged commanders in counter-terrorism operations targeting the group.

In the central Kashmir area, the HM has only one significantly active unit. Mushataq Ahmad, a one-time resident of the village of Vorpach near Ganderbal, leads a group of three ethnic-Kashmiris and two Pakistani nationals. Despite the political significance of Ganderbal — J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s constituency — the HM has been unable to mount any operations of consequence in the area.

Things aren’t much better for the HM in southern Kashmir. The organisation’s top bomb-making expert, Pervez Ahmad Dar — known by the code name ‘Pervez Musharraf’ — executed a number of attacks on military convoys while serving as the Awantipora-area commander. He has, however, been unable to stage a major attack in over a year. Shabbir Ahmad, named in Police records as the perpetrator of the killings of at least three civilians in the recent Lok Sabha elections in J&K, has also carried out no significant attacks since.

Mudassir Ahmad Shah, the third major Hizb ul-Mujahideen operative still active in the Awantipora area, has also had little recent success. Born in the village of Gadikhal, near Awantipora, Shah came from a family with an Islamist tradition; his father, Abdul Ahad Shah, was a Jamaat-e-Islami activist of long standing. Having joined the organisation while studying to become a dentist, police sources say, Shah trained as an improvised explosive device fabricator — an enterprise which cost him an eye. He is alleged to have been responsible for a string of bombings in Srinagar and Banihal in 2006-2007. Police say Shah left for Pakistan in 2007, before returning home in May 2008, but has done little since. Like his north Kashmir counterparts, his unit has been attempting to tap the operational resources of the Lashkar, to no avail.

Perhaps the only significant sized HM unit in southern Kashmir is the Kellar-based group of Fayyaz Pir, which is thought to have recruited at least twelve Shopian residents to its ranks in recent weeks. Sangarwani-born Pir is thought to have joined the HM seven years ago, and stuck with the organisation even as its south Kashmir leadership was annihilated in a successful Police-led campaign that began in 2006. Pir’s new recruits, though, have received only rudimentary training in the Pir Panjal mountains, rather than formal military instruction at the HM’s camps in Pakistan. Perhaps predictably, the group has been unable to stage a single major operation.

Despite past reverses, there remains a risk that, given the renewed push across the LoC, the HM may regain at least a part of its earlier operational capability. Indian strategists would be ill-advised to assume that the militants are fated to lose their battle for renewal.

Praveen Swami is Associate Editor, The Hindu, New Delhi. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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