Why Kashmir’s new militant outfit, ‘Lashkar offshoot’, signals possible escalation of violence

Why Kashmir’s new militant outfit, ‘Lashkar offshoot’, signals possible escalation of violence

J&K Police say the TRF’s emergence could be the start of a 'violent campaign' in Kashmir, which the Lashkar-e-Taiba cannot undertake on its own due to international focus on it.

Restrictions in Srinagar

File image of security personnel standing guard in Srinagar (representational image) | PTI

Srinagar: Kashmir’s new militant group, The Resistance Front (TRF) — which J&K Police say is an offshoot of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) — has kept security forces in the Valley on their toes.

The TRF has, however, denied any link to the LeT.

Police officials said the TRF, from being a non-entity in Kashmir, has now become a considerable security threat and its emergence could be part of a strategy to escalate violence in the union territory.

In an encounter in the first week of April, security forces have killed five TRF militants, three of them being local youths.

The encounter, which took place in Keran sector in north Kashmir’s Kupwara, also claimed the lives of five Indian army personnel, including paratroopers.

The emergence of the outfit even prompted the J&K administration to mention it as one of the reasons for the continued ban on high-speed internet.

Without naming the TRF, the order stated: “There have… been many instances of civilian killings, attacks on security forces, recoveries of arms, ammunition, attempt to propagate terrorism through uploading videos, coordinating infiltration from across the border, launch of new terror outfits etc.” 

While the J&K administration is hoping that 2G internet speed will control violence in Kashmir to some extent and prevent the TRF from furthering its goals, counter insurgency officials are treading cautiously.

A senior police official said the TRF’s head, who goes by the name of Abu Anas, might be based in south Kashmir. Police are ascertaining the real identity of Anas and also probing the strength of the new militant group.

Although J&K DGP Dilbagh Singh said the TRF is an offshoot of the LeT, the former has denied it.

In a statement, seen by ThePrint, the TRF said that rumours of it being affiliated with the Lashkar were spread to undermine the “indigenous” and “legitimate armed group” of Kashmir.

Besides the TRF, the security officials are also looking into the possible emergence of another outfit, called Tehreek-i-Milat-i-Islami (TMI). But police officials said they are yet to find anything concrete in that regard.

Also read: With no internet on mobile networks, Kashmir militants go back to using satellite phones

‘Launch of new outfits signal a trend’

According to J&K Police data, this year, more than 40 militants have been killed so far, both local residents and Pakistani nationals, in over a dozen gun battles.

The first half of this month saw several violent incidents, which claimed the lives of civilians as well as security personnel.

In the first week of April, four civilians were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in separate incidents that took place in various parts of Kashmir.

The same week also saw the deadly Kupwara encounter.

In another incident on 7 April, a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) trooper was killed in a grenade blast in Anantnag.

Besides these violent incidents, police officials are also worried over the recruitment of more than 30 local youths in various Valley-based militant groups.

Although the newly recruited youths have joined the existing militant outfits, including the Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, the “launch of at least two new outfits” signal a trend, said a senior security official. The other new outfit is the TMI.

The trend that the official was talking about refers to how Masood Azhar, the chief of Jaish-e-Mohammed, re-branded his previous outfit Harkat-ul-Ansar in 2000.

“… This cannot be taken lightly given that the last time a militant group (Harkat-ul-Ansar) was re-branded, its new face, (Jaish-e-Mohammed), became a permanent feature and carried out some of the major attacks in Kashmir as well as across India. The LeT might be undergoing a similar transition after lying low for quite some time now,” said the security official.

‘TRF’s emergence is start of a violent campaign in Kashmir’

Another senior security official said the TRF’s emergence is perhaps the start of a “violent campaign” in Kashmir, which the Lashkar-e-Taiba cannot undertake because of the international glare on the outfit, whose chief Hafiz Saeed remains in custody.

The Kupwara encounter was the first instance of the TRF engaging security forces after the group came to fore in the last week of March when four of its militants were arrested in Sopore, police said.

DGP Singh claimed the four militants were part of the new module of LeT “tasked to revive” the group in north Kashmir. 

The arrests further led the police to two men believed to be overground workers (OGW) for the TRF. The two men, including a government employee, are being probed for allegedly providing weapons that were recovered from the four militants.

A source in the J&K police said the “assumption that TRF being an offshoot of LeT comes from human intelligence gathered by officials as well as emergence of a common link between the two TRF OGWs and an LeT militant”. The OGWs are those who provide logistical support to militant groups. 

The source, however, added that it is not unusual in Kashmir for OGWs to work for multiple militant organisations at the same time.

When contacted by ThePrint, Kashmir Inspector General of Police (IGP) Vijay Kumar refused to give any details about the TRF.

“We won’t be able to share the details with the media at the moment. We are studying the group for now,” he said.

Also read: Number of youths joining militancy in Kashmir has gone down since 5 August, says report

Covid-19 hit counter insurgency ops initially

A senior CRPF officer told ThePrint the number of local youths recruited by militant groups this year and the emergence of new militant outfits are a concern, but could be managed by intensifying ongoing counter insurgency operations. 

“The number of recruitment (of youths in militant groups) is around the same (for the same period) as last year,” the officer said.

“Initially, the Covid-19 situation did affect CI (counter insurgency) operations for a short period of time but now we have made huge strides in the past couple of weeks,” he added.

“Moreover except the Kupwara encounter, there hasn’t been any major attack in Kashmir, which only signifies the efficiency of our CI operations,” the officer said.

IGP Kumar echoed the officer. “Though there was an increase in violence, our operations against militants are continuously delivering irreparable damage to militancy”.

As of now, more than 250 militants are active in Kashmir, including nearly 100 Pakistani nationals, said police.

For the militants, including the new outfit, the killing of the five Army personnel (in Kupwara) is a window to recruit (more local youths), said another senior security official.

‘New group or groups could emerge and be active’ 

Last week, a video of one of the local militants killed in the Kupwara encounter, Sajad Ahmed, was shared on social media.

The local militants killed in the encounter were found to be natives of south Kashmir’s Kulgam and Shopian areas and had travelled to Pakistan on a valid visa only to return through the Line Of Control, said a third security official. 

“We speculate that because Jaish and Lashkar are under heavy international scrutiny, the new group or groups could emerge and be active for some time so that other militant groups can cool off,” added the official.

The official further said the Lashkar chief of Kashmir, who goes by the code name Abu Zargam, has focused more on militant recruitment than attacks. 

Also read: Why Kashmir’s new militancy is harder to defeat than the one in 1990s