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New terror tactics — lethal Kokernag ambush illustrates jihadist strategy aimed at tying down troops

New Delhi: Fourteen years ago, as violent mobs blockaded roads and battled police in the southern Kashmir town of Shopian, a police officer volunteered to serve as India’s eyes and ears in the de-facto liberated zone. Then Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Ghulam Hasan Bhat, his superiors recalled, would travel through the city in civilian clothes, on an ageing 100cc motorcycle, gathering information for the Criminal Intelligence Department.

The retired officer saluted his son’s coffin in Srinagar on Wednesday — a graphic illustration that the conflict in Kashmir hasn’t ended, notwithstanding comforting headlines.

The killing of the 2018-batch Deputy Superintendent of Police Humayun Bhat in a terrorist ambush near Kokernag — together with Colonel Manpreet Singh and Major Aashish Dhonchak — is just the latest evidence that jihadists are successfully adopting new tactics to tie down Indian forces, and keep their influence alive.

“Even while we’ve been congratulating ourselves on dismantling local support networks and containing jihadist recruitment, jihadist commanders have been implementing strategies that need neither, but tie down tens of thousands of soldiers and police personnel nonetheless,” a Kashmir-based intelligence officer told ThePrint. 

The new jihadist units, intelligence officers told ThePrint, operate out of caves and shepherds’ shelters on the Pir Panjal mountains — the towering 5,000-metre-plus range which separates the Kashmir region from Jammu — eschewing contact with networks of Islamist supporters in hamlets and towns, and making little effort to recruit local residents.

Ever since the execution-style killing of five soldiers at Chamrel in 2021 — who had slept off in a shepherd’s hut after their patrol became trapped in bad weather, according to intelligence sources — there have been more than a dozen significant attacks on the Pir Panjal mountains.

These have included an ambush in Kulgam, where three soldiers were picked off during a search operation targeting suspected terrorist hideouts deep in the Halan forests; the killing of five jawans on the road to Bhimber Gali, near Poonch; and the killing of five more soldiers in the Kandi forests above Rajouri. 

Following several of these attacks, body-camera footage of the attacks was released by the perpetrators. Even though extended operations took place after each of these attacks, the perpetrators succeeded in escaping. 

“In most cases, we believe that the groups concerned crossed the Line of Control (LoC) back into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir soon after the attacks. This is a marked departure from the past, where jihadist groups would remain in a region for months, or even for years,” a military officer said.

The burial of Bahawalpur-born Abdul Rehman, also known as Abu Qasim, drew tens of thousands in 2015. Two villages fought pitched battles for the honour of burying him. His successor, Abu Dujana — married to a local woman, Rukayyah Dar — appeared at the 2016 funeral of jihadist social-media icon Burhan Wani, to ecstatic applause.

“Following the events of 2018,” an intelligence officer familiar with Lashkar-e-Taiba said, “the organisation’s leadership concluded that this kind of visibility contributed to the undoing of its networks in Kashmir. Low-profile and quiet is the new mantra.”

Terrorists’ new tactics

Exactly what happened in Kokernag has not been disclosed by authorities, but security officers who spoke to ThePrint said three joint police and military patrol set off on Tuesday to conduct reconnaissance on the ridgeline above Gadool, a village perched above the town of Kokernag. 

The patrol, the sources said, was divided into three groups, spearheaded by an advance patrol. The three officers, the officers said, were in the middle group.

Likely, the sources said, terrorists perched on the ridgeline identified the three officers who were in full uniform, and marked out their group for an ambush. The terrorists also prevented the evacuation of the officers, two of whom survived their injuries for several hours.

Firing has continued since Wednesday, and there are reports two terrorists might still be trapped in the area. “This is densely forested terrain, which favours the attacker. Finding one or two men in kilometres of high-altitude forest is no small task,” an officer said.

The ridgeline over Kokernag marks a kind of crossroads of paths through the Pir Panjal, linking the Kashmir valley with the Rajouri-Poonch region, used by shepherds, Gujjar buffalo-herders and small traders supplying local markets.

Local politics in the mountains has been roiled by the government’s decision to provide reservations for the Pahari-speaking community. The decision has enraged Gujjars and Bakarwals, who long served as important sources of information for security forces operating in the mountains.

“There is this sense among the Gujjars that they have been disempowered in favour of the upper-caste Hindus and Muslims, despite supporting India,” a police officer said. “The resentment might be justified or otherwise, but there is little doubt that it has certainly choked the flow of information.” 

Also Read: Anantnag encounter: Intel-based ops gone haywire, more casualties feared, hunt for 2 terrorists on 

Lashkar-e-Taiba links

Little has become known about the jihadist groups feeding the new campaign, but responsibility for the Kokernag attack has been claimed by The Resistance Front (TRF) — a front organisation, the Ministry of Home Affairs says, for Lashkar. The TRF is alleged to be responsible for several of the major attacks since 2021.

The command of the Lashkar units on the Pir Panjal, intelligence officers say, rests with Sajid Saifullah Jatt, also known as Sajid Langda or ‘Sajid-the-Lame’. A veteran of operations in the Kulgam area, who married a local woman, Sajid now lives at his family’s dairy farm near Lahore.

According to Indian intelligence officers, Sajid’s network uses small-time criminals and cross-border narcotics traffickers, organised by Mohammad Qasim, a one-time resident of Angrela village near Mahore.

Ease of terrorist operation across the LoC has been enhanced by the thinning out of troops necessitated by the crisis in Ladakh. “There just isn’t an infinite number of soldiers,” a Kashmir-based officer noted. “The answer isn’t pumping in ever more troops. That’s just what the Inter-Services Intelligence would like to see us do.”

Growing complacency

Low levels of violence — which, according to the independent Institute for Conflict Management have been in decline since 2018, as measured by civilian and security force fatalities — sometimes induce police and military officers into relaxing their guard, the officer noted. 

“For every big incident, the reality for most security force units is that months and years pass without contact with terrorists.”

Even though violence levels are low, the data shows, they are similar to the period to the levels seen from 2008 to 2014 — a period which was punctuated by several spectacular fidayeen suicide-squad attacks and bombings.

Following India’s cross-LoC strike in 2016, intended to stamp out jihadist camps, jihadist groups staged multiple fidayeen attacks. The near-war of 2019, which followed the bombing at Pulwama, led Pakistan to rein-in terrorist groups, and reinstate a ceasefire on the LoC. 

Low-level infiltration has continued, though attacks have been maintained at a threshold that would not provoke India into military conflict, intelligence officers believe.

“All the emphasis on new tools like drones and communications intelligence technologies are great, but too many commanders are ignoring basic skills that were learned the hard way in the 1990s,” a senior intelligence officer told ThePrint.

The key lessons, the officer said, were the cultivation of information sources in local communities, and the ability to stage small-force operations. A division-sized operation staged in Kupwara in 2003, intended to evict terrorists from high-altitude forests, infamously ended with the recovery of a single long-dead body. “Tramping across the mountains en masse searching for a couple of terrorists hasn’t ever been very successful,” the officer noted.

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: 18 LeT men involved in 26/11 still at large, says Pakistan counter-terror ‘Red Book’ — ‘key ID info known’ 


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