Terror attack in Poonch: Chinks in the Armour



They planned, infiltrated, attacked, and melted into thin air. The manhunt involving scores of soldiers, drones, and sniffer dogs for the perpetrators of the 20 April ambush on the army truck in the Tota Gali area of Bhata Durian in Poonch district that killed five soldiers of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) along with the civilian driver and badly injured the sixth has not produced any result. The attackers either safely retreated to their bases across the border, or simply melted into the forests. Two weeks later, on 5 May, five army personnel were killed after terrorists triggered an explosive device targeting security forces in the forests of Rajouri district. The soldiers were conducting intelligence-based operations to locate the terrorists involved in the 20 April attack. These attacks and several others prior to that in the same area, occurring amidst optimistic assessments regarding the declining terror situation in Kashmir, prove that the Rajouri-Poonch sector still remains vulnerable to cross-border terror attacks. Worse still, this trend, unless reversed, may allow terrorism to spread its wings to the Jammu region. 

The Location

The exact location of the 20 April attack is roughly seven kilometres from Bhimber Gali at the Line of Control (LoC), a thickly forested belt on the Indian side of the LoC. Inclement weather, especially in the winter months, leading to zero visibility adds to the advantage of the terrorists. Not surprisingly, this part of the LoC has been frequently used for infiltration by terrorists from Pakistan. A media report quoting intelligence sources named four dedicated terror launching pads in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK)—in  Kotli, Lanjote, Nikail, and Khuiretta—near the Rajouri sector. As a result, the army’s border security grid has been focusing specifically on the 220-kilometre-long section of the LoC, starting from the Sunderbani sector in Rajouri and ending at Saujiyan in Poonch. 

Once inside the Indian territory, the forests and mountains allow the terrorists to hide, plan, and carry out the attacks. The challenges posed by the area aren’t lost on the army authorities, who tour the area regularly to take stock of the situation and to beef up defence infrastructure and operational preparedness. Regular medical camps are organized to maintain a positive image of the army among the local population. However, on the ground, the situation seems to have changed for the worse, in the past few years.  

Rajouri has a 60-30 Muslim-Hindu population, and Poonch is Muslim-majority. Most of the Muslims belong to the Gujjar and Bakherwal communities. Although a major terrorist hotspot in the late 1990s and early 2000, the region had been cleared of the terrorist presence through a massive military operation, Operation Sarp Vinash in April-May 2003. Prior to that the local Muslim population, among who the terrorists had found shelter, had turned against them, following incidents of harassment of their women by the Pakistani cadres. The massacre in Kot Charwal village in February 2001 further turned the people against the terrorists. From 2004 onwards, complete peace prevailed in the region, which was considered to be largely pro-security force personnel and anti-terrorists. That seems to have changed dramatically in the last couple of years, possibly owing to the rise of an openly communal atmosphere, leading to the alienation of the Gujjar-Bakherwal communities. A series of attacks since October 2021 point at that. 

Series of Attacks

Five such attacks have taken place since October 2021 in the Rajouri-Poonch sector and in none of them, the involved militants have been caught.     

Somewhat similar to the 20 April and 5 May 2023 incidents, in October 2021, an ambush on the Army in the same area led to the killing of five soldiers. This was followed by a two-month-long search that resulted in four more fatalities among the soldiers before it was called off. It was the deadliest encounter since 2006. None of the perpetrators of that attack, which included well-positioned snipers who shot at the army personnel with pin-point accuracy, could be traced. 

On 11 August 2022, five soldiers were killed after terrorists attacked an Army camp in Rajouri district. Two terrorists were killed when shot dead they were trying to scale the camp’s fence. It is unclear if some other terrorists, part of the same team of attackers, managed to escape. 

On 16 December 2022, the army claimed to have killed two terrorists outside the gates of an Army camp in Muradpur near Rajouri town. Both men, however, hailed from a nearby village and were running a canteen inside the camp. An investigation is ongoing. 

On 1 January, seven Hindus were killed in a militant attack at Dangri. The subsequent search by the security forces could not trace the attackers. On 15 January, two suspected terrorists entered the home of a panchayat member of Narla Bambal village in Rajouri district, demanded food and water, and gave the family Rupees 1500. They warned them against telling anyone before disappearing. Search operations acting on this lead too went cold. All these attacks have taken place within a few kilometres of one another. Possibly the failure to solve one has led to the other.  

The fact that the Rajouri-Poonch area could be slowly turning into a terror hotbed is also evident from the fact that three terrorist hideouts have been busted in the Poonch district this year. Security forces raided a hideout on 15 January in Surankot Sector near Sindara village and recovered arms and ammunition including three AK rifles. Another hideout was neutralized on 25 January after raids in Kalai Top, Shiendra, Ratta Jabbar and adjoining areas and two AK rifles were recovered. On 9 February, another hideout was busted and weapons were recovered in Naka Majiari village in Mendhar tehsil.   

Focus on the PAFF 

The People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), believed to be a front of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), claimed responsibility for the 20 April attack. The PAFF had been banned by the Ministry of Home Affairs in January 2023 under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for carrying out terror activities in Kashmir. However, little else is available about the identity of the attackers, widely believed to be Pakistani cadres of the JeM. There is no unanimity about the number of attackers as well—estimated to be anywhere between three to seven. The PAFF, since its inception in 2019, has claimed responsibility for nine attacks. Four of these attacks have been in the Rajouri-Poonch area.  

While identifying the attackers and neutralizing them remains extremely important, these attacks signify two important developments: firstly, the Jammu region and its openly communal atmosphere is sought to be exploited by the terrorists; and secondly, the terrorists are receiving some degree of support from the local communities, who have at least a two-decade long history of being hostile towards local as well as Pakistani terrorists.     


The terror attacks highlight the importance of securing the border districts of Poonch and Rajouri to the overall terrorist challenge in Jammu & Kashmir. Hostile terrain poses a huge challenge. That needs to be addressed by the counter-insurgency grid. More importantly, the growing alienation among the Gujjar and Bakherwal communities needs to be addressed. Security forces cannot be expected to succeed in neutralizing terror without the cooperation of the local communities.   

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya. This policy brief 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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