The 294 kilometer long Srinagar-Jammu national highway has often been in the news mainly for two reasons: fatal road accidents killing hundreds of passengers, and deadly militant attacks on security forces.
The highway, which is considered a lifeline for Kashmir, has remained in the worst condition, as landslides, shooting stones and sinking areas have caused hundreds of fatal accidents.
Since 2013, militants have chosen this highway to launch deadly attacks on convoys of security forces, making the journey of travellers here even more perilous.
Over the past seven years, travellers have recounted horrific images, of the highway being marred with gory scenes, bullets, and deadly explosions, killing dozens of security forces.
The repeated attacks on the highway have sent shockwaves through the security apparatus as, despite counter-measures — installing surveillance cameras, increasing deployment to protect the highway and disallowing civilian transport during the convoy movement –– the militants have proven their ability to strike hard and at will.
What Makes Jammu-Srinagar National Highway Susceptible To Terror Attacks?
The 100 kilometre-long highway stretch between Jawahar Tunnel and Srinagar bypass, which passes through the volatile southern Kashmir districts, is considered vulnerable. Over the years the stretch has become a ‘hunting ground’ for militants, with at least 82 security personnel’s lives being claimed there alone.
When asked why a number of militant attacks are happening on the highway, former Director General of Jammu and Kashmir Police, SP Vaid told The Quint that there are so many openings and exit points on the highway which are useful to militants to carry out attacks on security forces. “These entry and exit points on the highway give an edge to the militants to carry out attacks and escapes,” said Vaid.
He added that these attacks are not new, and there was a spate of militant attacks on this highway during his time as well.
In February 2019, at least 40 CRPF men were killed after a Jaish-e-Mohammad suicide bomber rammed an explosive-laden car into the 55-seater bus they were travelling in at Lethpora Awantipora, on the highway.
The attack, carried out near Pampore town outside Srinagar city, has been the deadliest militant attack on security forces thus far, that even resulted in a war-like situation between India and Pakistan.
“A series of attacks that follow a pattern of targeting security convoys has made the busy highway, connecting the valley with the rest of the country, a death trap for security forces,” said a senior police officer who claimed to have done his duty on the highway.
A Surge In Attacks On Jammu-Srinagar Highway Since 2013
Since 2013, there has been a surge of militant attacks on the highway, and the brain behind such highway attacks, according to the police, was Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Chief Commander Abu Qasim.
Qasim, according to the police, infiltrated Jammu and Kashmir in 2013. On 24 June 2013, Qasim along with his squad, launched a major strike on the army convoy on the highway near Hyderpora, Srinagar, killing eight army soldiers and injuring 16.
On 6 June 2015, the Lashkar outfit carried out another deadly attack on the Border Security Force (BSF) convoy on Srinagar-Jammu national highway near Udhampur in Jammu. Two BSF men were killed and eight were injured, when a group of militants attacked a convoy near Samroli in Udhampur district. Qasim, who had allegedly masterminded the attack, was killed in October that year.
Qasim was replaced by another foreign militant, Abu Dujana, who took over Lashkar-e-Taiba’s command in the Valley. Dujana, who reportedly escaped from dozens of cordons, was an ‘A++ militant’ as per police records, with a bounty of Rs 12.5 lakh on his head.
During 2015-16 Dujana had made the Anantnag-Baramulla highway stretch quite unsafe for security forces, forcing them to step up the security along the highway.
Police believed that he was the mastermind behind many attacks, including the June 2016 ambush on a paramilitary convoy at Pampore, on the old highway, in which eight CRPF troopers were killed and 20 troopers injured.
On 26 June 2016, eight paramilitary CRPF troopers were killed and 20 others injured when militants attacked their convoy at Frestbal near Pampore on the old Srinagar-Jammu national highway.
Prior to this attack, on 3 June, militants ambushed the Border Security Force (BSF) convoy near Bijbehara on Srinagar-Jammu national highway and killed three BSF personnel and critically injured four others.
Who Is The Main Brain Behind Attacks On The Highway?
Police considered Dujana as the mastermind behind these major attacks. “He had masterminded the attacks in the multi-storey building housing the Entrepreneurship Development Institute. Besides, he used to provide logistical support for the fidayeen attacks,” said a police officer.
On 21 February 2016, five CRPF troopers and a civilian were killed after militants attacked a CRPF convoy and then stormed the landmark EDI building on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. An ensuing encounter lasted about 48 hours and ended with the killing of three militants. JKEDI complex located on the highway, which trains and finances young men and women to be entrepreneurs saw another militant holdup in October leaving an army soldier injured.
Two months later on 17 December 2016, three army soldiers were killed after militants targeted an army convoy in Pampore town along the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway. The attackers riding a motorbike appeared from a bylane and opened indiscriminate fire at the army convoy, which was moving slowly amid the traffic.
The spate of militant attacks on the highway continued, and on 24 June 2017, two CRPF troopers were killed and another one injured after heavily-armed militants attacked a CRPF patrol party in Pantha Chowk area on the Srinagar-Jammu National Highway in Srinagar. This time again the LeT claimed responsibility.
The Indian Express reported that Dujana was considered by security agencies to be the mastermind behind several attacks in south Kashmir, such as the one on a CRPF convoy at Pampore and another at the EDI complex. Officials said that he was the mastermind behind most of the fidayeen attacks that took place on the national highway in southern Kashmir.
Lashkar’s Role In Terror Attacks On Security Personnel
In August 2017, Dujana was killed in a gunfight with security forces, but other militants followed in his footprints. The attacks on the highway masterminded by other Lashkar militants like Naveed Jatt and Abu Ismail, continued.
On 1 September 2017, a policeman was killed and seven others were injured when LeT militants ambushed a police bus on the highway at Pantha Chowk area on the outskirts of Srinagar.
Soon after this attack, an LeT outfit, on 14 September 2017, suffered a major blow when top commander Abu Ismail and his associate, Abu Kasim, were eliminated in a gunfight at Nowgam, Srinagar. Ismail was killed only a month after the death of Abu Dujana.
From here, Naveed Jatt alias Hanzalla, managed the outfit and continued to launch deadly attacks on the security forces.
On 4 December 2017, a group of LeT militants fired upon an army patrolling party in Qazigund area of south Kashmir on the highway, leaving three soldiers injured. One of the injured soldiers died later.
Similarly, on 20 June 2018, a policeman was killed and two others injured in a militant attack on a police vehicle near Galander bypass on highway.
On 14 July 2018, militants attacked a BSF convoy on the national highway in Udhampur killing two BSF personnel and injuring 11 others.
How A Jaish-e-Mohammad-Linked Outfit Started A Series Of Attacks
After these attacks, in November 2018, Jatt was also gunned down in Budgam gunfight. After his killing, the LeT could not carry out strikes on security forces. Pakistan-born Lashkar-e-Taiba militant Jatt made headlines, when in February 2018, he bolted from police custody in Srinagar’s Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital while undergoing medical examination.
“Jatt was really a headache for the forces, and several operations were launched to trap him. His killing was a major success because he was launching most of the attacks on the highway,’’ a senior police officer told The Quint.
From 2019 onwards, a Jaish-e-Mohammad-linked militant outfit started following a similar pattern and launched deadly attacks on the forces.
Jaish recruited local suicide attackers who carried out fidayeen attacks on security forces at various places, mainly on the highway.
The Pulwama attack, which left 40 CRPF troopers dead, is considered as the deadliest militant attack so far, and it was carried out by a local Jaish militant Adil Dar.
Since August 2019, when the Government of India revoked the state of Jammu and Kashmir's constitutional autonomy and split it into two union territories, J&K and Ladakh, no major militant attack has occurred on the highway.
However, Jaish and The Resistance Front (TRF) – a newly formed militant outfit –continues to launch and claim deadly attacks on security forces in Jammu and Kashmir.
Fewer Attacks On Jammu-Srinagar Highway Since Pulwama Strike?
On 5 February 2020, a CRPF trooper was killed in an exchange of fire between militants and security forces on the highway in LawayPora area in Srinagar. However, three militants were also killed in the shootout.
On 7 April 2020, a CRPF trooper was killed and another injured when a militant hurled a grenade at a patrolling party near Goriwan along the old national highway in Bijbehara town in Anantnag district.
An eight-year-old boy and a CRPF trooper were killed in a militant attack on 25 June on an old highway in Bijbehara area of Anantnag district.
Recently, on 14 August, two policemen were killed after militants fired indiscriminately on a police party in Nowgam bypass along the highway.
Additional Director General of CRPF, Zulfiqar Hasan, while talking to The Quint, admitted that the highway is vulnerable for security forces – but quickly added that it is not prone to militant attacks. “After the deadly Pulwama attack there hasn’t been many attacks on highway. It is a long highway and security forces are always active but very rarely do militants manage to carry out attacks there.”
Hasan added that the number of attacks after Pulwama had reduced, and that the government had taken strict security measures to counter these attacks.
(Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Kashmir and he tweets @irfanaminmalik. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)