Jammu and Kashmir

In Kashmir, worries mount that killing of Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz could mark a new phase of militancy

Targeting of vulnerable security and military personnel is likely to escalate, intelligence agencies warn.

In December last year, Ummer Fayaz was commissioned as an officer in the Indian Army. On Wednesday morning, his bullet-riddled body was found in the Herman area of Shopian district of Jammu & Kashmir.

Now senior intelligence officials warn that this targeted killing of Indian military personnel is not the last and according to inputs received by them, these killing are likely to escalate.

At least three senior intelligence officials Scroll.in spoke to have confirmed this assessment. According to them, this is part of a major new offensive to continue targeting Indian military personnel, reminiscent of the militancy in the early days of 1990.

On January 25, 1990 four Indian Air Force personnel were killed when car-borne militants fired upon them. This was one of the first cases of targeting Indian military personnel who were posted in the state, but were not in a combat role.

Indigenous outfit

The killing of Fayaz has raised other concerns for the government. The killing was carried out by indigenous militants, possibly the Hizbul Mujahideen. For years the Hizbul had been playing a second fiddle to the Pakistani-dominated groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, raised by Maulana Masood Azhar soon after his release after the hijacking of IC 814 in December 1999.

Both these groups, with close ties to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, had carried out the bulk of the attacks in the state, as well as spreading to other cities like Delhi. The Hizbul, largely an indigenous group, stayed behind the scenes, carrying out some attacks, but left largely to fend for itself. The killing of a local HM commander, Burhan Wani in July sparked off a wave of protests across the valley and, according to credible intelligence inputs, also increased recruitment into local militant groups.

Fayaz was clearly a tiny minority who sought a life outside the tortured Kashmiri identity four years ago, when he joined the National Defence Academy in Khadakvalsa, Pune. Considered one of the toughest training courses of the world, it is the only tri-service institution (Army, Navy and Air Force cadets train together) of its kind. It is rare for a Kashmiri Muslim boy to join the army as an officer, let alone start at the age of 17 years at the National Defence Academy.

According to several intelligence sources, the fact that Fayaz was in the National Defence Academy. A and then the Indian Military Academy, had never been a point of contestation in his native village. His father, an apple farmer, had agreed to his joining the National Defence Academy and had never received any protest or threat from the local community. Fayaz’s sudden abduction and cold blooded execution came as a surprise to everyone, when he was visiting Shopian to attend a cousin’s wedding.

Commissioned into the second battalion of the Rajputana Rifles in December last year, Fayaz was posted to Akhnur, with his unit posted on the international border with Pakistan in the Palanwala sector. He was scheduled to go for his “Young Officers” course, where he was slated to receive his first professional training as an officer in platoon level leadership, tactics, weapons and finally the mandatory commando course for infantry officers.

The fact that his execution was carried out by local, indigenous militants is a rude awakening of a new reality in the militancy in Jammu & Kashmir.

“Consistent intelligence inputs now show that they want to target the Indian military,” a senior security official said. “This started with Uri and its success has now led to further attacks, from Nagrota to Kupwara. We had intelligence on Nagrota, but we still couldn’t prevent it. This shows how we are failing at several levels,” the officer added.

The idea of targeting the military is classic proxy war strategy, according to analysts. The militants will continue to target the military in its rear echelons or choose soft targets like Fayaz to not only undermine morale, but to also make the military look vulnerable. They will target troops who are not directly involved in counter-insurgency operations, to prevent any casualties, but target cantonments, camps and individuals when they are most vulnerable.

“This is worrying and likely to escalate. All our inputs suggest more such attacks are coming,” the official warned.

A new phase?

In fact, this has been confirmed by Afghan intelligence, who have passed on several inputs to their Indian counterparts. Many of the groups operating out of Afghanistan draw sustenance from their close links with the ISI-backed Punjabi militant outfits in Pakistan. The fact that one of the key leaders of the Islamic State (Khorasan Province) was recently killed by US Special Forces’ raid has added more credibility to the emerging alliance of sorts.

With the Kashmiri group Hizbul Mujahideen now coming to the forefront and joining hands, intelligence and security analysts are wondering if a new phase of militancy has started in the Valley.

“In some ways, this is reminiscent of the early days of the insurgency in Kashmir,” a retired Intelligence Bureau official with decades of experience on Kashmir told Scroll.in. “We have seen the levels of violence that was directed at ‘soft targets’ in the 1990s. This changes the counter insurgency tactics on ground significantly. Chances are that troops will shift from an offensive posture to a defensive one, and that gives the militants a a lot of latitude, if not a free run. The recent episodes of abuses by the security forces have also led to wide spread resentment, adding to the ranks of the militants. This could turn very ugly,” the former IB official said.

Fayaz’s execution could easily become a turning point in the 28-year-old militancy in the state. Or, perhaps, it is the result of a turning point that took place last year. Either way, his death is a major indication that Kashmir is going from bad to worse while the government in New Delhi looks clueless and incoherent.

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