On the evening of February 14, Jaish-e-Mohammad released a pre-recorded 10-minute long video statement. It featured 19-year-old Adil Ahmed Dar, also known as Waqas Commando, from Gundibagh, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. He said that he was directly recruited to Jaish’s fidayeen squad. “Fidayeen” is an Arabic term that means “those who sacrifice themselves”. Dar declared, “By the time this video reaches you, I will be in Heaven.”

Dar also spoke of the plight of “Indian and Kashmiri Muslims” in the Indian state, asserting that “your oppression fuels our jihad”. He hailed the role of South Kashmir in the “tehreek” or movement and appealed to the people of North and Central Kashmir to join.

Hours before the video was released, Dar had driven a Scorpio packed with explosives into a convoy of more than 70 Central Reserve Police Force vehicles passing along the Srinagar-Jammu national highway. The attack took place near Lethpora, in the Awantipora area of Pulwama district.

“Police in Police District Awantipora today attended a gruesome terror crime spot at Ladhu Mode Lethpora at about 1515 hours following an explosion by terrorists targeting a security forces’ convoy travelling from Jammu to Srinagar,” a Jammu and Kashmir police statement said. “One vehicle which was part of the convoy carrying CRPF Personnel bore the brunt of the blast resulting in multiple casualties.”

According to Central Reserve Police Force figures released on Thursday evening, 37 of its men were killed. Unofficial figures put the toll at 42 so far. At least five personnel of the paramilitary force were also injured.

It is being called the deadliest attack by militants on security forces in Kashmir’s three-decade-long militancy. According to eyewitnesses, the explosion was so massive that it triggered an “earthquake-like” shock wave in the area. It left behind a smouldering mountain of wreckage and mangled vehicles, scattered pieces of human flesh and pools of blood.

After the blast, the police said, security forces cordoned off about 15 villages around the spot of the attack. On February 8, the the Central Reserve Police Force received a note from the state police, saying there had been inputs of a possible IED blast. “Before occupying your place of deployment, please sanitise the area properly,” the note said.

‘A responsible kid’

Hours after the blast, local residents including women and children, walked through the cold and rain to visit Dar’s house in Gundibagh. A Jaish-e-Mohammad flag had been strung up in the compound of the two-storeyed house.

Dar’s father, Ghulam Hassan Dar, wore a stoic face as he sat in his brother’s house next door, surrounded by a group of mourners. “He was a very responsible boy,” said Ghulam Hassan Dar, who travels from house to house selling fabric. “If he had Rs 10 in his pocket, he would save Rs 5. He would help out his mother, he take care of daily affairs at home.”

The second of three brothers, Dar had studied till Class 12 and then taken a course in religious studies. “He wanted to become a cleric and had already memorised eight chapters of the Quran,” said his father. “When he was free, he would take odd jobs to make a bit of money for himself. In 2017, he earned around Rs 50,000-Rs 60,000 by making wooden boxes at a nearby saw mill.”

Dar’s family had last seen him on the afternoon of March 19, 2018, his father said. He had been working as mason’s assistant at a construction site. That afternoon, said Ghulam Hassan Dar, his son came home for lunch, took his cycle and left home. “Days later, a photo of Adil wielding a gun went viral on social media,” said his father. “We had no idea he would choose this path.”

According to police officials, Dar was recruited to Jaish’s fidayeen squad after the outfit’s previous fidayeen militant, Fardeen Ahmad Khanday, was killed in 2018. Khanday had been part of a squad that launched a suicide attack on a Central Reserve Police Force camp in Lethpora in January 2018, killing five men from the paramilitary force.

Searching for answers

As Dar’s family searched for answers to how their son became the face of the deadliest militant attack in Kashmir, they remembered an incident in 2016. “One day, he was returning from his school and men from the STF stopped him and made him rub his nose on ground,” his father said. The Jammu and Kashmir police’s counterinsurgency unit was initially called the Special Task Force. Though its name has since been changed to Special Operations Group, in local parlance, it is still “STF”. The men forced the boy to make a circle around their jeep with his nose, his father said: “He kept mentioning this incident again and again.”

Dar’s uncle, Abdul Rashid Dar, pointed out that his nephew was very passionate about pro-freedom politics in Kashmir. “He participated actively in protests,” Abdul Rashid Dar said. “During the 2016 Burhan Wani uprising, he got hit by a bullet in the leg. It was in plaster for three months.” The killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on July 8, 2016, had triggered mass protests that raged for months in the Valley.

Dar was not the first member of his family to join militancy. His cousin, Manzoor Rashid Dar, son of Abdul Rashid Dar, joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2016. He survived for only 11 days before being killed in a gunfight on June 30, 2016. “My other son, Tauseef Ahmad, also went to join militancy in March last year,” said Abdul Rashid Dar. “Four days after he went missing, Adil left home too. While my son returned after 14 days, Adil did not.”

‘Who wants to see bloodshed?’

In the Dar family home, there was grief but there was also anger, largely directed at “pro-India” political parties in Jammu and Kashmir. “Who wants to see bloodshed?” said Ghulam Hassan Dar. “If there’s something wrong in the family, it’s the duty of the family’s head to solve the issue. Same should have been the case with our politicians.”

He added: “But the reality is that all they care about is power. Nobody talks about the daily blinding of civilians, killings and encounters. Why don’t these politicians invite all the parties and find a solution to Kashmir issue?”

The family also pointed to Dar’s cousin, Tauseef Ahmad Dar, in jail in spite of having given up arms. “When my son came back from militancy, we told the police that we will send him to Dubai for a job,” said Abdul Rashid Dar. “But while we were still in the process of getting him a passport, the police picked him up and detained him under the PSA [Public Safety Act]. For the last three months, my 19-year-old son has been in Kot Balwal jail in Jammu.” The Public Safety Act is a preventive detention law which allows the state police to lock up individuals in the interests of “public order” and “security of the State”.

Ghulam Hassan Dar chipped in: “If I had asked my son to return, wouldn’t militants have questioned him: what’s the use of surrender when your surrendered militant brother is languishing in jail under PSA?”

Dar’s death does not come as a surprise to the family, even if they had not guessed that he would carry out such an attack. “He was a martyr for us the day he left home to join militancy,” Ghulam Hassan Dar said. “But there will always be a regret that we couldn’t meet him for the last time.”

Few want to talk about the remains of the militant who was killed on Thursday. “The family got a call from a police officer,” said a relative who did not want to be identified. “He said there’s nothing of Adil at the blast spot. He said pieces of human flesh are hanging from the trees and rooftops.”

Though the family has not received a body, a funeral was held for Dar on the night of February 14. According to police officials, two other local militants from Gundibagh are still active.

An old tactic of the Jaish

The attack on February 14 took Kashmir back to the troubled early 2000s, when the Jaish-e-Mohammad announced its arrival in the Valley with two suicide bombings. In 2000, Afaq Ahmad, a 17-year-old from downtown Srinagar, drove a Maruti laden with explosives into one of the gates of the Badami Bagh cantonment, the army’s 15 Corps headquarters in Srinagar. It marked the arrival of the Jaish-e-Mohammad in the Valley.

Badami Bagh was attacked by a suicide car bomber again that year. This time, the Jaish-e-Mohammad chose 24-year-old British national, Abdullah Bhai.

Then in 2005, Yasmeena Akhter, a member of the Jaish’s Banaat-e-Ayesha regiment and the wife of a Pakistani militant, blew herself up in Awantipora town. The Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed she was their first ever woman suicide bomber.

Fear of retaliatory attacks

The blast was condemned by political parties across the spectrum, including the Kashmir-based People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference.

As anger over the attacks rises, many in the Valley fear attacks on Kashmiris living and working in various parts of the country. Mobile internet has been suspended across South Kashir while data speed has been reduced to 2G in Srinagar.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh is scheduled to visit Srinagar on Friday. The state is under president’s rule at present. Governor Satya Pal Malik, who is currently in Jammu, is also flying to Srinagar.