Pulwama Terror Strike
Tilak Devasher, Consultant, VIF

The 14th February Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror strike on a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in Pulwama that led to the death of 40 personnel was the most lethal strike against the security forces since terrorism began in Kashmir. The timing of the attack and its nature are significant.

Media reports had indicated attempts by terrorists to stage a spectacular attack around 05 February to coincide with the so-called Kashmir Solidarity Day observed by Pakistan since 1990. Another target date was 09 February coinciding with the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru who had been indicted for his role in the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Preparations for such an attack had commenced earlier with reports about the infiltration into Kashmir in December 2018 of JeM’s IED expert Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, an Afghan veteran. However, preventive action by the security forces deterred such attempts.

Nevertheless, the terrorists were on the lookout for another target of opportunity. Inclement weather had prevented the movement of CRPF convoys from Jammu to Srinagar. As a result, two such convoys had to be bunched together on 14 February. The terrorists were aware of this large movement, prepared an ambush on the Pampore-Letapur section of the Jammu-Srinagar highway and lay in wait with a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED).

Two other factors are relevant here. One, the JeM claimed responsibility for the attack almost immediately. Second, a video that went viral on social media saw the perpetrator record a farewell message that was released after the attack.

Given the nature of the attack (VBIED), the quantity of the explosives used (300-350 kg) and the target, it is obvious that this was not an attack planned and implemented by a local Kashmiri terrorist. For one thing, the explosive is believed to be RDX that is available only with military establishments and not obtainable locally. It requires some amount of expertise to shape and prime it into a detonable bomb. It was clearly an attack carried out by Pak-based JeM operatives under the directives of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The local Kashmiri youth was merely a dispensable tool to act as the trigger for the explosion.

Thus, while local Kashmiris joining the depleting terrorist ranks is a worrisome trend that needs to be urgently addressed, the reality is that teeth to terrorist activity continues to be given by Pakistani terrorists. Pakistani propaganda that the happenings in the Valley are Kashmiri-driven needs to be viewed in this perspective and the realistic picture presented.

A major factor in the timing is the assessment in Pakistan that given the imminent US pullout from Afghanistan, they would be in a position to install their nominees, the Taliban, in power in Kabul. This would enable them to redeploy some of their terror ‘assets’ from the Afghan theatre to Kashmir. This is what had happened in the late 1980s after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan believes that it can replicate the same strategy thirty years later.

The security forces would have to guard against the possibility that the 14 February VBIED attack does not become a precursor of more such attacks and a general escalation of terror in Kashmir. For one thing, the attack indicates that IEDs have made a comeback in the Valley after many years. There have been only three VBIED attacks since terrorism began in Kashmir though none were as devastating as the one on 14 February.

While gunfights and grenade attacks are likely to continue, the security forces would have to once again contend with the IED phenomenon henceforth. Redeployment of resources, both men and material, from Afghanistan would have to be especially watched out for.Apart from the perpetrator of the 14 February attack, it is not known yet how many more youth Ghazis would have trained. This would also have to be factored into security reviews.

Of late, the JeM seems to have become the favourite terrorist vehicle for the Pak ISI. It has been trying for some time to position itself as the main terrorist organization in the Valley. One reason for this is that efforts are afoot to mainstream the earlier favourite Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Toiba (JuD/LeT) so as to take it out of the international limelight that its jihadi activities had brought it into. In fact, one of the primary reasons for Pakistan being put on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) ‘grey list’ was the activities of the JuD and its charity wing, the Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF). As part of the mainstreaming project, the JuD formed a political party, the Milli Muslim League (MML). It put up nearly 260 candidates under a different registered political party, Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, in Pakistan’s 2018 general and provincial elections. Though it did not win any seats, it did garner a surprising number of votes.

The JeM has the dubious distinction of carrying out the first suicide bombing in Kashmir, in which five Indian soldiers were killed in early 2000s. In October 2001, it carried out a bombing near the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, killing 38 people. In December 2001, JeM and LeT terrorists launched a suicidal attack on the Indian Parliament that was foiled by the security forces. It was in this connection that Afzal Guru was sentenced to death. More recently, the JeM has been responsible for the attack on the Pathankot air base in January 2016 and on the Uri brigade headquarters in September 2016.

The JeM is largely a Punjab-based Deobandi organization headquartered in Bahawalpur in South Punjab. This is also the area from where the Pakistan army does much of its recruitment. It has had strong ties to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. While the declared objective of the JeM is to ‘liberate’ Kashmir by merging it with Pakistan, for it this is only the beginning. Kashmir is perceived to be a "gateway" to India where jihad would be carried out once Kashmir is ‘liberated’.

In Pakistan’s calculations, a terror strike of this magnitude should have made India come to the negotiating table in a weakened position. In reality, the opposite has happened. The strike has united the country and greatly strengthened its resolve to oppose and fight the terror factory of Pakistan. In fact, the CRPF is such a unique pan-India organization that the martyred men belonged to as many as 16 states of the country. Their funerals has unified the country and the political leadership cutting across party lines and the common refrain has been to seek retribution. Prime Minister Modi has articulated such emotions by making it clear in no uncertain terms that those responsible for the terror attack and their backers would have pay a heavy price. He has also stated that the security forces have been given a free hand for this purpose. Such a commitment would not have been made lightly but only after factoring in the unity of the sentiments of outrage felt all over the country.

(Tilak Devasher is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India ,and currently Member, National Security Advisory Board)

Image Source: https://defenceaviationpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Pakistan-based-terror-groups-fund-terrorism-in-Jammu-and-Kashmir-through-charity.jpg

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