Inside the camps that foment terror

Syed Salahuddin.

Syed Salahuddin.   | Photo Credit: ASIF HASSAN

Answers from a series of interviews might make it possible to define the Hizbul Mujahideen, an otherwise nebulous entity.

Syed Salahuddin, supreme commander of Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), reaffirmed his organisation's “healthiness” last Tuesday, telling Kashmir News Service that HM's “infrastructure is intact” and that “J&K will be freed soon.” He made a similarly convincing statement last May, claiming to possess “hundreds of training camps” where he could freely “recruit and train the mujahideen.” Salahuddin knows that his group's strength must be seen before it can be disbelieved. So long as Pakistan's evolving terror apparatus remains shrouded in secrecy, he is at liberty to exaggerate HM's muscle.

Camps and questions

Though press conferences, political speeches, news articles, and reports routinely contribute to the entity's mainstream familiarity, they stop short of demystifying the terrorist camp. Important questions persist: Where are such camps located? What do they look like? What are their specific functions? Do similar levels of secrecy characterise them all? Based on interviews I conducted in Jammu and Kashmir in 2011 with law enforcement officials and surrendered HM militants about the training camps operated by HM in Pakistan and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (all interviews with surrendered militants were conducted in the presence of the authorities), I believe it is possible to lend some definition to an otherwise nebulous entity.

At its peak in the mid- to late-1990s, HM's physical infrastructure was primarily concentrated in PoK, with a few camps and offices located in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then the North-West Frontier Province), and Islamabad. While the experiences of individual militants vary significantly, any recruit who spent more than a few months in Pakistan would likely encounter several such facilities. After crossing the border into Pakistani territory, often with the help of a guide on the Inter-Services Intelligence's (ISI) payroll, recruits were typically housed in an HM office in Kotli or Muzaffarabad. Since both towns hosted ISI offices, it was easy for newcomers to acquaint themselves with their patron representatives. Once these preliminary introductions were complete, recruits were sent to one of a few possible locations depending on the functions they were to assume, and the specific type of training they required.

While the media tends to homogenise terrorist camps, the latter in fact represent a diverse collection of administrative and liaison offices, communication stations, base camps, and training camps. The larger constellation of a particular group's terrorist camps is thus characterised by diversity of location, function, size, appearance, secrecy and demography.

A small core

HM's infrastructural network is best depicted by a small core of training camps, attended to by a larger landscape of base camps and support offices. Training camps are intended and designed to impart physical, ideological, and military training — stereotypical imagery of young men surrounded by monkey bars and AK-47s is not far off. Base camps, on the other hand, simply serve to house militants before, between, or after such training courses. Generally speaking, training camps tend to be larger, and more removed from urban environments.

Examples of former training camps include the Kotli Training Camp (in PoK's Kotli district) and the Gujar Khan Training Centre in Rawalpindi. Each camp was located in hilly, forested terrain, accommodating over 300 trainees in tents. In addition to these conventional training camps, HM also made use of the Mangla Dam Camp. Located on the banks of the Mangla Lake in PoK, this camp was reserved for 30-40 trained militants, offering them swimming lessons that lasted 15 days to a month.

HM's base camps generally took the form of single-storey rented buildings providing six to eight bedrooms for 35 to 70 trained or untrained militants. Former examples include: Kot Jamial Camp (located on the outskirts of Kot Jamial in PoK's Bhimber district), Bhimber Camp (situated on Gujrat Road in PoK's town of Bhimber), Samani Camp (located on Mirpur Road, two kilometres from the main bus stand in PoK's Samani), the Kotli Camp (located less than a kilometre from the main bus stand in PoK's Kotli), and Al Markaz Camp (located in the basement of a mosque, three kilometres from central Mirpur).

In addition to its training and base camps, HM established a media office on Rawalpindi's Murree Road, not far from the branch office of the Jang Group of Newspapers. In Islamabad, apart from its administrative office in the Khanna neighbourhood, HM previously used one office to store photographs and computerised biographies of all its militants, and another to administer computer courses.

Communication with India

In order to maintain regular contact with active operatives on the Indian side of the border (or LoC), HM also established wireless command stations, including those in Zafarwal (Punjab) and Samani (PoK). The facility in Zafarwal was run out of the staff quarters of a rural health centre, allowing HM wireless operators to communicate with militants in Jammu and Kashmir's Doda and Kathua districts, and in parts of Udhampur district. The second facility was situated on the outskirts of Samani, providing communication links with militants operating in Jammu and Kashmir's districts of Rajouri and Poonch, and parts of Udhampur district.

While HM might be impartial towards all the facilities it uses, its ISI patrons are more discerning. Amongst the multitude of installations that HM militants come into contact with in the course of their careers, some are marked by more secrecy than others. In general, surrendered militants tend to recall quite vividly the names and attributes of the camps they encounter. But often there is a stop on the itinerary about which they know surprisingly little. They call it ilaqa-e-ghair (which most appropriately translates in this context to “forbidden territory”). Ilaqa-e-ghair refers to a peculiar type of training camp. In fact, the only defining characteristic of ilaqa-e-ghair is that the journey to and from this camp is always unusual: trainees are transported to the facility blindfolded, or in tarpaulin-covered trucks, to ensure they don't pick up on their destination's location and surroundings. The destination itself typically constitutes an isolated training camp surrounded only by “ kachcha” road and round-the-clock patrolling. By the end of a two- to three-month stint at ilaqa-e-ghair, trainees are adept at handling weapons including AK-47s, RPG-7s, hand grenades, and light machine guns.

A possible explanation for these elevated standards of secrecy might be that ilaqa-e-ghair directly represents, or is sufficiently proximate to, military installations about which the ISI prefers not to divulge any details – neither to the HM militant, nor to the people he might speak with following disengagement. An important implication of this relative secrecy is that all other assets used by HM to train and host its militants are more easily replaced, and hence dispensable. Indeed, the Boi Camp in Abbottabad attests to the non-essential character of most terrorist camps. It accommodated more than 300 HM militants until 2008, was abruptly shut down, and has since served as a poultry farm.

Continuously mounting international pressure since 9/11 has compelled the ISI to reign in many terrorist camps under its watch. As a consequence, HM's infrastructural presence in Pakistan and PoK stands diminished. Aside from its peripheral offices, the organisation currently runs two training camps, each targeting a distinct demographic. The Garhi Habibullah Camp is located in Mansehra district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and caters to trainees from Pakistan. The Sensa Camp lies in PoK's Kotli district and is geared towards youth from PoK. Both camps have strict orders: recruits from India's side of the border are unwelcome — at least for the time being.

( Nikhil Raymond Puri is a D.Phil candidate at the University of Oxford.)

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Printable version | Feb 29, 2020 9:03:34 AM |

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