State of Play: Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir

MANTRAYA ANALYSIS#60: 11 OCTOBER 2022

BIBHU PRASAD ROUTRAY

ABSTRACT

Terrorist violence in Jammu & Kashmir is decreasing. And yet, terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) continue their attempt to reverse the gains made by the security forces. Backing from the state sponsors in Pakistan, geopolitical changes in Afghanistan and support from the alienated population in Kashmir are among the multiple challenges New Delhi faces. 

A security personnel stands guard near the spot of the grenade attack by militants at Srinagar In June 2021) (Image Courtesy: PTI)

Introduction

The year 2022 began well for the security forces in Kashmir. On 3 January, policemen in civvies gunned down Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) ‘commander’ Muhammad Saleem Parray inside the famous Mughal garden Shalimar in Srinagar. Parray was involved in a number of killings in 2016.[1] Hours later, in the nearby Gusu area of Harwan, a Pakistani militant Hafiz alias Hamza was killed. Hamza was earlier involved in the killing of two policemen in Bandipora and had shifted his area of operation to Harwan. 

These militants are among the 70 LeT cadres/ commanders who have been killed in 2022 (till 4 October). While at least 68 LeT cadres had been killed in 2021, another 48 lost their lives in 2020. These killings, part of the enormous security efforts put together by New Delhi to reduce terrorist violence in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), have also led to a significant reduction in terrorism-related incidents. The number of hideouts and modules of the LeT busted has continued to rise, posing not just logistical and existential challenges to all the terrorist formations, including the LeT. 

At the same time, however, terrorism is far from over in J&K. Among multiple terror groups operating in J&K, the LeT is clearly the most dominant. Data on killed terrorists in 2022 prove the point. Of the 167 terrorists killed (till September), 70 belonged to the LeT and its affiliate, The Resistance Front (TRF). Nearly 33 per cent of all terrorism-related activities in J&K has a LeT connection. This group, in particular, is leading the most violent counter to New Delhi’s stabilisation efforts.

Local Uprising versus Pakistan-backed Terror

Like the past years, LeT’s operations in J&K have been based on two strategies. 

Firstly, the group is continuing to project militancy in Kashmir as a local uprising. Local recruitment, training of a section of these recruits in terror camps in Pakistan and sending them back to Kashmir for terror activities have been the established pattern in this regard and it continues. For the past couple of years, however, the LeT has tried to act through the TRF. Using this frontal organisation, the LeT has tried to deflate focus away from itself, on the one hand. On the other, the TRF’s violence, mostly through the local cadres, adds to the spatial spread of terror activities. Not surprisingly, the TRF’s activities almost parallel that of the LeT, although both organisations, according to the security forces, remain operationally indistinguishable.                

Secondly, the LeT continues to use its better-trained Pakistani cadres to increase the level of violence. In the past, such insertion of ‘foreign terrorists’ has been sought to be limited, with prominence given to the local recruits to carry out the bulk of the violence. However, completely giving up on Pakistani cadres has never been an option for the LeT. Local cadres, on the other hand, have often failed to match the expectations and have been neutralised far too easily, mostly due to their lack of experience and lack of adequate training. As a result, the Pakistani cadres have remained almost fifty per cent of the active terrorists in the Valley.

It, however, is clear that the LeT’s success in either of these strategies is dwindling. A noticeably decreased recruitment of local cadres has made the task of replacing those killed in security force operations difficult. Although no disaggregated data for LeT is available, overall data on the recruitment and killing of terrorists in Kashmir underlines the point. According to the Jammu & Kashmir Police, in the current year (till September), 89 local youths joined various terror groups, whereas 120 local cadres were killed in the same period. This shortfall reflects in the number of active local terrorists in J&K, which has come down to only 60.  

This has constrained the LeT and other terror groups to push the Pakistani cadres already present in the Valley to take a more active and direct role in perpetrating terror activities. An example of this trend is the killing of Pakistani LeT cadre, Manzoor alias Haider alias Hamza, in a brief shootout in the Hazratbal area of Srinagar on 10 March. An associate of LeT commander Mehran, Manzoor was active in the Valley for the past six months. He was killed by a police team while attempting to overpower an armed guard at the Hazratbal shrine and snatch his weapon. In normal circumstances, such an operation would have been assigned to a local recruit of the LeT.   

The outcome of the increased exposure of terrorists like Manzoor to security force operations has resulted in a spike in the death of Pakistani terrorists in 2022. In the first nine months of the year, 47 of them have been killed, which has resulted in a decrease in active foreign terrorists to about 80.[2] Further, the increased success of security forces in preventing large infiltration attempts from across the border has made LeT’s task of maintaining a sizeable number of better-trained Pakistani terrorists in the Valley difficult.              

Recycled Militants, Terror Modules and Online Recruiters

The failure either to recruit locally or manage the infiltration of Pakistani cadres or local cadres trained in Pakistan has led to the LeT to devise a new strategy of relying on surrendered and released/mainstreamed terrorists to perpetrate terror. At least two such incidents confirm this trend.    

On 28 and 29 September, low-intensity blasts took place within 8 hours of each other on two buses in the Udhampur district, which injured two persons. Investigations led to the arrest of a surrendered Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) militant, Mohamad Aslam Sheikh on 1 October. Sheikh revealed that he had been contacted by a Doda (in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa)-based Pakistani handler named Mohammed Amin Bhat alias Khubaib on social media.[3] Prolonged interactions and promises of monetary help motivated Sheikh to join the LeT. He was asked to travel to the Dayala Chak area, along the Samba Kathua axis, near the international border to pick up a consignment consisting of three sticky bombs and four IEDs, delivered using a drone. Sheikh collected them from the designated location, took them home, and planted two IEDs on the buses. The rest of the explosives were recovered from his home. 

On an earlier occasion in February 2022, the LeT had used Abdul Qayoom Dar of Larow Kakapura in Pulwama district, a former militant who had been previously arrested after a shooting incident in 2018. Dar, after his release in August 2021, was under the watch of Pulwama police. Early this year, he quietly moved out of the village and joined the LeT. Dar was shot dead during the nightly operation on 18-19 February in Chermarg village in the Shopian district, after he fired upon and killed two army personnel.[4]

This trend brings to the fore the logistical role being played by terror modules across the state,  111 of which have been busted in 2022 (till September) alone. Such modules, typically consisting of two to seven persons and operating in close contact with their Pakistan-based handlers, not only arrange for SIM cards and other logistical support for the militants, but receive arms, ammunition and explosives, mostly dropped by drones, and subsequently supply them on demand to the terrorists. Modules, for long, were perceived to be only terrorist sympathisers with only a peripheral role in the violence. However, that perception has changed with arrests confirming them as integral to the conduct of violence in the Valley. 

In addition, Pakistan-based handlers continue to use social media to get in touch with potential recruits and convince them to join terrorism. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), on 4 October, identified and proscribed 40-year-old Pakistani national Habibullah Malik alias Sajid Jutt as the key radicaliser and recruiter of Kashmiri youths on behalf of the LeT. Believed to be based in Kasur (Pakistani Punjab), Malik is associated with LeT-backed TRF. He is believed to have been able to create a network of hardcore militants. He has also masterminded multiple terrorist attacks in the Valley including an attack on Indian soldiers in Bhata Dhurian, Poonch in October 2021. He is also involved in the drone dropping of arms and communication systems in the Jammu region for terrorists. 

Outlook

In spite of improvements in the security situation, terrorism remains a challenge to the Indian government’s efforts of establishing stability in J&K. Groups like the LeT continues exploiting the facilities extended to them by their state sponsors in Pakistan. While New Delhi insists that sympathy for such groups within J&K has decreased, it remains sufficiently high to result in local youths opting for a career in terrorism. Post-August 2021 developments in Afghanistan and the LeT’s continued linkages with the Taliban remain force enablers for the group, which believes that constant tweaks in strategy would not only add to its survivability but reverse the dip in its capacities in J&K. For New Delhi, therefore, the challenges are multiple. While maintaining a force-centric pressure on the LeT, it has to deal with both internal as well as external factors that the group is benefiting from.      


End Notes

[1] Peerzada Ashiq, “Two militants killed in Srinagar, ‘intruder’ shot dead in Jammu”, The Hindu, 3 January 2022, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/two-militants-killed-in-srinagar-intruder-shot-dead-in-jammu/article38100592.ece

[2] “700 Local Youths Recruited By Terror Groups In J&K In Last 4 Years, 141 Terrorists Active In UT: Home Ministry Report”, Outlook, 10 July 2022, https://www.outlookindia.com/national/700-local-youths-recruited-by-terror-groups-in-j-k-in-last-4-years-141-terrorists-active-in-ut-news-208221

[3] “Pakistan exposed: Lashkar module behind Udhampur bus blasts”, Daily Excelsior, 2 October 2022, https://www.dailyexcelsior.com/pakistan-exposed-lashkar-module-behind-udhampur-bus-blasts/

[4] M Saleem Pandit, “2 soldiers, LeT terrorist killed in Jammu and Kashmir’s Shopian”, Times of India, 20 February 2022, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/2-soldiers-let-terrorist-killed-in-jammu-and-kashmirs-shopian/articleshow/89692634.cms

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya. This analysis has been published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Mapping Terror & Insurgent Networks” and “Fragility, Conflict, and Peace Building” projects. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.)

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