Almost three decades ago, in the winter of 1991, the Kashmir Valley was in the grip of a full-fledged islamist militancy. Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists roamed the streets in the neighbourhoods of Srinagar and the valley’s other areas from north to south.
The early phase of militancy in Kashmir was witnessed in the late 1980s. Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which believes in independence of Kashmir was leading the anti-India ‘movement’ then. The JKLF was amongst the first few outfits to recruit and train Kashmiri youth in a rebellion against the Indian state. However, by 1990 the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, an outfit which declared its objective to be Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan started to dominate Kashmir militancy. The Hizbul drew its cadres mostly from Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) J&K, a religo-political organisation.
Thereafter, other outfits like Al-Jihad, Muslim Janbaz Force, Al-Umar Mujahideen, Al-Barq and dozens of smaller groups were propped up across the length and breadth of the Valley by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Inspired by the success of the Afghan Jihad, the deep state of Pakistan instigated a widespread insurgency in Kashmir with an aim to push India out of J&K. ISI’s strategy got a fillip due to the widespread outrage in J&K over the cases of rigging in the State Assembly elections in 1997. As a result, a large number of Kashmiri youth exfiltrated across the border (known as the Line of Control)into Pakistan to join the training camps in Pakistan administered Kashmir.
Statistics indicate the exponential rise in violence in J&K from 1990 onwards. Therefore, attacks on Indian security forces increased by 2,000 percent in 1990, with 1,098 incidents of violence recorded that year, compared to 49 in 1989. In subsequent years, attacks on security forces increased progressively, with 5,500 of them witnessed during 1991 and 1992. In 1991 alone, 2,000 incidents of violence against Indian forces were reported; the number increased to 3,413 in 1992, the highest recorded in J&K.
From 1993 onwards, the number of attacks on security forces gradually decreased and by the summer of 1996, the first wave of militancy waned as insurrection lost strength and momentum. The JKLF, exhausted and broken as a militant outfit, ceased to be active in the armed struggle and Hizbul was in disarray as hundreds of its active militants leaving the group for the pro-government militia Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen.
But what actually happened in between 1991 and 1996 to bring about this change? Between 1990 and 1994, the peak years of the militancy, more than five thousand militants were killed and thousands more arrested by the Indian security forces. Also, public disillusionment with gun culture had become widespread and democracy was taking roots again with the holding of successful elections.
Seeing itself losing its grip over Kashmir, Pakistan’s ISI started a deadly phase of ‘fidayeen’ (suicide) attacks across Kashmir from 1999 until 2003, and sporadically thereafter till 2006. Between mid-1999 and the end of 2002, at least 55 such attacks took place and 161 military, paramilitary and police personnel died in these attacks, apart from 90 fidayeen cadres, mostly Pakistani nationals. Most of these attacks were carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), an organisation of religious radicals founded and headquartered in Muridkee, near Lahore in the Punjab province of Pakistan. The LeT made its entry into Kashmir in the mid-1990s as part of an ISI strategy of having cadres of trusted Pakistani radical groups to run the militancy. The LeT did recruit a handful of local Kashmiris as a fidayeen cadre, but the large majority of those who executed these suicide attacks were Pakistanis.
From 2011 to 2016, it seemed Kashmir was heading back towards normalcy when one July evening in 2016 security forces killed 23-year-old Burhan Wani, the commander of the Pakistan-backed terror group Hizbul Mujahideen. Wani had built up a large following among the youth on social media and his death acted as a new fuse to spark months of protests that left over 100 protesters, especially youngsters dead and at least 10,000 injured.
Social media gave a new boost to militancy. Viral videos that captured militants at play and leisure, shocking videos of rights excesses alleged committed by security forces on Kashmiri civilians and use of instant messaging platforms to mobilise stone pelters brought a paradigm shift in Kashmir militancy. Given how successfully Burhan Wani struck a chord with people through social media and attracted youngsters towards militancy, newer militants had started aping him.
On February 14, 2019 a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack in southern Pulwama district of J&K claimed the lives of 40 personnel of one of the the Indian para-military forces, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). It was the biggest terror attack the Kashmir Valley had witnessed since the start of insurgency. Adil Dar, the 21-year-old suicide bomber and a local resident of Pulwama, had joined the internationally designated terror group Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) a year before the attack. He was amongst the hundreds of youth who joined the ranks of terrorist groups after the killing of Burhan Wani. That the suicide attack was conducted by a local Kashmiri was especially worrying, being a rare occurrence in the history of 30 years of militancy in Kashmir.
India retaliated to the Pulwama attack by carrying out airstrikes on a training camp of JeM in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This retaliatory strike set a new benchmark in the country’s efforts to counter cross-border terrorism.
However, the security establishment in India is probably aware that this is just the beginning of a new era in dealing with cross border terror. Over the years, hundreds of local Kashmiri boys have been radicalised to an extent that everyone among them is ready to emulate Adil Dar. Also, terror groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammad that have been assigned the job of carrying out fidayeen and IED attacks, is desperate to revive its networks across the Kashmir, especially after the Indian forces eliminated over 500 ultras, including, top commanders, between 2017-2019.
There is also a stark difference in recruitment methods by terror groups as compared to the 1990s. While in the 1990s Kashmiri youth crossed the border to Pakistan for training in various camps located there and terror training camps mushroomed along the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, in the current scenario, the process of recruitment of locals has become much easier. The heavy presence of Indian security forces along with the fencing of the border between India and Pakistan has made exfiltration difficult. So local recruits no longer cross the border. Instead, the process of recruitment and its announcement is linked to photos posted on social media with the militant outfits releasing photos of new recruits posing with a weapon to declare the inductions. As a result of this, two distinct trends have emerged- one, the recruitment process has become easier and two, the local recruits are poorly trained, but highly motivated.
Daisy Khan, a US based Kashmiri origin media commentator on violent extremism, says using social media for drawing recruits into militancy is a worldwide phenomenon and Kashmir is no exception. “Posting happy selfies on twitter and facebook is a way of showing that life after becoming a militant is normal and fun. This strategy is widely and successfully used by Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria,” she states. New recruits often receive rudimentary training from the Pakistani cadres of the LeT and JeM, or from the police/army men who desert their ranks to join the militants
While drawing comparisons between new age Kashmir militancy with other such movements in the world, Khan, whose book “WISEUP – Knowledge ends extremism” focuses on ISIS strategies, said, “Militant handlers produce inspirational speeches for potential recruits to inspire them to join them and be part of shaping history. They penetrate your computers and mobile phones.” She said lack of positive representation, heroic narratives and images of Muslims in media leads to a dearth of role models for young Muslims to emulate which gives extremists a chance to exploit them.
While Khan is probably right in explaining the attraction for youth to pick up the gun, one should also not forget that in any part of the world an ordinary youth would want a normal life. A senior army officer stationed in Kashmir says that an overwhelming percentage of Kashmiri populace are in favour of normalcy. “The important task today is to engage Kashmiri youth and break the support nexus that is radicalising them. Another big challenge is tackling social media platforms. The negativity spread through them is a dominant factor in misleading the youth and it is being exploited by our adversary,” he said.
The hardcore pan-Islamist ideological drift of the conflict in Kashmir is only going to aggravate the threats of fidayeen missions. The approach to countering militancy cannot be primarily focused on kinetic operations, since they will fail to address the security threats in the cyber domain. Similarly, preventive measures will need to be taken to cull the radicalisation and recruitment of local youth. However, while the changing contours of militancy in Kashmir demand a redefinition of policies and responses that go beyond traditional approaches, the example of Kashmir should be studied by countries in Europe that are grappling with not only increased radicalization but also the threats of terror.
Writer and consultant, Chairman of Roland Jacquard Global Security Consulting (RJGSC)