The killing last week of a Kashmiri Pandit, Makhan Lal Bindroo, a well-known chemist in Srinagar, by terrorists, led to public outrage. The incident was criticised cutting across religious and political lines. Within minutes of his killing, a Hindu street hawker from Bihar was also gunned down. The third incident the same day was the shooting of Mohamad Shafi, the president of a local taxi stand. Two days later a principal and a schoolteacher were killed in Sangam area of Srinagar. Both were from the minority community. Terrorists had compelled staff at the school to display identity cards before shooting them. The Resistance Front (TRF), which draws its cadre from the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
In Kashmir, 25 unarmed and innocent people have been killed in a similar pattern this year including off-duty policemen and security personnel on leave. Of them, ten were in Srinagar and four each in Pulwama and Anantnag, with the rest being spread across the valley. Six of the seven killed last week were from the minority community, adding to concerns and triggering debates on migration.
J&K Police are describing these targeted shootings as ‘hybrid warfare’, a new approach adopted by militants who according to the police are employing overground workers to kill ‘soft targets.’ The militants survey their victims over time prior to committing the act from close range and then vanish. As per a police official, “hybrid militants don’t have any record in official books. Because of this advantage of anonymity, it becomes difficult to identify them.” Even CCTV cameras in the area have not been of much assistance.
This form of killing is gaining ground as known terrorists are identified, located and eliminated at a fast pace. With few successful infiltration attempts, Pakistan-based terrorists are reduced in numbers. With better human intelligence and electronic monitoring their locations are being detected, resulting in successful encounters. With local support waning, Pakistani terrorists are forced into hiding in jungles and hills. Locals who join militant ranks lack training and motivation; hence they have very short life spans once they pick up the gun.
The Pakistani leadership had banked on local support during encounters, where on occasions innocent lives were lost, leading to more youth opting for the gun. This strategy, now discarded, was aimed at convincing the local Kashmiris that security forces cannot succeed against a determined populace seeking merger with Pakistan. They were backed by the hard line Hurriyat, which funded violence and supported a merger with Pakistan. With the Hurriyat sidelined and a changed environment in the valley, the Pakistani leadership understood that challenging security forces would not produce desired results. Further, any incident which crossed the Indian threshold of tolerance would be countered in a similar manner as Balakote.
Thus, Pakistan’s ISI was compelled to devise a new approach. From this was born the concept of creating an environment of fear and insecurity amongst minorities rather than attacking well-armed security forces. It is a modified approach of one adopted in the early 1990s, where minorities were targeted. Apart from giving militancy a local character, this enhances anger against the state for failing to protect minority populace. It would also restrict Indian reactions on Pakistani soil and the ceasefire would continue to hold. In this changed strategy the weapons employed would change from long range AKs to pistols and grenades.
Current attacks in cities are based either on shooting from close range or throwing grenades on security force pickets or in crowded areas. An added aim is that such incidents could enhance communal divide, initially in the valley, subsequently spreading across the nation. For such operations, the modules created would be small with limited interconnectivity. In case one is neutralized, others continue. Finally, India cannot blame Pakistan directly as incidents involve locals, mainly Over Ground Workers (OGWs).
In an encounter with infiltrating terrorists in the third week of September, all the five were eliminated and the army recovered more pistols and grenades than AK rifles. A total of 5 AKs, seven pistols and 38 Chinese made hand grenades were retrieved. Drone dropped weapons or those being smuggled are also largely pistols and grenades.
Pakistan is exploiting the current Indian security policy in the valley, where security forces hesitate to act arbitrarily, to prevent youth from going astray and joining militant ranks. While crackdown on OGWs continue, there are many who remain below police radars. These are now being employed as killers. They are paid for their acts of terrorism which are carried out after careful selection of targets and in an area devoid of police presence. Media coverage, played up by statements of relatives and those released by terrorist groups, benefit Pakistan. Giving these killings a religious character only supports the Pakistani cause.
This change in strategy necessitates a change in approach by security forces. The intention should be to locate and break these modules. The first stage must include increased monitoring including enhancing local intelligence networks. Secondly, random patrolling must be increased. Third should be to exploit informational space to convince the public of Pakistan’s designs and also seek inputs on possible suspects with promises of rewards. This needs care as in some cases individuals would pass information based on personal grievances.
Simultaneously, it is important to convince the public to not consider these killings as targeting specific communities. Finally, every form of media must be exploited to convince the youth from radicalization as it would result in their elimination or arrest. The local police need to get its act together early.
Operations in such scenarios are intelligence driven and led by the police with other forces acting on tip offs. Human intelligence will play a critical role.
Every new approach by terrorists succeeds in initial stages. They possess the advantage as they have chosen the direction as also the date, time and place of killing innocents. With passage of time, these networks will be located and broken down. While terrorists may possess an upper hand currently, it will not be for long.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.