Is Pakistan’s ‘Operation TRF’ An Effort to ‘Secularise’ Terrorism?

Challenge in J&K now is to neutralise terrorists on ground, and change the narrative around the ‘rebel’ TRF outfit.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
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TRF, or The Resistance Front, is the latest among the terror groups creating waves on the dark web as well on ground in Kashmir, after claiming responsibility for several recent terror attacks on security forces.

TRF began roaring from the servers of GHQ Rawalpindi in October 2019 once it became clear that Pakistan wasn’t going to be taken out of the Grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – the anti-terror financing watchdog – anytime soon. On various telegram channels, it began circulating jihadi literature, in classic Pakistan military propaganda language, on Kashmir. TRF wasn’t alone. Joint Kashmir Front, Jammu Kashmir Ghaznavi Force, and many such new groups, suddenly mushroomed overnight.

Deadly Blows to Hizbul & Jaish

Security top brass at the National Security Council Secretariat in New Delhi had been closely monitoring these activities. “This is an amalgamation of terrorist groups fronted by the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba of UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed. On the ground, cadres of all groups commonly move together using common Over Ground Workers (OGW) and hideouts. However, supply chain for weapons and money are strictly distinct,” reveals a source aware of the development.

Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed have been hit very hard and are short of weapons, money and cadres after the Article 370 abrogation which resulted in a communication blackout and an extended lockdown which continues now due to COVID-19 pandemic in Jammu & Kashmir. Lashkar-e-Tayyiba still remains better off with its finances and is being well supported from across the border in Pakistan.

‘Secular’ Terror Group in Kashmir?

“TRF is a ploy on two fronts – one, to get deniability in terms of linkages with Pakistan, and two, to bring all terrorist cadres under one common umbrella,” the source further revealed.

However, inputs with Jammu & Kashmir Police as early as January revealed an attempt by the “ISI to secularise terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir by doing away with Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen, and merging them into one common non-religious label to make it look like an indigenous rebel movement with a modern outlook”. The input said, “While the ISI would be trying to put more emphasis on suicide bombings in the pattern of LTTE without assigning any hardcore religious overtones, they would be investing in creating public unrest in Kashmir and a global image of a humanitarian crisis in the Valley.”

NSA Briefed About Security Situation in J&K

National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, over the weekend, chaired a high-level briefing for an operational review of the security situation in Jammu & Kashmir, especially along the Line of Control (LOC). The meeting, which was attended by RAW Chief Samant Kumar Goel, IB Chief Arvind Kumar, and Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Narvane, among others, happened days after the Handwara operation in which the Indian Army lost a Commanding Officer and four other soldiers and jawans.

The NSA was briefed about Pakistan’s TRF Operation which was referred to as the Terror Revival Front or Fund of Pakistan, to easily escape the eyes of the United Nations Security Council’s 1267 sanctions committee, or the FATF.

While the NSA focussed on synergy between forces in anti-terror ops, he also focussed on gathering more human intelligence from the ground to thwart the nefarious designs of Pakistan. The meeting also noted that, “Pakistan had failed to control cross-border infiltration under pressure of jihadi leaders of Jaish, Lashkar and Hizbul, and was pushing in terrorists which it would continue to do through May and June this year,” said a top security official who attended the meeting.

Intel inputs about a possible suicide attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed during Ramzan or around the 17th day of Ramzan (which is also marked as the day the Battle of Badr was won) in J&K was also discussed in the meeting.

The security establishment had recently stopped the convoy movement of the Army and paramilitary across the Union Territory due to the perceived high-level nature of the threat.

Is Hizbul Mujahideen Even Relevant Anymore?

With the killing of its Chief Operational Commander Riyaz Naikoo in Pulwama on 6 May, the Hizbul Mujahideen has received its deadliest blow since the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016. Naikoo, apart from being the longest surviving terrorist, was also the focal point of networking as well as money and arms collection for the terror ranks and the Over Ground Workers (OGWs). While Hizbul cadre may not be as battle-hardened as their Jaish counterparts, their Over Ground Workers are spread across the Valley, and often used by other terror outfits as well. “Yet, the OGW network is so strong and wide that they often get exposed easily,” reveals an Intelligence officer tracking these networks.

Riyaz Naikoo’s body being buried silently in Sonmarg of North Kashmir is an important sign of tough policy shift by the security establishment.

Indian Army’s Shift In Policy On Terrorists In J&K

The mass funerals for terrorists that were earlier allowed in Kashmir, often led to terror recruitment drives which in-turn radicalised youth to join terror ranks. Not handing over mortal remains of terrorists to family members is an important and clear message to the common people to avoid this violent path.

The shift in policy could also be seen in the Indian Army deciding not to officially name terrorists killed in the Pulwama encounter.

Colonel Aman Anand, Indian Army spokesperson, told this reporter: “Indian Army won’t name the terrorists killed in Pulwama. Security forces are the heroes who eliminated 4 terrorists within 24 hours. We shall not glorify these terrorists by releasing their names. They are just terrorists.”

For now, the terror ranks are continuing recruitment, and have had a temporary change in their command structure. Hizbul Mujahideen, in a statement by its Spokesperson Saleem Hashmi on 10 May, said that it had decided that the “Chief Operational Commander of Hizbul Mujahideen will be Ghazi Haider and his Deputy would be Zafarul Islam, while Chief Military Advisor would be Abu Tariq Bhai”. Top security agencies who have been trying to crack these new code names reveal that Ghazi Haider could be Dr Saifullah, who, untill now, was the Deputy Operations Commander of the terror outfit, while his deputy could be Junaid Sehrai, who is the son of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat Chairman Ashraf Sehrai.

‘Political Armed Movement in India’

In the Summer of 2012, a day before the India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary level dialogue, my phone rang with an unknown Pakistan number on display. The voice on the other side, who identified himself as Saleem Hashmi, said that “Mohammad Yusuf Shah Sahab was ready to give me an interview” over violence and bloodshed in Kashmir amidst the India-Pakistan dialogue. The following day, the Pakistan Foreign Secretary was to meet key Kashmiri separatist leaders in New Delhi before meeting his Indian counterpart.

“I am on the road traveling,” announced Mohammad Yusuf Shah, better known as Syed Salahuddin, Chief of the designated terror group Hizbul Mujahideen, as he began speaking. “I can speak to you in English, Urdu or even Kashmiri but the voice is breaking and I have to address a religious gathering soon,” he said.

From the much older videos that I had seen before, I could sense that the voice was indeed of Salahuddin. Later that year, the NIA would quiz me about the conversation and request a transcript which I provided to the agency for their knowledge and investigation.

The details were later mentioned in a terror hawala case against Salahuddin, where I recognised his voice.

I only wanted to ask Salahuddin why he wouldn’t stop bloodshed and terror. “Dialogue is useless, armed struggle will continue,” he announced, as he began speaking in fluent English. What, however, caught my attention eight years later, that is now, was his next sentence: “It will be a statewide political armed movement in India until Kashmir remains a territory under the military,” Salahudin pledged.

Indian Security Forces Eliminated About 80 Terrorists Since January 2020 in J&K

With Pakistan’s latest attempt to instigate violence in India on several domestic issues (CAA, Delhi Riots, COVID-19) – as visible through the tweets of Imran Khan, and Hizbul cadre in Punjab being arrested – Salahuddin’s words indeed are beginning to see the light of day. Pakistani deep state’s idea of ‘bleeding India through a thousand cuts’ is being experimented with for the last several months, even as Islamabad gets little diplomatic or proxy military success in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, which has been relatively peaceful ever since the abrogation of Article 370.

Meanwhile, Syed Salahuddin, while addressing Hizbul cadres in a video dated 7 May, has admitted that Indian security forces had eliminated about 80 terrorists since January 2020 in Jammu & Kashmir.

In his address, while offering prayers for Riyaz Naikoo, Salahuddin said: “While the Mujahideen have broken the back of India in Handwara and Rajwar recently, India has an edge over us now in Kashmir.” Salahuddin blamed the policies of the Imran Khan government in Pakistan, and its lack of initiative to support the people of Kashmir, apart from pressure from the international community for it.

War Against ‘Invisible Ecosystem’ of Terror

The war isn’t just against the terror groups on ground. It’s also against the invisible ecosystem of terror, prevalent for last three decades, which has encouraged and given life to terror, radicalism and an anti-India mindset in the mainstream press, politics and the larger discourse.

As security forces prepare for yet another hot summer in Kashmir, the challenge wouldn’t just be to neutralise terrorists on ground but also the narrative in international media and diplomacy around a ‘crisis in Kashmir’, and the so called indigenous rebel group ‘TRF’ – invented within the closed doors of GHQ Rawalpindi. If New Delhi continues to ‘mollycoddle’ the terror ecosystem in Jammu & Kashmir, it will be a lost battle. The message for New Delhi? Don’t let the vultures thrive on the bodies of innocent Kashmiris and security forces in Jammu & Kashmir.

(Aditya Raj Kaul has a decade long experience in covering conflict, internal security and foreign policy for various national media outlets. He tweets at @AdityaRajKaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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