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Quake came as a boon for Lashkar leadership

Praveen Swami

Confessions of captured fidayeen cast light on Kashmir terror wave


  • Lashkar strategists believe high-profile terror strikes will allow them to harvest the goodwill generated by their quake relief efforts
  • Two groups of six Lashkar operatives sent in to execute high-risk fidayeen missions

    NEW DELHI: Ejaz Ahmad Bhat, a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative arrested in Srinagar on Tuesday morning, has provided new insights into the motivations that underpin the recent wave of bombings and urban terror strikes in Jammu and Kashmir.

    Despatched across the Line of Control just five days after last month's earthquake in Kashmir, Bhat was part of two groups of six Lashkar operatives sent in to reinforce the organisation's fighting strength in Jammu and Kashmir. Almost all of the members of the two units, Bhat says, were tasked to execute high-risk fidayeen missions and bombings.

    Pressured to scale back their recruitment operations in recent years, the earthquake has been a godsend for the Lashkar leadership. Lashkar strategists believe high-profile terror strikes will allow them to harvest the goodwill generated by their well-funded and organised relief efforts. Pakistani newspapers have reported that the Lashkar is using its relief operations to recruit growing numbers of young people: members of an age-group for whom the tales of fidayeen combat valour are seductive.

    Missions of glory

    Bhat's telling of the events that preceded Monday's firefight makes clear that death is not the objective of the Lashkar's fidayeen units, something that distinguishes the organisation's actions from the suicide-bombings practiced by other groups. Bhat received explicit instructions to fight Indian forces for as long as possible — but to attempt escape if defeat became inevitable.

    According to the Lashkar operative, he and a slain associate so far identified only by the nom de guerre Abu Furqan, hoped to attack Central Reserve Police Force installations in central Srinagar. However, they abandoned the idea after finding strong defensive counter-measures in place. Later, they decided to target two small hotels in Srinagar's Lal Chowk from where forces on the streets below could be fired at.

    Both men, Bhat says, had hoped to escape soon after the firing began. However, within minutes the surrounded him. He then dumped his arms and attempted to leave the hotel through a rear entrance early on Tuesday morning. Police personnel refused to believe the Punjabi-speaking terrorist's claims that he was a local resident headed for the neighbourhood mosque — or his subsequent assertion that he was a visitor from Bihar.

    In search of heroism

    Bhat is just the second fidayeen attack participant to be arrested in Jammu and Kashmir — a testimony to the strength of the Lashkar's belief system. In November 2003, Jammu and Kashmir Police authorities arrested Peshawar resident Mohammad Iqbal Khan, who panicked in the course of a fidayeen operation targeting a Central Reserve Police Force facility. Khan was later found to be hiding in a sympathiser's home, and is now in the Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu.

    According to Bhat's interrogators, his motivations for joining the jihad in the State appeared to be the prestige and status it brought him amongst peers, rather than affiliation to or understanding of the Lashkar's Islamist ideology. "He seems more attracted by the heroism and machismo of fighting," said one police officer involved in Bhat's questioning, "than by martyrdom or paradise."

    Like many other members of the Lashkar rank-and-file, Bhat comes from a rural working-class family. A resident of the village of Rafiqabad, in the Pakistani province of Punjab, Bhat said his parents and four brothers worked as sharecroppers and agricultural labourers. He received a basic education in a madrasa. After taking up low-end jobs, often with Lashkar patronage, he formally joined the organisation.

    Bhat completed the Daura-e-Aam, the Lashkar's basic combat training course, at a camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. He then graduated to the Daura-e-Khaas, or advanced course, in which cadre were taught guerilla warfare techniques as well as the use of sophisticated weapons and explosives. Sixty other cadre were participating in the Daura-e-Khaas, Bhat said, at the time of the earthquake. Of these, 25 were killed.

    Diminishing Returns

    Contrary to public perception, fidayeen strikes have yielded only very limited returns, in military terms. In 1999, the year fidayeen strikes began, terrorists eliminated 17 Indian police and military personnel, losing just five of their own cadre. But by last year, as the Jammu and Kashmir Police grew increasingly skilled in storming techniques, the figures had reversed: 26 terrorists were killed, as against 21 force personnel.

    However, pro-jihad magazines in Pakistan, including several affiliated to the Lashkar, accord a place of pride to the fidayeen — a term used to describe warriors driven by the love of God. Stories in the jihadist press regularly assert that fidayeen groups have killed Indian troops by the dozen.

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