Other States

As commanders fall, militants lose links to handlers

A building in Pampore aflame during an encounter in which Abu Dujana, another operational commander, was killed.   | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

Abu Ismail, operational commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, had been elusive till he was shot and killed on a desolate stretch of road a mere 8 km from Srinagar, in the Aribagh area of Nowgam. He was in a truck with a fellow terrorist when it came to a security checkpoint in the afternoon. Ismail and his companion tried to run into a paddy field and head to a nearby residential area where they could have created a standoff.

The encounter lasted only 10 minutes. At the end of it, the two terrorists lay dead. It was September 14, two months almost to the day that seven Amarnath Yatra pilgrims had been shot at indiscriminately after their bus was waylaid. Ismail was held responsible for the killing of seven pilgrims.

Soon after Ismail fell, B.S. Raju, General Officer Commanding, Victor Force, which has been spearheading counterinsurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir, declared that he “expected a vacuum in the outfit’s top leadership”.

Four days later, Mehmood Bhai, a foreigner, had emerged as his replacement, his footprints all over Bandipora in north Kashmir, when his men barged into the home of BSF constable Ramzan Parrey, dragged him out and killed him late in the evening. The constable had come on vacation.

Jawans gather around the bodies of Abu Ismail and another militant after an encounter in Nowgam on September 14, 2017.

Jawans gather around the bodies of Abu Ismail and another militant after an encounter in Nowgam on September 14, 2017.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu


A day earlier, the same bunch of terrorists had tried to block, in the same area, an Army patrol on an operation. They attacked a couple of Garud Commandos from the Air Force, who had been embedded with the unit for operational experience, and they died later in hospital.

Replacements coming

The more terrorist “commanders” are killed, the more easily their replacements seem to spring forward. A top counter-insurgency official, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “Militant handlers in Pakistan are using the twin routes of Poonch in Jammu and the Kupwara-Baramulla forest areas in the Valley to infiltrate commanders every time the LeT loses its commander.

The official told The Hindu that “the passes in the higher reaches of Hafruda and Shambhari forest ranges close to the Line of Control (LoC) have also opened up”. “Snow has completely melted there as summer peaked this year, making it easy to infiltrate and find hideouts in crevices and foliage,” he said.

The terrorist outfits, especially the LeT, tend to fill the top positions from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir “to uphold morale down the ranks, as soon as its commander gets killed in an operation”. It is difficult to find local people.

Operational leaders hit

Since the Army’s “Operation All-Out” aimed at flushing Jammu and Kashmir of terrorists was launched in May, as south Kashmir slipped into the hands of 250 militants dominated by local commanders, operational commanders Abu Dujana and Abu Ismail have been killed. Dujana was a prized target. He had taken over the mantle after Abu Qasin was killed on October 29, 2016.

Dujana was suspected of masterminding the suicide attack at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute in Pampore that led to a 56-hour standoff in February 2016.

Dujana was cornered, along with Arif Lelhari, in a village in Pulwama before dawn. Hours later, an exchange of fire began.

When he refused to surrender, the security forces blew up the house he was sheltering in. He had escaped a cordon-and-search operation five times before his luck ran out on August 1.

He was placed on the A++ category with a reward of ₹15 lakh on his head.

Mission All Out

Since “Operation All Out” began, over 10 district commanders, including battle-hardened Arif Lelhari, Junaid Mattoo and Bashir Lashkari in south Kashmir, had been killed. Some 21 commanders, including Hizbul Mujahideen’s Sabzar Bhat, Shahbaz Shafi alias Rayees Kachroo and Commander Aijaz Mir, have been killed so far as well.

In addition, over 150 militants have been killed in the encounters that erupted in the Valley this year. During the previous year, 165 were killed till December.

Abu Ismail, an LeT operational commander who led the attack on Amarnath pilgrims.

Abu Ismail, an LeT operational commander who led the attack on Amarnath pilgrims.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


Of late, technological inputs have died down as militants have stopped using cellphones frequently in south Kashmir. Human intelligence now remains the core of counter-insurgency grid, officials say.

The Army and the police credit “well-knit overground human intelligence as the main source of a tip-off that led to the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Qayoom Najar, in an encounter along the LoC, north of Uri, on September 27. He was being infiltrated to take control of the Hizb. After trapping him in a cordon operation in a village in Shopian, the operation lasted 15 hours.

The structure of command-control of LeT has district commanders and a small group at the lower level, followed by operational chief, overseeing all 11 districts in the Valley.

“The job of the operational chief is to coordinate with handlers in Pakistan and identify potential targets and lay down logistical support requirements,” said the counter-insurgency official in Srinagar.

Strong network

Unlike the LeT, the Hizb structure has a “strong network of overground workers, district-wise militants, district commanders, divisional commanders and operational commanders at the top”.

A militant attends the funeral of another. File

A militant attends the funeral of another. File   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

“As of now, the Hizb has no Valley-based operational commander after its top-ranking commanders were killed this year,” officials say.

However, Hizb commanders like Saddam Paddar, alias Zaid, a district commander and an ‘A++’ category militant, has influence in Shopian and remains active since 2015.

Reyaz Ahmad Naikoo, alias Zubair, active since December 2012, portrays himself as a Hizb ideologue and mainly recruits youth in south Kashmir.

Despite encounter killings of militants, recruitment continues. In South Kashmir, out of 50, as many as 30 from in and around Pulwama have been recruited by the Hizb and Lashkar in the past five months. They are mostly overground workers or protesters who have been regularly converging at the funerals of those killed by the security forces.

A splinter group of Zakir Rashid Bhatt alias Musa, once divisional commander of Hizb, has recruited people in small numbers, pushing youth towards a more hardline ideology, with al-Qaeda already declaring him in-charge of its affiliate in Kashmir.

Jaish challenge

More than Hizb and LeT, security agencies say the resurfacing of Moulana Masood Azhar-founded Jaish-e-Muhammad poses a “more potent threat.”

“Jaish believes in sensational attacks. We have to deal with them differently,” said Inspector-General of Police, Muneer Khan, after the recent sensational fidayeen attack on a BSF installation close to Srinagar airport.

Security agencies say the killing of Jaish operational commander Khalid Bhai in Baramulla some days ago “cut the umbilical cord of its ranks with handlers across the border”.

A small group of Jaish fidayeen still is a threat in and around Srinagar. However, Khalid’s killing has cut the link with the handlers, officials say. South Kashmir remained a battleground with the emergence of Burhan Wani in 2013, but militants are shifting base to north Kashmir “to make use of the forests in Bandipora, Baramulla and Kupwara”. Even after all the killing, the winter is set to be hot, with foreign militant numbers, according to Army figures, being as high as 70 in north Kashmir alone.

“We fear local recruitment has picked up in north Kashmir, in Baramulla, Kupwara and Bandipora,” a police official said.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 7:44:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/as-commanders-fall-militants-lose-links-to-handlers/article19862958.ece

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