Praveen Swami

Jammu and Kashmir Police trained local assets to defeat terror offensive

MUMBAI: For years before a Lashkar-e-Taiba squad executed last week’s massacre in Mumbai, the terrorist group’s fidayeen were honing their skills in Jammu and Kashmir.

Government buildings and military facilities, but also hotels and marketplaces, were among the targets of a wave of fidayeen terror that began in 1999.

But by 2006, the Jammu and Kashmir Police had succeeded in developing tactics that made fidayeen attacks increasingly difficult for terrorist groups — a success that holds out lessons for police forces across India.

Lashkar fidayeen staged their first attack in Jammu and Kashmir in the midst of the Kargil war, hitting the sector headquarters of the Border Security Force in Bandipora. NSG commandos eventually succeeded in rescuing the hostages, but the BSF’s prestige took a severe blow.

In 2001, the Jaish-e-Mohammad staged another spectacular fidayeen attack at the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly —a dry run, many experts believe, for the storming of Parliament House in New Delhi later that year. Significantly, though, the Jammu and Kashmir Police succeeded in rescuing the politicians inside the Assembly complex unhurt, and succeeded in eliminating the terrorists.

Later, in 2002, the Lashkar staged a dramatic fidayeen attack on the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar, killing at least 29 people — the organisation’s first major attack outside Jammu and Kashmir.

In empirical terms, the military impact of the fidayeen operations was negligible. Between 1999 and 2002, the worst years of Lashkar fidayeen violence, less than 200 people died in these attacks — a small proportion of overall fatalities in Jammu and Kashmir, which at the time ran into several thousand a year.

Propaganda value

But the propaganda value of such attacks was huge: fidayeen attacks, the Lashkar understand, was in their essence a form of performance propaganda.

Fidayeen attacks are not new. More than a 1,000 years ago, in 1090, radicals led by the mystic Hasan Ibn al-Sabah waged a ruthless war to depose the Seljuk monarchs and restore a Shia caliphate.

Historian Amin Maalouf has recorded that al-Sabhah saw killing “not merely a means to disposing of an enemy, but was intended primarily as a twofold lesson for the public: first, the punishment of the victim and, second, the heroic sacrifice of the executioner, who was called the fida’i [plural fida’in, or fedayeen], or ‘suicide commando,’ because he was almost always cut down on the spot.” Groups in areas from Palestine to Sri Lanka have used similar tactics in the centuries since.

In March 2004, two Lashkar fidayeen attacked the offices of the Press Information Bureau and the Jammu and Kashmir Directorate of Information in Srinagar. Later, in April 2005, the Lashkar staged an attack on the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar, just a day before the facility was to see the first journey of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service.

Just weeks later, in June, two fidayeen attacked the Dashnami Akhara Building, owned by a Hindu religious institution. That November, four Lashkar fidayeen hit the Palladium Cinema complex, occupied by CRPF personnel. Like the Budhshah Chowk attack, the Palladium Cinema attack achieved little.

Srinagar saw its last significant fidayeen-initiated siege in October, 2006, when terrorists targeted the New Standard Hotel in the city’s commercial hub. All three terrorists involved in the attack were shot dead in an overnight operation that began after the police evacuated all hostages successfully.

Each time, the tactics used were near-identical to those seen in Mumbai. Lashkar fidayeen would attempt to so overwhelm security at the entrance to the facility by firing indiscriminately and throwing grenades. Once inside, they would seek to prolong the siege as long as possible. Each time, the organisation was able to intimidate civil society, by demonstrating an apparent ability to kill at will.

Lessons learnt

“We knew we needed to devise new tactics to deal with the fidayeen,” says the former Kashmir Range Inspector-General of Police, K. Rajendra — himself critically injured in a 2006 fidayeen attack targeting a political rally.

“We set about creating local resources,” he explained, “rather than having to bring in an outside force hours later. For example, we developed rapid-intervention teams, who were trained in room-intervention tactics by the National Security Guard. We also worked systematically to improve intelligence.”

Fidayeen units continued to be trained by the Lashkar, though. June 2007, an arrested Lashkar operative — Sialkot resident Mohammad Yasin Jat — told the Jammu and Kashmir police that the Lashkar was training over a 100 fidayeen at four camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

“Our lessons were painful,” says the former Kashmir-zone Inspector-General of Police S.M. Sahai, who replaced Mr. Rajendra, “but I think we learned them well. The Lashkar could still hit Srinagar or Jammu today, but they know they will achieve relatively little before they are cut down.”

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