Left behind in the rubble at Nagrota, the detritus of a fidayeen: An assault rifle, ammunition, injectable painkillers, and, incongruously, a small bottle of cheap, yellow ittar. The terrorist who carried these things, we know from the testimonies of others, would have risen early that morning, bathed, prayed, and shaved himself from head to foot. He’d have darkened his eyes with kohl, like a traditional bridegroom, and then perfumed himself, so he did not stink of war when the houris he had been promised greeted him inside the gates of heaven.
The mother of one such fidayeen, Imran Majid Butt, wrote this poem: “I wait for the day, O’Allah, when you will call out: ‘Who is the mother of this blood-drenched rose?’”
Ever since September’s strike on the 12th Brigade’s headquarters in Uri set the Line of Control ablaze, and brought India and Pakistan closer to war than they have been since 2002-2003, the cult of the fidayeen has seared itself on our public discourse as never before. India, it’s been claimed, is facing a grim new kind of war. Facts, though, tell another story: Fidayeen warfare is, in fact, a sideshow, militarily ineffective and strategically marginal to the jihadist insurgency in Kashmir. The cult of the fidayeen is about dying, not killing. The hysteria we now see, both in the media and among policymakers, is precisely the end it is intended to secure.
The Lashkar’s fidayeen war began in 1999, soon after the end of the Kargil war: To the jihadist movement, it signalled that Pakistan’s military defeat was not a reason to lose heart. That July, a single Lashkar fidayeen entered the Border Security Force’s sector headquarters at Bandipora, and proceeded to hold off an assault involving the elite, but tactically unsound, National Security Guard for three days. In November, that year, two Lashkar fidayeen stormed the 15 Corps’ headquarters in Srinagar’s Badami Bagh, killing eight soldiers.
“I announce the breakup of India, inshallah,” Lashkar chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed said soon afterwards, addressing an ecstatic crowd of over 250,000 people at the terrorist group’s annual congregation in Muridke. “We will not rest until the whole of India is dissolved into Pakistan”.
Even though the fidayeen became emblematic of the post-Kargil insurgency in Kashmir — a campaign that claimed the lives of more Indian soldiers than the war itself — its actual impact was less-than-spectacular. From 1999 to 2003, the most intense phase, fidayeen attacks claimed some 200 of the over 5,000 lives lost in Kashmir. Less than half of those fatalities were of security force personnel, a small percentage of the over 1,300 soldiers and police personnel who laid down their lives during those years.
Little has, in fact, changed. This year has seen dramatic losses to fidayeen strikes: Thirty five security force personnel killed — in comparison, 12 terrorists claimed to have been shot dead. However, the bulk of those losses came at Uri, where an official investigation has shown that most of the casualties were caused not by the attack, but by carelessly-stored fuel. In Pampore, where eight Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed inside a bus, the major fatalities were caused by ill-trained men shooting their comrades in the back. These incidents, the data shows, were outliers: Overall, from 2005 to now, fidayeen attacks have claimed just 107 of the 1,044 soldiers and police personnel killed, while 77 attackers lost their lives. Last year, 13 fidayeen were killed for the loss of three security force personnel.
It’s hard to say precisely what led so many young men to volunteer to die for the Lashkar’s cause. Few, we know, were ethnic Kashmiri; the bulk came from Pakistan’s Punjab. Their backgrounds were diverse: while the 26/11 attacker Muhammad Ajmal Kasab never went to secondary school, Imran Butt graduated from a college in Sialkot. In one of the few empirically robust studies of the Lashkar’s cadre, C. Christine Fair concluded the average Lashkar operative was better educated and less steeped in conventional religious learning than the population as a whole.
Anecdotal evidence exists that many of the fidayeen had past records of criminal behaviour: Through the sacrifice of their lives, they may believe that their lives acquired redemption. The scholar Ayesha Siddiqa has suggested jihadism might be one of few means for young men in rural Pakistan to find agency and self-respect, however perverse, in otherwise meaningless lives. “I met some young boys from my village near Bahawalpur who were preparing to go on jihad,” she wrote. “They smirked politely when I asked them to close their eyes and imagine their future: ‘We can tell you without closing our eyes that we don’t see anything’”.
In the camps, the fidayeen were taught to to see themselves as angels of vengeance. “Today,” Imran Butt wrote in a parting letter to his mother, “the kafir tests our self-respect by humiliating us, by tearing down our mosques. The kafir plays with the honour of our mothers and sisters while we silently watch. I find it intolerable. I want to cut open the kafir’s jugular to quench my anger. I want to keep doing so until the day comes when my Master cools my breast and makes Islam victorious.”
C.M. Naim, in a superb essay on the Lashkar’s propaganda, noted that while these atrocities were indeed part of Jammu and Kashmir’s reality, “the jihadi concern with sexual exploitation of Muslim women by non-Muslims has a history too. It is the obligatory motif in their literature in South Asia, invoked with reference to both Muhammad bin Qasim’s attack on Sindh (eighth century) and the jihad of Syed Ahmad of Rae Bareli (19th century) against the Sikhs”.
Late in the 11th century, the mystic Hassan Ibn al-Sabbah set up the first fidayeen order, to wage war on the Seljuk empire. The historian Amin Maalouf has perceptively noted that their killings were “intended primarily as a twofold lesson for the public: First, the punishment of the victim and, second, the heroic sacrifice of the executioner.”
The fidayeen war is performance theatre, each act competing with the last to gain our attention through acts of ever-increasing terror.