Young men, even adolescents, lethally trained as killing machines that would make most commandoes blanche, ready to even die on command… that is the Pakistani attackers’ profile, according to some of those who played key roles to fight the EDI attackers from Monday to Wednesday.
That, in fact, is the typical profile of some of the militants who conducted some of the most daring and dramatic fidayeen attacks in Kashmir since the beginning of this year.
It turns out that the two commandos who were killed in the EDI building were part of a group of eight (possibly nine) militants who infiltrated into the Kashmir Valley through the ranges above Bandipora last October.
The army has identified one of them as Maaz. The other was probably called Waleed, according to one of those involved in the identification. The investigators are not entirely sure about the younger second man. If he is Waleed, his adolescence has progressed from about a year ago. His face has filled out and he looks more like a grown man than the boy in the photograph the investigators have.
This particularly lethal group of eight or nine fidayeen are linked to some of the most high-profile militant encounters of the past year. These include the two attacks on the CRPF on the Anantnag-Srinagar highway and both the attacks on the EDI.
Ironically, the group’s ingress into the Valley was connected with two of the most important men involved in militancy and counter-militancy respectively. One was Abu Qasim, the extraordinarily popular Pakistani militant who was based in south Kashmir until he was killed late last year. This group of eight or nine was so important that Qasim went to Bandipora in northeast Kashmir to receive them.
That’s where the key figure in counterinsurgency entered the picture: sub-inspector Altaf 'laptop' got wind of the fact that Qasim was going to Bandipora that day — 7 October last year. A double agent set up Altaf with that information. Qasim was ready for him with an ambush. He killed Altaf at a barricade on the road. Of course, Qasim too was killed a few weeks later, near Kulgam in south Kashmir.
However, the names and pictures of the eight boys who he had gone to receive were now with the police. For, Qasim had dropped his phone at the site of his encounter with Altaf. Passport-sized pictures and names of eight members of the group that crossed the LOC were in that phone.
As the police identified bodies after some of the major encounters of this past year, they discovered again and again that members of the group (which Qasim had gone to receive) had starred in each of those actions. The photographs in Qasim’s phone matched the faces of the fidayeen killed.
By the time the EDI encounter ended on Wednesday, seven of them had been killed. As in the EDI attack, two of those eight were killed in each of three earlier encounters. Only one fidayeen was killed in one encounter. So only one, possibly two, of that extraordinarily lethal group probably remains.
According to those involved in countering the EDI attack, the police had intelligence since about last Wednesday that a fidayeen attack was likely in that area. There was a talk of the boys being on a motorcycle. Even a registration number was circulated to the forces.
A top army officer said the men probably wanted to attack a convoy on the highway and then go into the EDI building, which is strategically located right by the highway. He speculated that they must have reversed that plan after a heavy army and paramilitary deployment on the highway prevented them from attacking a convoy on the highway.
The director of the EDI is said to have turned down a proposal that a police or CRPF picket be posted in a room on the ground floor of this second EDI building (a hostel) after the main EDI building was destroyed during an earlier militant encounter in January this year. Much of the equipment that survived that attack had been shifted to the hostel building. It had been used until hartals and stone-pelting demonstrations prevented normal movement after 8 July this year.
Most people in authority, within Kashmir and even more so in New Delhi’s corridors of power, have been clueless about what has been unfolding in Kashmir. No action was taken to secure the place even after the intelligence reports about fidayeen last week.
Smoke gave them away
By last weekend, the fidayeen boys were apparently under pressure from their handlers to act. They may have been ordered to enter the EDI building during the weekend so that they could use it as a base to initiate action. A senior officer said that a message from the fidayeen boys to their handlers across the Line of Control was intercepted early on Monday morning. Watch television, the message said: you will see something by 7.30 am.
Possibly, they planned to emerge from the EDI building to launch an attack on the highway.
However, at 6 am, a guard at the EDI gate noticed some smoke in one of the rooms of the EDI hostel building, which was meant to be vacant that Monday morning. He telephoned the EDI director, who told him to go and check. When he approached, the fidayeen fired.
Some soldiers who were on the road close by heard and reported the firing. That is when the encounter which lasted more than two-and-a-half days began.
The army laid one cordon, then a second. The fidayeen boys were well-prepared. They had set up piles of explosives on certain stairwells, ready to be blown up. And they had food and other stores with them. Early during the encounter, it was reported that three attackers were in the building.
Priority to avoid casualties
The army commanders were under pressure from political authorities, who were distressed that the stand-off dominated the media for such a long time. But the commanders’ had their priorities right: they were determined to avoid casualties, even if it took longer. What the brass feared most was the possibility that the men might slip away. That would have been a huge embarrassment.
A top officer went into the campus in a Caspar armoured vehicle. An IED mine was placed in the compound. Its deafening roar was calculated to disorient the militants.
The firing was stepped up at the windows of two bathrooms, one above the other, from where the militants seemed to be firing. Perhaps fearing that the forces were closing in on their location from within the building too when the barrage of fire on the building was stepped up, two boys jumped from an upper floor.
Evidently highly trained, they both survived the fall. One of them was killed in the fearsome barrage of fire that targeted them on the ground. But the other managed to roll back into the building.
Finally, the attack ended when he too was killed on Wednesday afternoon. It took till late at night, though, to comb the entire building for any remaining militants, explosives or booby-traps.
The big question is: how many of the very many groups that have infiltrated since the beginning of this year comprise such extraordinarily trained commandos as the eight that came when Hamza killed Altaf, almost exactly a year ago.