May 2018 News

Jaish-e-Mohammed Increases Kashmir Footprint As Burhan Wani's Hometown Of Tral Becomes Its Base For Militancy

1 May 2018
Sameer Yasir

Awantipora: Tral is fast emerging as the new address in India of the Masood Azhar-led and Pakistan-based militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed. It has recently been in the national news as it is the hometown of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, who infused a fresh lease of life in the three-decade-old insurgency in Kashmir. On 24 April, the Jammu and Kashmir police killed four militants in the Laam forest of Tral, which is located in the volatile Pulwama district. Two days later, the police identified one of the slain militant as Mufti Yasir, the operational commander of Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) who was at one time the personal security officer of Masood Azhar. 'He was a commander and an important person in the JeM,' Inspector General of Kashmir Police Swayam Prakash Pani said. However, when the encounter broke out, the forces had never anticipated that their adversary would be Azhar's close aide and someone who has been at the helm of new recruitment for his organisation in south Kashmir. In recent months, particularly after the killing of over a dozen militants in Shopian district, police sources say most youths who turned to militancy joined the JeM. 'If 20 youths join the militants, 15 will go to Jaish-e-Mohammed. Tral is their new home,' a senior police officer in Awantipora, a police district in Pulwama, told Firstpost. The militant outfit has capitalised on the fading Hizbul Mujahideen footprint in Tral following the arrest of Tariq Pandit, a top militant from the outfit, and the subsequent busting of their hideouts in the deep woods, a police officer who keeps a close tab on Tral and its changing insurgent dynamics says. In December 2017, the JeM lost an important 'force multiplier' in the form of 47-year-old, barely three-feet tall divisional commander, Noor Mohammad Tantray. Considered as the brain behind the militant outfit's revival in the Valley, Tantray was killed in an encounter with security forces in Pulwama district on 26 December, 2017. A close aide of Jaish-e-Mohammed commander Ghazi Baba, who masterminded the 2001 attack on Parliament, Tantray was arrested from Delhi's Sadar Bazar on 31 August, 2003. He was serving his sentence at Central Jail, Srinagar, until he went out on parole in 2015. Later, he remained in his hometown and became a major JeM overground worker in the region. 'A strange shift was taking place in the insurgent camps,' says an intelligence officer. 'Mushtaq Latram had covertly allied with Masood Azhar in Pakistan and some of his men in Kashmir had spread this notion that Tantray was a one-time al-Umar affiliate.' Interestingly, Latram and his al-Umar outfit, did enjoy considerable support from late Molvi Mirwaiz Farooq's supporters called 'Bakras'. Tral is reportedly the second most significant address of Bakras in Kashmir, after old Srinagar. 'One can easily join the dots on why former al-Umar men termed Tantray their own. In the context of Mushtaq and Masood coming together, Tantray's role as Jaish's main recruiter from Tral makes sense,' the officer says. 'Basically, he was up to a very dangerous game by reviving the old JeM network.' Before he was killed, Tantray revived the JeM network like no other militant could have done. Along with another Jaish commander, Mufti Waqas, Tantray had played a major role in the recent attacks carried out by the outfit. In the most recent encounter in Tral, Jaish lost four of its militants including Yasir-the personal security officer of Masood Azhar. Yasir had replaced Mufti Waqas in March 2018, after the latter's killing in a brief encounter in South Kashmir's Letpora. Since last summer, Jaish has lost 37 of its militants in Kashmir, according to its mouthpiece Al-Qalam. Now, it is attempting to give a breather to the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen by making Tral as its stronghold, according to the police. The LeT and Hizbul are suffering heavily in Operation All Out. 'The JeM militants are tough as compared to local Kashmiri ones. The only problem they faced was a lack of local knowledge. Now, they have the support of many locals and it is a deadly combination,' Mohmmad Aslam, Senior Superintendent of police, Pulwama, told Firstpost. By 2000, after the high-voltage IC-814 hijacking case paved the way for the release of three militants, including Maulana Masood Azhar and Al-Umar chief, Mushtaq Latram, insurgency in Kashmir saw a paradigm shift. Instead of Kalashnikov-wielding men, fidayeen squads of the Jaish-e-Mohammad started rattling the Indian state and its military installations in Kashmir. According to officials, around 55 such attacks took place between mid-1999 and the end of 2002, leaving 161 security forces and 90 fidayeen dead. The fidayeen phase of the Kashmir insurgency was controlled by Hafiz Saeed's Lashkar-e-Taiba, along with the Jaish-e-Mohammed. After 2003, fidayeen attacks slumped. In this phase, Kashmir's militant strikes were mostly carried out by the pro-Pakistan, indigenous Hizbul Mujahideen. But the outfit was steadily weakened by a long war of attrition with the Indian security forces and by internal divisions, forcing it to adopt a low profile. After years of calm, JeM made a comeback at the fag-end of 2013 when its head Masood Azhar released Afzal Guru's biography called 'Aina' posthumously. In the 240-page book, the Jaish chief bats for Guru and flays New Delhi for presenting him as an 'unemployed, chain-smoking young man whose loyalties can be bought for peanuts'. JeM floated its Afzal Guru squad a month before the Parliament attack convict's first death anniversary. It began attacking the military installations across and outside Kashmir in his name. For JeM, these strikes marked a stunning comeback to Kashmir's landscape. For intelligence agencies, Afzal Guru had become Jaish's 'larger jihad project'. After attacking the Pathankot airbase in January 2016, the Jaish-e-Mohammed's Afzal Guru Squad targeted Uri army base in September 2016, Pulwama in August 2017 and Srinagar airport in October 2017, to name a few attacks. With local militancy on the rise, the coming days will not be easy.