Amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives, Pakistan’s evil designs in Kashmir have got a sudden flip. As the attention of the world remains focused on defeating the coronavirus, Pakistan has sensed an opportunity to ratchet up militancy in Jammu and Kashmir with the formation of a new militant organisation, fresh crossborder infiltrations, and social media propaganda.
On 25 April 2020, the newly formed ‘The Resistance Front’ (TRF) got an endorsement from Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) amid reports of a turf war between Hizbul Mujahideen and the newly formed outfit. HM’s operational commander Riyaz Naikoo issued an audio statement denying that there is any rift between the various militant groups operating in Kashmir. The audio statement claimed that the fake videos attributed to Hizbul Mujahideen were an attempt to give a false sense of division between the groups.
Hizb’s support to TRF is well in order with the strategy of Pakistan to ensure a greater synergy and interoperability between various militant outfits operating in Kashmir. The formation of TRF also first another leg of Pakistan’s strategy of crossborder militancy. Ever since the emergence of Burhan Wani, the militancy groups operating in Kashmir, as well as Pakistan, has attempted to give an indigenous branding to the crossborder militancy. As a part of this strategy, the well-entrenched Pakistan-based groups like JeM and LeT have heavily recruited local Kashmiris in the past. In the year 2018, the number of local recruits for LET and JEM was much more than that of the indigenous outfit HM.
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The formation of TRF should thus be seen as an attempt to consolidate strengths, manpower, weaponry, and training of various militant outfits into one outlet. This outlet will be used to show the world that the militancy in Kashmir is an indigenous resistance movement that has nothing to with the militant groups that are under the scrutiny of the Financial Action Task Force. Mainly the LeT, HM, and TRF will jointly operate as a joint front under the branding of TRF. The bonhomie between these groups is visible on the Telegram channels operated by them which have seen a flurry of activity since 1 April. The social media groups cross-post information and propaganda about HM, LeT, and the new TRF cadre.
A new Telegram channel ‘The Joint Resistance Front’ was created on 15 April which shared a video of TRF commander calling for unity of scholars, stone-pelters, and youth on the cause of militancy. Since then the channel has posted images eulogising the dead militants of HM and LET. Interestingly the Telegram channels of HM that had gone defunct around 5 August have buzzed with activity again. The existence of TRF first came in public view on 23 March when police busted a module of the outfit arresting six of its operatives and recovered 8 automatic rifles, 10 pistols, and 89 grenades from them. The social media activities of the group had started last year in October.
For the first time since 5 August, the security forces have been on the receiving end of attacks from the militant groups. TRF claimed the attack on CRPF convoy on 18 April 2020 in which three personnel of the paramilitary force were killed and two injured. On April 4th, five commandos of the elite special forces were killed in an encounter with the TRF militants along the LoC. Five members of TRF — of which three were local Kashmiris — were also killed in that encounter while trying to infiltrate into the Indian side of LoC. Apart from these two incidents where the number of causalities was high, two cops were killed in separate incidents in Kishtwar and Anantnag districts of J&K. In another instance, two serving cop was abducted by militants and later released. Not much has changed for the security forces operating in J&K post-5 August.
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The Keran Operation, which went on for five days, revealed a much more disturbing factor of this sudden spike in militant activity. Three of the local militants killed in the Keran encounter — Sajjad Ahmed Hurrah, Adil Hussain Mir, and Umar Naik, all residents of South Kashmir — had travelled to Pakistan on valid Pakistani visas through Wagah-Attari border. All three were missing since the year 2018 and had crossed over for training and acquisition of weapons. This is perhaps the first instance when local Kashmiris cross LoC to get trained across the border since the emergence of the new militancy. The new militancy in Kashmir hasn’t seen any Pakistan trained Kashmiri militants till this incident.
On the other hand, the militant funerals in Kashmir have made a return. On 8 April, hundreds of locals attended the funeral of JEM militant Sajad Nawab Dar in Sopore. In another incident, dozens attend the funeral procession of militant Saddam in Kulgam. It is as if all pieces of the puzzle which had gone out of the picture since 5 August have come back into the play in the last few weeks. Even though the security forces in a bid to stop militant funerals have stopped handing over the bodies of local militants to their families who are now buried in secrecy, the funerals have not stopped. On 27 April, a hundred-odd people offered funeral prayers in absentia for the slain commander of TRF. With or without bodies, the militant funerals keep happening on and off.
The sudden spike in the militant activities in J&K has nullified the tall claims of the Modi government post-5 August. On multiple occasions, various ministers of the government including the Home Minister claimed that the abrogation of Article 370 will end terrorism in J&K. The current spike in militant activities shows that Pakistan was already making plans for the next summer whilst the government of India was in a celebratory mood.
The operation to form the new militant outfit would have taken many months of planning and preparation and is thus only a small signal of what might be in offing in the future. The Telegram groups of militant groups have shown a steady trickle of announcements of new recruitments. Reports suggest many Pak-trained local and non-local militants are waiting to infiltrate across the LoC. TRF may be the first of many new militant groups that may sprout up in J&K. Some of the new groups will be a rebranding of existing groups in Pakistan. This is a tactic to avoid the FATF scrutiny. FATF has perhaps served as the biggest nightmare of Pakistan.
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Whatever it may, Pakistan’s strategy of crossborder terrorism continues. The plans that may have come up post-5 August in the high offices of Pakistan Army have merely found COVID-19 pandemic as an opening to wreak havoc. This should come as a concern for the policymakers in north and south block who sold Article 370 as the mother of all evils in Kashmir. 5 August has made little difference to Pakistan’s evil designs. Likewise, it is time to review whether surgical strikes and Balakot air strike has caused any deterrence to the sub-conventional warfare of Pakistan.
Khalid Shah is an Associate Fellow at ORF. His research focuses on Kashmir conflict, Pakistan and terrorism. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation’s website.