By Bulbul Prakash
On July 13, 2023, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted raids at multiple locations in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) as part of the ongoing investigations into the terrorist conspiracy case. The raids targeted ‘hybrid terrorists’ and Overground Workers (OGWs) associated with newly-floated outfits such as The Resistance Front (TRF), the United Liberation Front-Jammu and Kashmir (ULF-J&K), Mujahideen Gazwat-ul-Hind (MGH), and others.
On July 11, 2023, NIA conducted raids at five locations in Anantnag, Shopian and Pulwama Districts of J&K, against the newly-floated offshoots of proscribed Pakistan-backed terrorist outfits operating in J&K. The NIA suspects the involvement of these cadres in the collection and distribution of sticky bombs, magnetic bombs, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), funds, narcotic substances and arms and ammunitions.
On June 26, 2023, NIA conducted raids at 12 locations in the Kulgam, Bandipora, Shopian and Pulwama Districts of J&K as part of an ongoing investigation into the conspiracy by newly-formed offshoots of banned terrorist outfits, to destabilize J&K.
The NIA conducted a total of 13 raids on newly-floated terrorist groups in the region between August 5, 2019, and July 13, 2023, (data till July 30, 2023). These raids were distributed across seven operations in 2023, four in 2022, and two in 2021. The first search operation took place on October 10, 2021, leading to the arrest of two operatives associated with TRF, in the LeT-TRF conspiracy case.
Following the legislative changes on August 5, 2019, which revoked Kashmir’s autonomy and altered property rights of locals, widespread suspicion arose among the people, who feared that these new laws would lead to demographic changes in India’s only Muslim-majority region. In the wake of these developments, a series of new terrorist fronts emerged.
The groups that have come under scrutiny for their potential connections to major banned terrorist organizations, including Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Al-Badr, Al-Qaeda, and others, include TRF, ULF-J&K, MGH, Jammu and Kashmir Freedom Fighters (JKFF), Kashmir Tigers, Peoples Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), and Jammu and Kashmir Ghaznavi Force (JKGF).
A notable departure from their predecessors is observed in the names, slogans and strategies adopted by these new groups, which now emphasize “Kashmiri resistance” over Islamic ideology, positioning themselves as “indigenous movements”. The aim has been to fundamentally reshape the region’s dynamics and create fresh challenges for the established status quo.
By using these new identities, the parent terrorist organizations aim to complicate investigations, maintain “plausible deniability” and evade detection. Moreover, adopting names that sound more secular and political, is intended to reshape the narrative around the attacks, portraying them as part of a broader political cause, to gain support and legitimacy among the local people, making them more susceptible to manipulation and recruitment.
The establishment and sustenance of these new groups was also significantly influenced by Pakistan’s covert support and backing, as Islamabad sought to address the financial pressures resulting from its continued inclusion in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s grey list, till November 2022, when it was removed.
Among all these groupings, the TRF, a proxy outfit of LeT, which emerged in 2019, and was declared a “terrorist organization” by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on January 5, 2023, under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), is the most active. The group selectively targets individuals, especially minorities, non-locals, Police and security personnel, and domiciled individuals who migrate to Kashmir. It uses platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram, to issue threats and claim responsibility for its attacks, using a distinctive Public Relations (PR) strategy to justify each operation with a ‘secularized ideology’ focused on resistance against ‘invasion’, ‘occupation’, ‘fascism’, and Hindutva.
The PAFF comes next in the ‘prominence list’. Established in 2019, it was banned on January 7, 2023, by the UMHA, under UAPA.
The JKGF, which surfaced in 2020, has been involved in infiltration bids, narcotics and weapons smuggling and carrying out terrorist attacks in the Union territory of J&K. On February 17, 2023, the UMHA declared it a terrorist organisation under UAPA.
MGH is an Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group with a significant presence in Kashmir. It was claimed by various sources that MGH is a front for Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGuH), a terrorist outfit formed by Zakir Musa, a former HM operative. MGH was floated after Musa’s death in May 2019.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), since August 5, 2019, the date of the legislative withdrawal of the state’s special status and its transformation into a Union Territory, J&K has accounted for 958 killings, including 127 civilians, 148 Security Force (SF) personnel and 683 terrorists (data till July 30, 2023). Of this total, 275 persons (127 civilians and 148 SF personnel) killed by the terrorists, 28 fatalities are linked to or claimed by these newly formed groups. These include 12 civilians and 16 SF personnel. During this period, J&K has recorded 18 major attacks (each involving three or more deaths) targeting civilians and SFs, of which seven have been claimed by one or the other of these newly formed groups. Some of the recent incidents involving these groups include:
- May 5, 2023: Five SF personnel were killed and one officer injured when militants triggered an IED blast by remote control in the Kesari Hills forests in the Kandi area of Rajouri District. The SF personnel were trapped in an ambush during their operation against the perpetrators of the April 20, 2023, Poonch attack, which had resulted in the death of five SF personnel. The PAFF claimed the attack.
- April 20, 2023: Terrorists laid an ambush and attacked an Army vehicle carrying troops at Bhimber Gali in Poonch District. Taking advantage of low visibility owing to heavy rains, terrorists hurled grenades and fired indiscriminately at the vehicle, due to which it caught fire. Five Army personnel were killed and one was injured in the incident. The PAFF claimed the attack.
- August 11, 2022: Five Indian Army personnel were killed by PAFF terrorists in a suicide attack at the military base camp at Pargal, Rajouri District. Two of the attackers were also killed.
Targeted killings of non-locals also surged after the formation of these new groupings. Since August 5, 2019, terrorists have targeted non-local labourers (from outside J&K) on at least 27 occasions, killing 19 and injuring another 42 (till July 30, 2023).
The threat letters issued by these groups have also centred on condemning “Hindutva,” the “Modi government,” and claimed to work for the betterment of the Kashmiri people. This ‘renewed rhetoric’ also reflects the groups’ attempts to garner support and legitimacy for their actions by framing their struggle in sub-nationalist and ‘anti-occupation’ terms, rather than relying solely on religious discourse.
For example, in a Statement released by TRF, taking responsibility for the killing of school teachers in Srinagar in October 2021, the group declared,
We target only occupier mercenary forces and occupier stooges, collaborators and traitors. Our fight is to safeguard our Freedom that the occupier has illegally occupied, snatched from us and in this fight, everyone, the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir, are welcome to fight against the occupier India.
Conspicuously omitted are any explicit religious references, as a more politically charged and localized language is adopted to appeal to specific audiences, though the reality has been otherwise demonstrated. Furthermore, the targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits (KP) and non-locals, reveal a more communal agenda. These groups openly declared hostility towards India, attributing it largely to what they perceived as the “fascism” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-endorsed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Among these groups, PAFF has even used a logo featuring an arrow poised over a saffron flag with a swastika, to symbolize the group’s ideological stance.
Apart from claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks and engaging in targeted killings, these groups have engaged in strategic propaganda activities. On February 14, 2023, PAFF issued a warning in the wake of lithium reserves being discovered in J&K, declaring, “we will attack companies stealing our resources”. Sources message was uploaded from Muzaffarabad city of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Jammu and Kashmir has long been grappling with a conflict fuelled by various Pakistan-backed terrorist organizations. In recent years, the emergence of new terrorist outfits – mostly the offshoots of the prominent groups already in existence – has added complexity to an already sensitive situation. However, by striking at the very heart of their parent organizations, the state forces can sever the lifeline feeding the growth of these new groups, putting an end to their potential menace. Targeting the source of the problem will engender substantial advancements in counter-terrorism endeavours, creating an environment conducive to sustaining peace and stability within the region.
- Bulbul Prakash
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management