Awantipora Attack: Local Suicide Squads, the New Twist in J&K Saga
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On 13 July 1999, even as the Indian Army achieved its final success in Kargil, a new phenomenon unfolded in the Kashmir Valley. A small group of foreign terrorists (FTs) staked out a company of the Rashtriya Rifles in north Kashmir and executed an intrusion into its camp resulting in heavy casualties among the Security Forces (SF). Within a few days, other SF camps were struck with a couple of such actions for which they were unprepared.
Earlier Foreign Terrorists Used to Outnumber Local Terrorists
Those were the days when the ratio of FTs to local terrorists (LTs) was skewed almost completely in favour of the former. These sneak actions were termed by terrorists as Fedayeen. The latter is a phenomenon associated with Palestinian suicide squads. It literally means – ‘those who sacrifice themselves in the name of God’.
In the context of J&K, it meant a transformation of the sub-conventional conflict in the sense that till July 1999, FTs in groups of about 6-8 terrorists challenged the SF in villages, towns, jungles and mountain tops but scrupulously avoided coming near the camps.
They hoped to tie them down to their camps and force an out-of-proportion effort by SF to lay emphasis on defensive measures instead of offensive counter terror operations. Some high profile actions by the Fedayeen did manage to place the SF on the defensive as the latter devised new tactical methods of countering them. Casualties mounted in such actions witnessed at various HQ and units including a daring attempt on the entrance to HQ 15 Corps where the Public Relations Officer (PRO) and others were killed on 3 November 1999.
Comeback of the Fedayeen Trend
All these Fedayeen actions were executed by Pakistanis recruited from west Punjab with some on death row and others designated as terminal HIV cases. At least two cases of suicide bombing were carried out by local Kashmiris in this period, but by and large the local Kashmiri footprint in Fedayeen was absent.
Better preparedness by the Indian SF and inability to find volunteers as recruit led to the eventual tapering off.
The Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), that was looking for a new avatar after being in the dog house for a while, focused on Fedayeen and managed some successful sneak actions against SF camps.
Inducting Local Kashmiris in the Fedayeen Squad
On 31 December 2017, the JeM executed a sneak action against the CRPF Letapura camp near Avantipura. The difference in this was the composition of the Fedayeen squad. The three-man squad had at least two local terrorists.
How does the presence of locals in such squads change the nature of proxy conflict and thereby the threats? South Kashmir is an ideologically more energetic segment where after Burhan Wani’s killing, the terrorist movement involving local youth has taken shape. While the presence of FTs still persists it is mainly restricted to north and central Kashmir.
Inducting an FT Fedayeen squad is cumbersome and involves recruitment, training, motivation, infiltration and concentration at safe houses. The chances of discovery and attrition are far greater besides the time taken to execute an action. The JeM along with its handlers has belied the belief that Kashmiris do not believe in suicide acts and has probably more volunteers-in-waiting. If this recruitment drive gets further success there could be an army of such youth willing to be members of suicide squads. There would be no need for infiltration and safe houses because locals need none of that.
Fedayeen actions could be executed more frequently and with the help of locals working at SF establishments; all these personnel would immediately become suspect resulting in more alienation. Fardeen Khanday’s eight-minute video aired on social media, in Burhan Wani’s tradition, reveals how the young man had been radicalised in three months. His beliefs appear to relate him to the Islamic Caliphate type of ideology; the larger brotherhood of the Islamic Ummah.
Challenge for Indian Security Forces
With mosque power at its height, the youth in revolt mode and alienation of general public, a phenomenon which appears not to be waning, the signs for this winter and beyond appear ominous, not the least because of the threat of multiple Fedayeen squads which will force a far greater defensive mentality on the SF.
If this trend translates to the next level, which is suicide bombing with ‘strap on’ explosives and explosive laden cars in the Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan mode, the Indian SF would have a new challenge on their hands.
For enhanced security against local Fedayeen there would be a need for sharper intelligence for which funding should never be a constraint, constantly improving infrastructure of camps and establishments (the Letapura camp is reported to have had the usual glitches) and most importantly a rapid counter radicalisation exercise which needs an ‘all hands on deck’ approach. The meaning of outreach needs redefining but continued military domination is the key.
(Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain is a former GOC of the army’s 15 Corps and now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. 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.)
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