The Resistance Front is yet to become a household name in Kashmir. It does not have a high recall value like the Hizbul Mujahideen, which has managed to keep its name alive for three decades. It does not even come close to the fierce attention of national media driven by Lashkar e Taiba and Jaish e Muhammad.
When the killing of Makhan Lal Bindroo put the little-known militant brand on national headlines, a question buzzed in the minds of people in Kashmir and the rest of the country —what is The Resistance Front (TRF)?
New Militant Brands in Kashmir
The answer to this question is not absolute. Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar e Toiba and Jaish e Muhammad have a well-defined organisational structure. The names of their founders and current leaders are known to the world, and the location of their training camps is repeated ad nauseam on the television screens. The United Nations, the United States of America, and other countries listed them as globally recognised terror outfits. None of that holds for TRF.
It is neither a militant outfit nor a definite offshoot of LeT, Jaish or Hizbul. It is a new 'militant Brand'. It is a marketing construct devised to give a new identity to the old militant outfits operating in J&K. TRF is not the only one. It will not be the last one.
Now and then, new militant brands appear on known Telegram channels of militant organisations operating in Kashmir. There is Peoples’ Anti-Fascist Front, The Gaznavi Force, The United Liberation Front, The Geelani Force, Lashkar e Mustafa, among some others that pop up for a while and disappear.
Serious Shift in Strategy of Terror Groups
After 5 August 2019, most militant attacks in Kashmir have been claimed by the TRF and the Peoples’ Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF). At times, there are cross-claims too. For instance, Gaznavi Force claimed the recent incident in which five personnel of the Indian army were killed. Days later, PAFF issued a video claiming the attack with snapshots of combat footage seemingly captured on a go-pro camera.
Likewise, TRF claimed three attacks killing the local chemist, Makhan Lal; the non-local hawker, Virendra Paswan and taxi driver, Shafi Lone. However, the next day, the attack on Virendra Paswan was claimed by an ISIS-affiliated group.
These militant brands are an outcome of a shift in the strategy of extremist groups post-5 August. The international attention generated by the video of the Pulwama suicide bomber, affiliated with Jaish e Muhammad, put Pakistan and its military establishment in a dock. The whereabouts of Masood Azhar, leader of the Jaish-e-Muhammad is known to the world, and so is the support and sponsorship that he received from the Pakistan Army.
Attempts to Shield Pakistan and 'Secularise' Jihad
The emergence of the new militant brands is to ensure the links of any big militant attack do not go back to Pakistan or at least to the internationally designated outfits. These new militant outfits serve as the smoke and mirrors to conceal the activity of these outfits.
More so, there is an increased effort to “secularise the jihad” in Kashmir. The brands like TRF, PAFF and United Liberation Front have avoided religious symbolism in their titles, identifiers, propaganda videos and statements.
There is an increased emphasis on ‘resistance’ instead of ‘jihad’ and the enemy is identified or labelled as ‘Hindutva’, ‘RSS’ or ‘Right wing’ in India.
The recurrence of these terms in their statements and videos depart from traditional tactics where religious symbolism and lexicon were the main thrust of the message.
Corporate-Like Sophistication of 'Militant Brands'
As part of the post-August 5th strategy, the messaging of these militant brands has become centralised. Unlike the Burhan Wani phase, during which members of a militant group would dish out their own content and message, these new brands are utilising sophisticated graphics and impactful video production to embellish the content. Some of the videos have used Chroma technology, while almost all videos put out by PAPF use digital visual effects, motion graphics and sound effects for added impact.
All propaganda is processed and pushed from a central node — a trend made evident by the consistency in design, aesthetics and messaging, and the speed with which the content appears on social media. Usually, an attack is claimed within 30 minutes to half an hour after it occurs on the ground.
Such militant brands can be created overnight and dumped with alacrity as there is no physical infrastructure or a known track record associated with them. If a militant module conducts a big attack, a freshly minted militant brand can claim responsibility for the attack. Or there can be deliberate cross-claims to create confusion or to insulate the internationally recognized outfits. The LeT, HM and Jaish have hardly issued any statements, videos or claimed responsibility for attacks in the last two years.
Burying Ideological, Sectarian Rifts to Create Unified System
Likewise, there is visibly greater interoperability of the traditional militant outfits in Kashmir. Lashkar e Toiba is known as a Salafi group; the Jaish e Muhammad a Deobandi group, and Hizbul Mujahideen a local Kashmiri group — all have had ideological and sectarian rifts. There were many issues that they disagreed upon, even though their enemy and cause may have been the same.
With the emergence of the new militant brands, it is unknown which brand is claiming attacks conducted by which traditional outfit.
It seems the groups have buried the past differences to come under a centralised propaganda system and entirely changed the course of their respective narratives and ideological variances.
The security forces have tried their best to deny credit for attacks on these militant brands. Very often, the attacks are attributed to LeT or JeM. But with the intensity of the attacks, the popularity of militant brands like TRF and PAFF is increasing. And the news ones are emerging every two to three months. While the cat and mouse battle of counter-insurgency continues, the changing colour of brands is anonymising the real face of militancy in Kashmir.
(Khalid Shah is an Associate Fellow at ORF. His research focuses on Kashmir conflict, Pakistan and terrorism. Khalid was previously associated with leading news channels of India and did a brief stint as a correspondent in Srinagar with WION News, reporting extensively on the conflict. He tweets @khalidbshah. 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.)