The operational commander of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Mufti Waqas, was killed Monday in a joint operation of the Army, the Jammu and Kashmir police and the CRPF in the Awantipora area of South Kashmir. According to the Army, Waqas plotted the attack on the Sunjuwan camp in Jammu on February 11 in which six soldiers were killed.
The Army, in a statement, said that after “specific intelligence” that Waqas was in Hatwar, Awantipora, a “joint specific operation was launched and mastermind of the Sunjuwan terrorist attack and Lethpora terrorist attack, Jaish-e-Mohammed operational commander, category A++” was killed “in a surgical operation”.
The Army spokesperson said Waqas was “alone in the area” and there were no civilian casualties during the operation. “This has resulted in a major dent to the designs of JeM. After the elimination of their earlier operational commander, Noor Mohammad Tantrey in the same area in December last year, his successor too has been killed,” the Army said.
According to a J&K police statement, the search party in Hatwar was fired upon. “The fire was retaliated in which a militant was killed, who was later identified as Waqas alias Abu Arsalan, the chief operational commander of Jaish,” it said. Police said they recovered one weapon and “war-like stores and other incriminating material” from his possession.
The killing of Waqas is seen as one of the biggest successes by security agencies against the outfit led by Maulana Masood Azhar. Sources in J&K police said Waqas was active in Kashmir for more than a year now and had emerged as the brains behind the JeM’s attacks.
Waqas, police sources said, was active mostly in South Kashmir where he planned the deadly fidayeen attack on the Sunjuwan Military station on February 10 in which six soldiers were killed. Sources said the three fidayeens of JeM’s Afzal Guru squad had come from South Kashmir to Jammu for the attack. According to police, Waqas was a member of the “inner circle of Jaish and very close to Masood Azhar”.
A senior police officer told The Indian Express that “Waqas’s importance in Jaish can be understood by the fact that Masood Azhar’s nephew Talha Rashid operated under his command”. Last November, Rashid and Mehmood Bhai of Jaish were killed in an encounter in Aglar village in Pulwama.
Sources say that a police team was working to “trap Waqas for more than six months” and “were waiting for him to travel to Awantipora area”.
The police said Jaish has at least 20-22 militants active in the valley, among who 15 are active in South Kashmir. Waqas, police said, had moved across South Kashmir and had recently travelled to the Tral area. Police also believe Waqas was singularly responsible in ensuring JeM was at the centre of militancy in Kashmir despite having lesser numbers than Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM). JeM has been responsible for all fidayeen attacks carried out for more than a year now.
Waqas, police sources said, was instrumental in organising fidayeen attacks at Lethpora (December 31, 2017), Pulwama (August 27, 2017) and the attack on 182 battalion of the Border Security Force (BSF) outside Srinagar airport (October 3, 2017).
A senior police officer said Waqas, a Pakistani national, had teamed up with Noor Trali – the 3-foot tall militant Noor Mohammad Tantray, who had spent more than a decade in jail before being released on parole. Jaish’s revival in Kashmir took place after two of their groups infiltrated through Kupwara and another through Poonch in August last year.
The attack at Lethpora on new year’s eve, police said, was particularly significant because the two fidayeens of JeM who carried out the pre-dawn strike on a CRPF training camp, killing five CRPF personnel were local. Police sources said Waqas was responsible for recruiting these local fidayeens – a new phenomenon that has worried security agencies.
Fardeen Ahmad Khanday, a class X student and son of a policeman from Tral had joined Jaish in May last year while Manzoor Ahmad Baba of Drabgam, Pulwama was a taxi driver before joining the militant outfit. Fardeen was the first Kashmiri youngster to be part of a suicide squad in seven years.
Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, a local militant from Seer Jagir in Baramulla district had also taken part in a fidayeen attack in Srinagar city in January 2010.