The Jammu and Kashmir Police let go of a “well-known overground worker” though they “recovered a pistol from him” and kept him “under surveillance” to reach Hizbul Mujahideen commander Yaseen Yatoo alias Ghaznavi. The strategy paid off sooner than expected.
Just three days later, Yatoo along with eight other Hizb militants, assembled in Awneera village in Shopian for a meeting. “We didn’t expect that the information (regarding Ghaznavi) would come so soon. Nine militants had come for a meeting. As soon as we got the input, we rushed,’’ an officer said.
“The militants were offering evening prayers when someone told them about the cordon. They scattered around the village. In fact, many of them escaped right then.” The officer said Ghaznavi was in a house near the village mosque. “One of the militants (who were killed) was hiding in the hamam of the mosque”. He said that two other top commanders — Altaf Ahmad Dar and Saddam Paddar — were also present in the village when it was encircled.
“It was extremely difficult to lay a tight cordon around the village because it is in the middle of orchards and nallahs. Besides it was a pitch-dark,’’ he said. “The three men trapped inside — including Ghaznavi — were all very well-trained. This is why there were casualties (two armymen were killed),’’ he said. “The militants (who had escaped the cordon) regrouped and returned to launch an attack. They wanted to break the cordon and get him out. You can understand the importance of Ghaznavi”.
The police officer said that after a long time, there was a real battle in South Kashmir and the militants put up a fight. “We kept the causality low only because we decided not to mount an attack during the night. We took positions, sealed all exit points and waited for first light. The encounter came to an end only by noon,’’ he said.
While the entire focus of J&K police’s counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir is on the Hizb, they considered Ghaznavi the biggest challenge.
“There was hardly any information about Ghaznavi that we could use. But we knew he is in Shopian-Kulgam belt,’’ the officer said. “A known OGW, who is also cousin of one of the top Hizb militants was under our scanner. We got to know that he has to ferry a pistol to his (militant) cousin and in a car. Our men got into his car and caught him along with the pistol. We talked to him but let him go”. The officer said that the OGW was put under surveillance and soon nine Hizb militants came calling”.
The officer said that when Ghaznavi was killed, they recovered a Krinkov rifle.
Who was Yaseen Yatoo?
While Burhan Wani emerged as the poster boy of the new militancy in Kashmir, 40-year-old Yaseen Yatoo alias Ghaznavi, who was currently the operational chief of Hizbul Mujahideen in Kashmir, was the biggest challenge for the security agencies. And when he was killed in an encounter in Shopian, it is the biggest blow to Hizbul Mujahideen.
The killing of Yatoo at this juncture is a major setback to Hizbul Mujahideen because the outfit is trying to prevent Zakir Musa – a breakaway HM militant who has set up Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, the first affiliate of Al Qaida in Kashmir – from taking the centrestage of militancy in the valley.
Unlike the new type of Kashmiri militants, Yatoo was an old hand. According to a senior J&K police officer, he was a “thinking militant with lot of experience and training”. His story explains as to why security agencies are celebrating his killing.
It was June 2016, when police called Parvaiz Yatoo to Chadoora Police Station. They had news about his dead brother. They told him his elder brother, Yaseen Yatoo, one of the longest surviving Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militants, was alive. Police broke the news six months after the family had been told that their elder son slipped to death during some operation at the Line of Control. His funeral prayers (in absentia) were offered on January 9 at Yatoo’s family home in Nagam village of Budgam. The police claims Yatoo, who had taken over as Hizb’s operational chief in Kashmir, had feigned his death to escape the security radar.
Yatoo life story – from the time he first joined militants to his ascension to the operations chief of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen – is chequered with arrests and detention under Public Safety Act. He was a second-year undergraduate student at Amar Singh College in Srinagar, when he left home in 1996 to become a militant. The police records reveal that Yatoo was motivated to join militant ranks by “a section commander of Hizb Bashir Ahmad alias Jehangir of Kaisar mohalla Chadoora” in July 1996.
In the last week of September 1996, the police says, he left for arms training across. “After reaching Tujar Sharief by taxi, it took him 15 days on foot to cross the Line of Control and reach Neelam valley,’’ police records say. “He was sent to “Oogi camp” situated across the Line of Control. The police sources say that after training, he returned in 1998 but “remained active for five months in Bandipore area”. “He had a fight with some foreign militants and was disarmed. He fled and arrived at home (in Budgam),’’ the police source said. The police claim Yatoo “surrendered” before the SSP, Budgam in November 1998.
After his release, Yatoo began his studies again. In April 2002, police sources say, “he was motivated to reactivate by a Hizb commander Mohammad Yasin Rather alias Musaib of Kralpora Chadoora”. In April 2002, the police say, he was involved in two actions in which one of his associate Ishfaq was killed.
Yatoo remained active in Budgam for seven months. One night in October 2002 while crossing Chadoora bridge, they were ambushed by the BSF. “He escaped and went to Jammu for a few weeks. On November 21, 2002, he was arrested by BSF in Chadoora market,’’ the police source said.
Yatoo was released in June 2004 and returned home and started readymade garment and stationary business in Chadoora that continued till March 2005 when he again joined Hizb. In December 2005, he and his associates were encircled by the troops of 34 Rashtriya Rifles at Gulab Dagi in Tangmarg. In the encounter, Musaib and three other local Hizb militants were killed. “He (Yatoo) escaped and was subsequently made Hizb’s district commander for Budgam,’’ the police source said.
In June 2006, Yatoo was traveling from Pampore to Awantipora when police intercepted his vehicle and he was arrested. Three years later, he was released in 2009. He started working with his brother on their grocery shop. “This time, he had left militancy and was busy at home,’’ a police source said. “However, he had started giving sermons during Friday prayers”.
In August 2010, Yatoo was arrested while he was waiting for a bus near his home in Chadoora. He was accused of participating in 2010 summer protests and was jailed under the Public Safety Act. He was finally released in April 2015.
In the last week of December in 2015, Yatoo left home again and this time to fake his death and go off the security radar permanently. But that didn’t happen. “He (Yatoo) was the most important catch for us,’’ a senior police officer said. “He was the anchor of the entire Hizbul Mujahideen activities and the only top commander who was preventing cadre from coming under Zakir Musa influence”.
Why was Yatoo important for Hizb?
Most of the new recruits operating across South Kashmir are without any arms training. For over three years, the standard procedure for new recruits has been to either snatch a rifle from the police or CRPF or even join the ranks of the militants directly. These youngsters – whose age ranges from 15 to 22 – make an announcement about their entry into militancy by posting their pictures holding a gun on social media networks.
Yatoo was one among very few well-trained militants, who had a long experience. Around the time when Zakir Musa broke away from Hizb, Yatoo had countered his pan-Islamist rhetoric by cautioning people that “those challenging legal and historic nature of Kashmir conflict” are “sowing the seeds of discontent”.
In fact, Hizb has been openly against the entry of Al Qaeda in Kashmir and doesn’t want the Kashmiri militancy to get affiliated with any international group. On the ground, Yatoo led the effort to disallow Zakir Musa to expand and provide a foothold for any group that supports the ideology of groups like Al Qaida.
Sources say that the focus of the entire counter-insurgency grid is primarily on Hizb. “We are systematically going after the HM commanders particularly those who have had the experience and training. Once this is over, the network will crumble. If there is information, operations are also carried out against Lashkar. But the main focus is Hizb,” he said. “Though three of Musa’s cadres and Abu Dujana (the former Lashkar commander who was supporting Musa) were killed in operations, Musa isn’t the focus currently. The understanding is that once Hizb is neutralized, Musa’s group would take the centre stage. That isn’t strategically bad for us. It will only endorse our view that militancy in Kashmir isn’t a threat to India alone but a worry for everyone who is fighting Al Qaeda and ISIS”.