Security forces in Jammu and Kashmir were engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse for nearly three days before militants from the Lashkar-e-Taiba gunned down seven pilgrims returning from the Amarnath shrine in Anantnag district of Kashmir on July 10 night.

Indian intelligence agencies were aware that militants, led by a man identified as Abu Ismail, a Lashkar-e-Taiba leader from Pakistan, were planning a strike in Kashmir for weeks. However, they were under the impression that like attacks in recent years, this one was likely to target a police or an Army installation tasked with guarding the Amarnath Yatra pilgrims. They failed to anticipate that the militants could target the pilgrims. So far, militants have largely avoided inflicting civilian casualties.

The movement of Amarnath Yatra pilgrims in the Valley is strictly controlled because of the threat of militancy. They usually travel in convoys that start at dawn and end before dusk. Security forces usually depute heavily-armed Road Opening Patrols that open the roads at 4 am and patrol the roads till 5 pm. Travel is restricted at night.

According to senior security officials familiar with the attack, the militants had tracked the passage of the Amarnath Yatra convoys for days. On July 10, as the convoy started from the Baltal base camp towards Jammu, about 350 km away, one of the buses with a Gujarat registration was left behind as it had a puncture. This delay separated the bus from the rest of the convoy, which proved to be fatal for some of its passengers.

Yatris as targets

For days, tense intelligence officials in Delhi and Srinagar had been tracking reports of militants waiting to hit the troops protecting the convoys. They had issued alerts to the state police, which the Inspector General of the Jammu and Kashmir police forwarded to the local police and Army formations. According to senior military insiders, the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, tasked with all operations in the Kashmir Valley, had alerted the local Rashtriya Rifles units to step up security.

However, the lack of precise intelligence on the whereabouts of the militants meant that security forces were unable to prevent the attack on a bus that was separated from the convoy.

Insiders in the Union government said that the bus had broken the standard security protocol by making an unscheduled stop. As it started out again at 7 pm after fixing the puncture, the Army’s road opening patrol had already withdrawn to the barracks under the impression that all constituents of the convoy had reached their next stop.

As the bus continued on the road without an escort, it was intercepted by militants about 50 km from Pahalgam town. it is unclear whether the militants were travelling on foot or in a vehicle.

Government insiders said that the pilgrims were the clear targets. They denied reports that the militants had originally attacked a police checkpost, and the bus happened to be there. Intelligence inputs based on intercepts and surveillance from multiple targets seem to also confirm that the pilgrims were the primary targets. It has also been confirmed that the militants gave chase to the bus and attacked it twice, but the driver Saleem Sheikh sped away despite another puncture due to the firing. In doing so, Sheikh saved the lives of over 50 pilgrims.

Sadhus undergo a security check before registering for the Amarnath Yatra in Jammu. (Photo credit: PTI).

A joint attack?

What has surprised intelligence and police officials is that the attack seems to have been carried out by Abu Ismail, tipped to be the next commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir, with the help of some members of the Hizbul Mujahideen. This is because both groups have not been known to work together before, and there have been tensions between them. While the Lashkar largely comprises recruits from Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Hizbul Mujahideen has remained a local outfit since its inception in the late 1980s. The leaders of both groups operate out of Pakistan.

While there is sketchy information about how the militant operation was planned, senior intelligence officials in Delhi are now convinced that the Hizbul Mujahideen lent support to the attack. “They knew this was going to be a complex attack and we now have inputs that the HM [Hizbul Mujahideen] provided logistical support and sent at least one of its members to participate,” a senior security official said.

The Hizbul Mujahideen, which suffered major casualties nearly a decade ago, started regrouping a few years ago. The death of a local commander, Burhan Wani, in an encounter with a Rashtriya Rifles battalion in Anantnag on July 8 last year, led to major protests in Kashmir, which were followed by a state crackdown. The first anniversary of Wani’s death was expected to be violent.

The last attack on the Amarnath Yatra took place in 2002. Eight people were killed. It led to major reprisal attacks by the Special Forces under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

Aim to embarrass the government?

Senior analysts across security agencies agree that the latest attack was clearly meant to embarrass the Narendra Modi government and security forces, and energise militant cadres. “It was a show of strength on their part, we believe,” said a senior official. “[They] wanted to show that they could hit the convoy even though it was under such heavy protection by nearly 40,000 troops.”

During discussions at the Ministry of Home Affairs on the morning of July 11, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is believed to have presented this assessment to Union home minister Rajnath Singh. Sources said various security agencies have been asked to prepare detailed assessments to respond to the latest attack.

The current rhetoric around the Kashmir issue seems to have become a millstone around the government’s neck. Soon after the “surgical strikes” carried out by Indian Special Forces at the end of September last year, the BJP made the strikes into an election issue during the Uttar Pradesh polls.

But Indian security analysts feel that this was not a good move as it opened up the possibility of attacks planned specifically to embarrass the Union government. They said that the fact that the BJP is a partner in the Jammu and Kashmir government could also give impetus to the attacks. “We need to be pragmatic and tone down the current rhetoric on terror attacks,” said a senior security official. “In our assessment, this is giving the militants an upper hand. Any attack becomes a clarion call for fresh recruits while embarrassing the government in the state and the Centre.”

Former police officials and internal security experts warned that while the ruling party is high on rhetoric, there has been little change and improvement on the ground. In May, the abduction and murder of a Kashmiri Army officer, Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz, while he was at home on leave, is considered to be a turning point in the militancy in Kashmir. It was an indication that Pakistan was pushing for an escalation of terror attacks in a manner not seen in nearly two decades. Similarly, the attack on Amarnath Yatra pilgrims is not a good portent for the future.