Suicide bombers: New age Kashmir warriors
16 December 2001
The Asian Age
Srinagar: On a silent April afternoon in Kashmir, a 17-year-old boy drove up to Army headquarters in a car packed with explosives. He blew himself up outside the massive iron gates. Almost two years later, as dusk gives way to a winter night in the Kashmir Valley and a retired school teacher’s family settles down to break its Ramzan fast, the dinner spread is one plate short. It’s a reminder of their son, Aafaq Shah, who became a suicide bomber or “fidayeen.” “What made him do it?” asked his mother, Ayesha Shah. “Mostly, he would stay home reading his school books. He didn’t have many friends.” An attack on Parliament in New Delhi on Thursday began with one of the militants blowing himself up with explosives strapped to his body. A similar attack on the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature on October 1 started with a man ramming an explosives-filled car into an entry gate, killing himself in the blast. The advent of suicide bombers among militants in Kashmir is changing the way the Army is fighting the campaign. Since the first such bombing in July 1999, there have been at least 44 similar strikes in the Kashmir Valley, killing 163 people — including the attackers, intelligence officials say. The military is now viewing its adversaries in a new way. When the militancy started in 1989, Army officers dismissed the militants as amateurish, preferring to trigger remote controlled explosions or launch hit-and-run attacks. They seldom engaged in daredevil attacks such as those by militants in the Northeast. Officers said it made their adversaries seem weaker. No more. “No one can stop anyone who is prepared to die,” said K. Rajendra, inspector-general of police. “The militants resort to this psychological and tactical weapon through which they hope to stretch the security forces and take them by surprise, thereby inflicting maximum damage.” When hijackers forced planes to crash into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, Kashmiris realised with chilling empathy that those were fidayeen attacks. Three weeks later, came the attack on the state legislature, which killed 40 people in the worst terrorist bombing of the insurgency. “A fidayeen attack is as indifferent and cold-blooded as the attacks on the World Trade Centre,” said Mr Rajendra. Tariq Ahmad Khan, whose father was burned to death in the bombing of the state legislature, deplores the bombings. “Only innocent lives are lost. It is not right,” he said. Some, however, support the idea of “holy warriors” dying with their victims, for their cause. “They may take extreme steps, but after all, they are fighting for Kashmiri freedom,” said shopkeeper Abdul Samad. That is little consolation for the Shahs, who still wonder what prompted their son to commit suicide in such a spectacular manner. “What went through his mind?’’ asked Ms Shah. Most fidayeen are aged 17-25, with little or no schooling, and come from poor families, so Aafaq Shah did not fit that model. Intelligence officials say most suicide attackers in Kashmir are Pakistani or Afghan, not Kashmiris. The September 11 hijackers, however, showed that there had been a shift in the type of men attracted to suicidal missions. Many were well-educated and from prosperous families. Their compulsion could only be attributed to a belief that their sacrifices were a religious duty and their deaths a blessing — a view being taught by a growing number of Muslim clerics. Syed Tayyab Shah, a Muslim cleric in Kashmir, said Islam forbids suicide. But holy war is the duty of every Muslim when religion, life or the property of the Muslim community is threatened, or when a believer is forced to convert. “If jihad is undertaken according to the strict instructions of the Quran, suicide missions can be allowed if they offer military or strategic advantage to the Muslim Army,” Mr Shah said. Army officers say most fidayeen attacks in Kashmir have been launched by the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, two of the most feared militant groups based in Pakistan. “Disillusionment with their surroundings is the main reason why youngsters are drawn to seek refuge in religious fanaticism,” said Kashmiri sociologist Ghulam Mohammed. He added that many Muslims see jihad, or holy war, as a way to purify the soul. “A fidayeen stretches this to dramatic effect and hopes for instant purification, almost at his will. It is quick and glorious,” he said.