‘Can’t Believe He Joined JeM’: Kin of Pulwama Attack ‘Conspirer’

Mudasir Ahmad speaks to the family of the teenager whose car was allegedly used in the Pulwama fidayeen attack.

Updated
India
5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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(This story was first published on 4 March 2019 and is being republished to mark two years of the Pulwama terror attack.)

Barely three hours before Jammu and Kashmir police laid hands on 17-year old *Aamir (despite conflicting news reports on his age, 17 is the age this reporter was told by the family) for his involvement in the 14 February Pulwama suicide car-bomb attack, the teenaged student from volatile southern Kashmir, had vanished from his home.

On 25 February, a picture surfaced on social media, showing the teenager holding a pistol in one hand and an AK-47 in the other, with the message that he had signed up for the fidayeen (suicide) squad of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist outfit.

The same evening, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) (which is probing the 14 February Pulwama suicide bomb attack) issued a detailed statement, revealing the “plot”. It said, the vehicle used in the attack, a Maruti Eeco, was owned by Aamir of Bijbehara’s Marhama village, barely two kms from the Srinagar-Jammu highway. Putting together the car remains, and with the help of forensic and automobile experts, the NIA said it was able to trace the car’s ownership. Before the car was acquired by Aamir 10 days before the suicide bombing, it had exchanged hands seven times, the NIA investigation revealed.

From a ‘Shy’ Student to a Militant

A class XII student, Aamir was a Hifz-e-Quran, one who memorises the holy book. After his initial schooling at Siraj-ul-Uloom, a madrasa in neighboring Shopian, he had returned home to continue studies at Taleem-Ul-Islam, before taking admission at a local higher secondary school.

For his family, Aamir was a “shy and quiet” boy. “He wouldn’t talk much, but every time we sat together, he would reprimand me for not offering prays regularly,” said **Ali, Aamir’s younger brother, sitting inside a room in their modest two-storey house.

Aamir’s uncle Tariq Ahmad, also joined the discussion. “He was more close to me than to his parents. He had no friends, neither in the locality nor in the school. But he had earned huge respect in the entire village for achieving so much (memorising the Quran) at such a young age,” Tariq said.

“Avenging” Afzal Guru’s Death

On the afternoon of 22 February when he went missing, Aamir started his day as usual – he woke up early in the morning for pre-dawn prayers, gave lessons to a group of students from the neighborhood, and then left to offer late afternoon prayers (Asr).

“That is the last time we saw him,” Tariq continued. The same evening, the police summoned Aamir’s father Mohammad Maqbool to the local police station. There, he was asked to call on Aamir’s mobile number to ask him to report to the thana. “But his phone was switched off… that is when the police told us about him (joining Jaish),” said Tariq.

In shock, the family waited the entire night for Aamir to return. In the morning, as hope started to fade, they finally started searching for him, calling every relative, and even travelling to the Shopian madrasa to find if he had gone there.

“We looked for him everywhere,” said Aamir’s younger brother Ali.

But Aamir was nowhere to be found. Three days later, his gun-wielding picture became viral on Facebook; his nom de guerre was Afzal Guru. The JeM has named its fidayeen group the ‘Afzal Guru Squad’, to “avenge” the death of Guru who was hanged for his role in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. “We are shocked to the core and in disbelief about Aamir (joining Jaish),” said Tariq.

A Mother’s Disbelief & Pain

Ever since the news of Aamir flooded headlines, a palpable silence descended over the village. This silence is more palpable at Aamir’s house, though a steady stream of people have continued to visit the family. “I had full trust in him. I never thought he would do it,” Aamir’s mother Gulshan Akhter broke down, surrounded by women from the neighborhood.

Gathering herself, she insisted that her son was “different” from others, as he had started to shoulder the responsibility of the family and would occasionally visit the family orchards.

“He has left us all baffled. How could he do this to me?” Akhter kept repeating. Moments later she continued, “They are saying that my son owned the car,” Akhter said, referring to the statement by the NIA that Aamir’s car was used in the Pulwama attack. “We don’t know anything about it. He never brought the vehicle home. We are at a loss to understand from where he got the money to buy a car,” she continued.

“Had we got so much money, we would have preferred to renovate our house,” she said, her eyes again welling up.

An Alleged Tiff With the Army

While Aamir’s family was at a loss to understand the radicalisation of their son, his uncle Tariq recalled an incident some four months ago, when Aamir was allegedly beaten up by the Army from a local camp, following a heated argument with them outside his house. “There was some issue… an argument followed, and then he was summoned to the camp and beaten there. I went there to get him released,” said Tariq, adding that, before leaving the camp, an Army officer told his nephew to concentrate on his studies.

Did the incident leave any impact on Aamir? “He started to stay indoors more,” said Akhter. According to the family, that was the only “bad incident” Aamir had found himself in after returning from the Shopian madrasa in 2014. “He has never been arrested nor is there any case against him for participating in protests or stone-pelting (on forces),” Tariq asserted.

The 14 February Attack in Pulwama

Recalling the day when Jaish-e-Mohammed suicide-bomber Adil Ahmad Dar rammed the car, owned by Aamir, into the CRPF convoy in Pulwama, Aamir’s uncle Tariq said his nephew sat with him all through the afternoon. “We both searched for the news on my mobile. He was calm as usual and didn’t show any signs of nervousness or panic. In fact, we talked about it (the attack) for some time, and discussed how things could possibly worsen in the coming days, before he went out of the house,” said Tariq.

As he was narrating the events, Aamir’s grandfather Ghulam Mohi-ud-Din, who has been bed-ridden since the teenager’s disappearance, interrupted, “Are you talking about Sahba?” he asked.

Aamir was fondly called called Sahba by his family. “Though he would rarely sit with me, I miss his presence,” the 89-year old said, in a soft tone. “Please tell me what has actually happened. They are saying Sahba won’t return home now. Is it so?” he asked. Complete silence shrouded the room as a few men sitting around the bed-ridden octogenarian exchanged blank looks.

* ** (names of minors changed, to protect identity)

(The writer is a Kashmir-based journalist.)

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