Raising new army in Kashmir, Lashkar turns to rural homes

For that outcome, Pakistan’s intelligence services have already begun to prime organisations like the Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Updated: February 14, 2017 6:54 pm
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Last Friday morning, Manzoor Ahmad Magray huddled in a corner of the mosque in the south Kashmir village of Nowpora Payeen, clutching a pistol and a grenade, thinking about whether his life might be redeemed by death. The police, waiting outside, sent in his father, an ageing agricultural labourer, to urge his son to come out; officers, as well as village notables, assured the teenager he would be treated well. This wasn’t the way his friends in the Lashkar-e-Taiba had taught him: the road to redemption and manhood went to death.

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Ever since Pakistani authorities placed Lashkar chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed under house arrest last week — he is yet to face criminal prosecution though — there’s been no sign that its training facilities for Kashmir jihadists are being shut down. That could yet become a possibility, though, if Pakistan’s fears of facing sanctions from the United States’ new administration are realised.

For that outcome, Pakistan’s intelligence services have already begun to prime organisations like the Jaish-e-Muhammad. But more important, they’re turning to a new generation of jihadists inside Kashmir, like Magray: in the main, children from underprivileged rural homes, who have grown up battling Indian forces with stones on the streets of Kashmir.

Last Friday, the prayers of an elderly father and the compassion of Jammu and Kashmir Police officers kept a young man from meeting his end. There are record numbers of young Kashmiris in the Lashkar ranks, though: men who have never trained in a jihad camp, have had no contact with Islamist seminaries, but could yet turn into the terrorist group’s new army.

Indian intelligence services monitoring Lashkar’s operations across the Line of Control say Saeed’s detention has had no on-ground impact on the group’s training facilities and bases. The Markaz Taiba camp near Mansehra — alma mater to 26/11 attacker Muhammad Ajmal Kasab as well as Muhammad Naveed, captured alive last year — is still running, sources told The Indian Express. The group’s other major facilities in the area, like the camp at Atter Sheesha, are also reported to be active.

The oldest Lashkar facilities near Muzaffarabad are also still running, Indian intelligence believes: Umm-ul-Qura (which trained several Indian nationals including alleged Indian Mujahideen operative Sadiq Israr Sheikh), Aqsa and the Abdullah Bin Masood camp, which offers specialised training.

Following the 26/11 attacks, several of these camps were shut down, amidst fears India might use air power to retaliate against the Lashkar. However, the camps soon resumed functioning again. Muzammil Bhat, a one-time Lashkar commander in Kashmir who played a key role in the planning and execution of the 26/11 attacks, is thought to have been given a large role in the group’s operations.

In November, following India’s strikes across the Line of Control, the Lashkar reorganised some of its organisational apparatus, juggling the guides who take groups into Kashmir, and making efforts to camouflage homes where groups shelter for the last stage of their journey more effectively. However, the impact of these changes is yet to be felt.

“Little infiltration has taken place this last month because of heavy snowfall,” an Indian intelligence official notes, “and there was dislocation before that because of the cross-Line of Control strikes after Uri. But we think the Lashkar will step it up a little after the snow settles down.”

The long-term plan, though, appears to be to make the Lashkar inside Kashmir autonomous of its Pakistani leadership. “The recruits we’ve arrested give us a picture of two Lashkars, almost,” says one police officer, “a Pakistani Lashkar which focuses on fidayeen strikes and attacks on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, and a Kashmiri Lashkar which has been told to recruit among local communities, intimidate local workers of the PDP or National Conference, and so on.”

Led by Abid Magray, a childhood friend of Manzoor Magray and resident of Nowpora Payeen, the Lashkar unit rarely left the small belt of Pulwama its members grew up in, police officers familiar with the case say. They had all joined together when protests against India began after Hizbul commander Burhan Wani was killed in 2016, and looked to their cohort of stone-throwing teenagers to draw from.

Few in the group, though, had a gun; none were trained in using one. There was no education in the tradecraft of insurgency, like surviving in jungle conditions, evading detection, using explosives or planning ambushes. “For now,” an Indian intelligence officer says, “the Lashkar is just flying its flag. The next stage will be getting resources to this fledgling army.”

The core Lashkar leadership in Kashmir, led in Kashmir by a jihadist code-named Abu Dujana, has offered neither training nor weapons to the group, police say; instead, it was left largely to its own means. “They did not consult even on their day-to-day plans,” an officer who questioned Magray said, “possibly because they did not want to be compromised.”

Bar the first two Lashkar commanders in Kashmir, Abu Maaz and Muzammil Bhat, who returned to Pakistan, the rest — Qari Saifullah, Abdul Reshman, Atif, a second Abdul Rehman and Qasim — died in combat in the state.

Like Magray, the 30-odd Lashkar recruits in south Kashmir — approximately a third of the total number of ethnic-Kashmir jihadists in the region — almost all hail from families of rural workers and small peasants. None are known to have ties to Islamist organisations like the Jamiat Ahle-Hadees or Jama’at-e-Islami, traditionally though of as the ideological powerhouses behind jihadist groups in the state.

The profile of the jihadists is curiously similar to the mainly ethnic-Punjabi jihadists that Don Rassler, Christine Fair and others profiled in the only detailed study of the Lashkar’s membership. The typical volunteer, they found, was educated to about 10th-grade level, with relatively little religious knowledge, with a mean age of 16, typical dying around the age of 21, soon after they joined the organisation.

For many of the the Lashkar’s new army, life in jihad proves less than attractive: inside days of joining up, Magray hid out near his village, tiring of the hardships of being hunted by police in the nearby forests.

“The police are reaching out to families of these recruits to tell them we’ll welcome their kids home,” a senior officer says. “The Lashkar’s problem here is that it doesn’t have the camps and infrastructure it needs to produce Kashmiri Ajmal Kasabs, and we think keeping the door open will allow us to save the lives of both these kids and their potential victims.”