PThe Pulwama attack has shaken the country to its core. The feared vehicle-borne suicide attacks have resurfaced in the Valley. As security forces step-up ‘Operation All Out’ to flush militants, its increasingly a do-or-die situation for the terror organisations. Who will go for the jugular? How much bloodier will it get in Jammu and Kashmir?

On a star studded night even as their jaws chattered fighting the bone-chilling cold wave, several thousand men, cladded in uniforms with guns and rucksacks slung to their backs, marched their ways on to designated vehicles. By around 3:38 AM in the morning, a 78-vehicle convoy carrying more than 2,500 personnel of the Central Reserved Police Force (CRPF) cautiously rumbled out of the force’s transit camp in Jammu.

Within minutes, the convoy, after criss-crossing through the lifeless city of Jammu, trickled on to NH-44 (National Highway), the lifeline for forces serving in the restive Kashmir valley. The destination for the convoy was Srinagar, a crucial transit point for the forces before they move out to their respective postings in the valley.

The journey from Jammu to Srinagar, a mere distance of 250-odd kilometres but one which takes more than 10 hours of gruelling travel, was a common affair for many of those who were travelling in the convoy. But for several of the young CRPF men, who had just passed out of training and were making way for their first postings, it was an adrenaline filled journey.

As Head Constable Jaimal Singh, driver of the fifth bus from the front of the convoy, accelerated ahead to keep pace, his colleague Head Constable Sukhjinder Singh in the back of the unarmoured bus shot videos with his smartphone and streamed it through to his family members in Tarn Taran, a distant village in Punjab. Even as occupants of the bus reminisced memories of their loved ones and hometown, the convoy slowly entered Kashmir and by 2:00 PM in the afternoon, it pulled into Qazigund, a town in the Anantnag district.

Here in Qazigund, more than 15 vehicles dispersed from the convoy. As part of CRPF’s well-established Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), several of the buses, amongst the 78 vehicle convoy, were unloaded and their occupants were loaded on to armoured vehicles, commonly called as mobile bunkers. While the SOP also mandated that all of the personnel for their safety be loaded on to these mobile bunkers, but that was a far lived promise that day, as the convoy strength was unusually large. A quick decision was made to continue a part of the convoy in the unarmoured buses, which had ferried them from Jammu.

With sporadic but violent terror activities along the stretch of the highway, the journey from Qazigund to Srinagar is a true security nightmare for the forces. While more than a dozen armoured vehicles, consisting of Army and CRPF personnel, armed to repel any terror activities along the remainder of the journey joined the convoy, a road opening party (ROP) forward deployed to sanitise and secure the highway in anticipation of the huge convoy movement.

Following the all-clear from the ROP, the convoy hurtled out of Quizgund. The bus, piloted by Head Constable Jaimal Singh with 43 other occupants, yet again joined fifth from the lead.

By 3:30 PM, the convoy had crossed Awantipora town. Srinagar was now only a mere 30 kilometres away.

As the convoy cautiously made its way through Lethipora, a decrepit village en route, driver Jaimal Singh caught sight of a vehicle rushing through, almost adjacent to the convoy. The car, after cutting through a part of the convoy, veered off and then back towards the convoy as it neared Jaimal’s vehicle. Before the experienced Jaimal could even react, a powerful and violent explosion rocked the convoy and surrounding areas. Within fraction of a second, a powerful shockwave ripped through the immediate detail of the convoy bringing it to a dead halt. The ensuing intense light and shockwave, momentarily disoriented the CRPF personnel.

A Country Shaken to its Core

As CRPF jawans struggled to take ground following the explosion, an apocalyptic scene awaited the convoy. The fifth bus carrying the jawans, which was at the epicentre of the explosion, had all but vanished. In its place now remained a heap of mangled metal burning bright. The immediate area around the blast site was strewn with human flesh and blood, mortal remains of the brave CRPF personnel being ferried in the unfortunate vehicle.

As the fog of ensuing confusion settled, it dawned upon the security forces that almost all of the 44 occupants in the ill-fated vehicle had perished in the attack. Only 5 of the occupants had survived the attack, but were left with life-threatening injuries. The fourth and sixth vehicle in the convoy also bore the brunt of the explosion, with few occupants in these vehicles picking up serious injuries.

In all, 40 CRPF jawans perished, in what can be described as the deadliest terror attack perpetrated targeting India security forces. February 14, 2019 undoubtedly went down as the bloodiest day for security forces, since their deployment in the restive Jammu and Kashmir Valley to contain insurgency.

Even as the nation reeled under the aftermath of the attack, the infamous Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan based and sponsored terror organisation, claimed responsibility for the dastardly act. A video released shortly after the attack on JeM’s online platforms, portrayed a young Kashmiri youth, named Adil Ahmed Daar, as the suicide bomber who had carried out the attack following instructions from across the border.

By the evening, as the country plunged into mourning, CRPF in a briefly worded statement said “Regret to inform that 37 personnel of the CRPF attained martyrdom, 5 personnel injured have been shifted to 92 Base Hospital for Treatment.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation, in a tweet, said “Attack on CRPF in Pulwama is despicable. I strongly condemn this dastardly attack. The sacrifices of our brave personnel shall not go in vain. The entire nation stands shoulder to shoulder with the families of the brave martyrs. May the injured recover quickly.”

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi paying homage to the martyred CRPF Jawans, at Palam airport, in New Delhi on February 15, 2019.

The deadly attack rattled India’s security establishment and set alarms blaring across India’s power corridors. Jaish, a proxy enemy and a non-state actor, up on whom Pakistan has time and again depended to attack India, had succeeded in striking at India’s underbelly.

Anatomy of the Attack

Even as the country witnessed heart wrenching scenes, as funerals of the deceased jawans was held across the length and breadth of India, the country’s security establishment, however, was left grappling to find answers to several crucial questions.

Primarily, how had a local youth, though indoctrinated and radicalised but still largely untrained, succeeded in driving into a security convoy, which had almost thoroughly followed the well laid out SOPs? He had breached not a single, but several layers of security cordons, that usually are in place when there is convoy moment. Further, indisputably there was lapses on part of the security forces. Where and why had they failed, to the level of leaving a gaping hole which had consumed 40 brave lives? And the most haunting question amongst all, had Jaish planned future attacks, if yes, where and when were they coming from?

Answers to these pressing questions are crucial as the forces have to repel any future attacks against security forces in the valley. National Investigation Agency (NIA), the country’s premier investigative agency against terror activities, has been given the lead. Experts, who specialised in IEDs and explosive devices, were pooled in from the Army and the National Security Guard (NSG) to piece together the circumstances leading to the worst terror attack on the country’s security forces.

The convoy had been targeted close to the Lethipora village, which is a mere kilometer away from the CRPF’s 110 Battalion headquarter. Lethipora lays in the epicentre of the troubled and violence torn Awantipora region, which is a known hot bed of terror activities. Insurgency in the region has seen an unabated rise since 2014.

Evidences available at the ground reliably established the use of VBIED (Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device). Security personnel, who had witnessed the horrific event unfold infant of them, revealed that Dar on the fateful day was driving a Maruti Eeco with J&K registration. The vehicle, they said, drove in from the Lethipora village and joined onto NH-44 and overtook a major part of the convoy, before driving straight into the fifth fateful bus.

Given the damage the convoy suffered, explosive experts have so far established that the vehicle may have carried at least 100 kilograms of high-grade explosives. Residents and security forces in the immediate vicinity had said that the resulting shockwave from the blast had violently shaken the ground and had shattered glass panes kilometres away. Forensic analysis of the evidences have further revealed that the IED was largely composed of the highly-explosive RDX and had traces of Ammonium Nitrate. Mixed together, these proponents can result in a deadly explosive mixture. Pakistani-based terror organisations have time and again favoured this mixture, given the ensuing aftermath it promises.

While investigative agencies map together the final moments leading to blast, the more pressing question for the security establishment has been the origin of the RDX explosive. A military-grade explosive, RDX is extremely difficult to be procured in comparison to Ammonium Nitrate, which is commonly sold for both farming and mining activities.

The use of RDX in the blast, sources say, definitely point to the support JeM has received from across the border. Intelligence agencies have on multiple occasions raised alarms about infiltrators carrying explosives and weapons from across the border when intruding into the country. Agencies have also been grappling to establish as to how the explosive was transported within the country, undetected from the security agencies. Local support from Over the Ground Workers (OGW) is an undeniable fact, say officers with the state police. According to the latest estimates by the J&K police, more than 1,750 OGWs thrive in Kashmir alongside the militants.

Further, the use of VBIED technique by the Pakistan terror organisation itself has emerged as a major security scare for the forces. The SOPs, established for convoy movement, have traditionally been evolved to counter stand-off firing and conventional deployment of IEDs. This is perhaps for the first time that a terror organisation has resorted to using a mobile vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.

Major global terror organisations, such as the ISIS, Al Qaeda and Taliban have resorted to using these VBIEDs to target high-value installations. The usage of VBIEDs has been mastered by terror groups through the course of Iran and Syrian conflict.

The advancement of this technique into Kashmir has sent Indian forces into a dizzy trip. While support from Pakistan is credible, agencies fear that terror organisations operating in Afghanistan may also have helped JeM in mastering this deadly technique.

With both the target and the explosive (terror vehicle) mobile, it is a true security nightmare for the forces. World over, security forces prone to VBIEDs have traditionally maintained road closure practises to keep suspected vehicles at a safe distance.

But for Indian forces, prior to the attack, this was a far lived option. In 2002, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) led coalition state government laid stringent restrictions up on the security forces, forcing them to do away with the practise of blocking civilian traffic during movement of security convoys. According to investigators, this effort, which the former Government had termed as a ‘healing touch’ to the Kashmiri people, has virtually today led to the deadly Pulwama attack.

Following consultations with the Central Government, the J&K Governor’s office has ordered the state administration to do away with the contagious 2002 order. Security forces have now been allowed to introduce road closure for civilian traffic as part of their SOPs when large convoys are travelling in restive areas. It will, however, take sometime for the forces to adequately chalk out plans to counter the VBIED threat.

While Dar, the perpetrator of the attack himself perished in the ensuing blast, the agencies were largely worried about the know-how in assembling these devices flowing into the valley. The forces were certain that the mastermind of the attack was in fact Abdul Rasheed Ghazi alias Kamran, a top commander of the Jaish and also a confidante of Masood Azhar.

Hailing from Pakistan, Ghazi was a trained expert in assembling IEDs. With the Taliban, he had worked in Pakistan’s lawless Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) targeting NATO forces with IED devices, including VBIEDs. Ghazi had been on the radar of the security forces since his arrival to the Valley sometime in 2017.

On February 18, the security forces, in an intelligence led operation that lasted for more than twelve hours, gunned down Ghazi in Pulwama along with three other of his aides. Has the technical knowhow in making VBIEDs perished with Ghazi’s demise is something that has to be seen in the future.

How did a Kashmiri youth, radicalised but largely untrained, transform to a dreaded suicide bomber?

As soon as news of the Pulwama attack reached the headquarters of the Jammu and Kashmir State police in Jammu, the intelligence wing began scouring the list of known terrorist in the region. Top brass of the intelligence wing strongly believed that it was carried out by a foreign militant who had infiltrated from across Pakistan.

When Jaish claimed responsibility for the attack, the involvement of a foreign terrorist gained greater traction. When the news of Jaish having uploaded a video of the fidayeen broke out, the HQ broke into feverish activity. As the video was streamed to the top brass, they were taken aback.

In the video was a young Kashmiri youth, who brandishing an automatic rifle and several other weapons, introducing himself as Adil Ahmed Dar. In a monotonous almost lifeless voice, Dar began narrating his journey with Jaish, which he claimed began almost a year ago. With a visible elation in his emotions, Dar in the video, in reference to his fidayeen attack, said “By the time this video reaches you all, I would be in heaven.”

While the video conclusively nailed down the perpetrators of the attack, it also gave birth to a new terror face in the valley. Adil Ahmed Dar, by driving the explosive-laden vehicle into the convoy, had become one of the very rare few local youths who had been radicalised enough to participate in a suicide mission.

A resident of Gundibagh Village in the Kakapora Taluk of Kashmir, Dar was a known militant to the J&K police. He joined the ranks of Jaish somewhere in March or April of last year after he fled from his house. Prior to him joining Jaish, Dar was known to have worked in local saw mills, after dropping out of school.

Dar’s father, Ghulam Hassan, in several interaction with the media persons visiting his house after the attack, has claimed that Dar only joined militancy last year. He and his wife, Fahmeeda Hassan, both claim that Dar had little to no interest in militancy prior to him joining Jaish.

Records maintained in the local police station, however, refute these claims. Dar, according to these reports, had taken to militancy way back in 2016. At a time when insurgency had ripped through J&K, following the successful operation by forces to hunt down Burhan Wani, a known A++ category terrorist, Dar had begun his tryst with militancy.

His first stint was as an over ground worker (OGW) for a foreign terror organisation. After having been picked up security forces on multiple occasions for pelting stones, Dar was put under security watch. His continued interaction with other known militants and separatists had led the police to eventually classify him as a ‘Category – C’ militant.

While Dar was kept under constant watch for sometimes, police turned down the heat after protest subsided in the Valley. By March, 2018, however, Dar had fled from his house along with at least two other of his associates to join JeM, eventually proclaiming himself as Waqas Commando – Warrior Commando.

While police scoured the valley for Dar initially, they lost interest in him as he went underground for a long period. Police say it is largely possible that Dar had fled into the forests, where he might have been indoctrinated and trained by Abdul Rasheed Ghazi and his associates.

Dar’s transition from being a ‘Category – C’ militant, which had placed way down the pecking order, to a suicide bomber has been a shocking development for the J&K police. Till date, very few Kashmiri youths, radicalised and indoctrinated by terror organisations, have signed up for even the fidayeen attacks. Amongst them, only a handful have been part of suicide attacks, which itself is a unique signature of Jaish. While fidayeen attacks, undoubtedly mean death to the perpetrators at the hands of the forces, they still give the terrorist a fighting chance. But suicide missions, such as the one executed by Dar, mean certain and instant death.

Indoctrination of locals to this level is a certain security nightmare, say sources with the intelligence agencies. Many with the agencies feel that while foreign terrorists planning suicide missions can be easily picked up, thanks to intelligence networks – both through technological and human interface, picking up locals will be a herculean task.

 Jaish-e-Mohammed – the Army of Mohammed led by a bloodied ideology and bloodied hand of a monster named Masood Azhar.

On April 19, 2000 a violent explosion rocked the Badami Bagh cantonment high-security area, housing the Army’s 15th Corps HQ. With two soldiers killed and scores injured, the 15th Corps or the Chinar Corps, which leads almost all of the military operations in J&K, was left reeling under the explosions shockwave.

Shortly after, it was reliably established that the attack had been carried out by a hardly known terror organisation called simply Jaish-e-Mohammed or the Army of Mohammed. The use of VBIED and a local youth, Afaq Ahmed Shah, for conducting the first suicide bombing in India had propelled JeM into the spotlight.

As the agencies set off in search for this terror organisation operating from across the border, one name took all of their interest. Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder of JeM, thus became the most after sought men by India.

Masood Azhar was not a new face to the Indian security establishment. A known radical and terrorist, he had only recently been let-off by India in exchange to hostages aboard the IC-814 Indian Airliner that had been hijacked by Pakistani hijackers from Kathmandu. Then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had personally escorted Masood Azhar and the two other terrorists to Kandahar, where the passengers-terrorists swap had taken place. Masood had been under arrest since 1994, after he had entered India to take control of HuM’s terror operations.

The 2001 attack on J&K’s legislative assembly by JeM operatives, using a car laden with explosives, which killed 38 people set a new tone in Kashmir’s insurgency history. Having conducted more than 4 fidayeen attack in less than a year, JeM had not only gained notoriety but had made fidayeen attacks a new normal.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi paying homage to the martyred CRPF Jawans, at Palam airport, in New Delhi on February 15, 2019.

Attack on India’s Parliament in 2001, an attack which still haunts the country, led by the infamous Afzal Guru and his associates, gave JeM the international limelight. Claiming 9 innocent lives, at India’s political power seat in New Delhi, Jaish succeeded in pushing India and Pakistan, two nuclear armed neighbours to the brink of war. While JeM was stationed by US and Pakistan momentarily arrested Masood Azhar, Jaish’s terror activities in India receded considerably after the 2002 Akshardham attack. Jaish after this shifted its focus to the Afghanistan theatre, where it targeted US-led coalition forces, alongside Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

In 2013, the Union Government, after years of dangling, finally hanged Afzal Guru to death at Tihar jail, bringing closure to the 2001 parliament attacks. As the news of his hanging spread, violence ripped through valley, taking birth at Sopore and Baramullah, the home town district of Afzal Guru.

While Indian forces came down heavily on insurgents to contain any further violence, across the border in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), Afzal’s stooge Masood Azhar resurfaced from years of exile. Addressing an extremist valley at Muzaffarabad, under the watch of ISI and Pakistani security forces, Masood gave an open call for resumption of Jihad against India. He promised backing every attack with greater monetary support besides committing his fidayeens to such missions. When terrorists struck the Army camp at Mohura in Uri on December 5, 2014, the Indian Government realised that Masood meant business. In the first attack after what looked like its revival in J&K, JeM killed 11 security men.

This attack was followed by the far deadlier Pathankot and Uri attacks, both of which targeted the forces through Fidayeen attacks. While the attack at Pathankot, targeting the strategic Air Base, claimed 7 lives, attack in Uri claimed 19 lives, making it one of the deadliest terror attack against the forces.

These repeated attacks specifically targeting the forces, often in cold blood, raised alarms in India. Agencies feared that Jaish had started rapidly gaining back the ground it had conceded to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) about a decade ago. More worrying was the fact that around 2016, the number of local youths joining terror organisations had seen a meteoric rise. For the first time since insurgency began in Kashmir, the number of local youths working with these organisations had exceeded the number of foreign terrorists operating in the valley.

When Jaish succeeded with in attacking Army camps in Baramulla and Nagrota in quick successions, the forces were provided a free hand to train their guns against JeM operatives in the valley. The surgical strike, launched as reply to these attacks, itself was launched to drive home a message to JeM. In India, with ‘Operation All Out’, launched by forces to flush terrorists from J&K, gaining traction in districts of Pulwama, Anantnag, Kulgam, Baramulla and Shopian, the preferred operating ground of JeM, the top commanders of Jaish were brought under the crosshairs of security forces.

By the year end, forces had succeeded in killing over 150 terrorists from various organisations operating in the Valley. Intelligence-led operations led to the arrest of  Sadiq Gujjar, Abdul Rehman and Saifullah, all top divisional commanders of Jaish. In October, 2017, Umer Khalid, a top commander in charge of Fidayeen squads, was gunned down in an encounter with forces in Ladoora area of Baramulla. When Tala Rashid and Usman Haider, nephews of Masood Azhar, were killed in separate encounters, the forces succeeded in sending through a message to JeM’s top leadership. The biggest breakthrough, however, came in December, 2017, when Noor Mohammed Tantray was hunted down after a prolonged gun battle. With Mufti Waqas and Zia-Ur-Rehman, top operational commanders, having been gunned down, forces are now in the hunt for Zahid Bhat and Shahijahan, two remaining ‘Category A++’ JeM commanders.

Those familiar with Jaish’s operations feel that the terror organisation will resort to more Fidayeen attacks in the future as it is rapidly losing its cadre strength. Jaish lost more than 32 terrorists from its cadre in 2018 alone. The Pulwama attack, they say, comes in the backdrop of a do-or-die situation Jaish faces and says it shows the desperation of JeM as it fast loses ground in the valley. The successful Pulwama attack and resurrection of the suicide bombing techniques may favour Jaish’s recruitment drive in the valley. It is, thus, crucial that forces keep Jaish commanders in their crosshairs.

After Pulwama

Following the deadly attack, the Government has ordered an extensive review of the current SOPs in place for convoy movement. The decision to allow forces to enforce road closures during convoy movement through troubled areas has been welcomed by the forces. This promises to substantially address the threat from VBIEDs. The mastermind of the attack, Rashid Ghazi, has been gunned down by the forces. It is likely that the technical know-how in assembling and operating this deadly system have perished with him.

Further, the Government has approved air travel for all personnel of the paramilitary forces serving in the Valley. Forces will now be ferried through the means of air courier services between Delhi-Jammu-Srinagar. More than 7, 80,000 personnel of the paramilitary forces are expected to benefit from this. While the forces have welcomed this decision of the Government, senior officials of CRPF, feel that air travel can never replace road convoys, they at most can only supplement them.

While the security forces limp back to normalcy, the Government is going full steam ahead to answer the Pulwama attack with full force. Three targets lay at the Government’s crosshairs – Jaish, its sponsorer – Pakistan and its supporters – the local insurgents.

While the forces have already began their operations to hunt down remaining Jaish terrorists in the valley, the Government is training its guns against insurgents, who for years have been a major security headache. As part of its plans, the Government soon after the attack airlifted 100 additional paramilitary companies to the valley.

With forces in place, the Government has launched a major crackdown against separatists, with over 150 of them being arrested to maintain the law and order situation in the state. Abdul Hamid Fayaz and Yasin Mallik have both been arrested and shifted out to jails in Jammu. Security provided to Hurriyat and separatist leaders, including the security for Shah Faizal, the bureaucrat turned Politician, has been withdrawn with immediate effect. The J&K police have also been given a free hand in breaking down the OWG network that surely has played its role in the Pulwama attack. Over 1,750 OWGs are believed to active in the valley.

To deal with Pakistan, the Government has resorted to a two pronged approach. While the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) works to isolate Pakistan diplomatically on the international stage, the country’s military forces have been tasked to neutralise terror camps inside Pakistan. The MEA’s efforts have paid off with US, UK, Russia, Japan, Australia and a host of other nations openly criticising Pakistan for failure to attack against terror organisations. The Government, besides importing a 200% import duty on all Pakistani origin goods, has revoked the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status. MEA is working towards increasing its pressure on Pakistan by pulling up the issue at international forums such as UN and OIC.

As the military forces prepare ground to launch operations against Pakistan-based terror targets, two options await the Government, either report to overt show of force, or to the more preferred covert means, where forces will launch targeted strikes against pre-designated targets. However, the prevailing weather conditions, mean that it will be a herculean task for the forces to actually launch any ground operations against targets across the border. India undoubtedly has the option to launch precision guided attack against targets, employing either its artillery forces or the Air Force, but both of these options can easily escalate and lead India and Pakistan towards a conflict situation.

The Pulwama attack has thrown open a new bloodied chapter in India’s struggle to contain militancy and insurgency in Kashmir, both of which are sponsored and supported form across the border. CRPF, the soft target in this struggle, even though served with a deadly blow, have risen from ashes and ready to serve the country’s population yet again. As the nation mourns and seethes in anger, the onus is upon the Union Government to decisively deal with both Pakistan, its deep state and JeM.

[This article was received by the publication on February 22, 2019. Indian Air Force jets on the intervening nights of February 25-26, 2019 launched attacks against a JeM training camp in Muzaffarabad situated in POK.]