Slain LeT terrorist who attacked fruit-seller's family in Sopore shows how stone-pelters are turning to militancy

  • A top-ranking LeT terrorist, Asif Maqbool Bhat, was gunned down by security forces in an encounter in Sopore on Wednesday.

  • The terrorist was responsible for the 7 September attack on a fruit trader's family in Sopore that left three injured, including a two-and-a-half-year-old child.

  • Jammu and Kashmir Police officers shot Bhat dead on Wednesday, less than twelve weeks after he began his career as a jihadist.

For the first time in his life, Asif Maqbool Bhat had become somewhat famous: the image of him posing in a combat dress, topped-off with an Arab-style keffiyeh, and an assault rifle slung over one shoulder swept through the Facebook communities of Islamist-leaning young people in northern Kashmir. The spelling and grammar of the text on that viral photo may have left something to be desired, but love and time, and at least one effect from a popular filter app, was lavished on it.

On 7 September, Bhat used the gun he’d held up in his right hand for that Facebook photograph to shoot a two-and-a -half-year-old child through her leg — as a punishment for her grandfather defying jihadist calls to shut down his business.

Jammu and Kashmir Police officers shot Bhat dead on Wednesday, less than twelve weeks after he began his career as a jihadist. His story is shared by dozens of young local residents who have joined groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) in the recent months.

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Brought up in the village of Payeen-Kreeri, near Baramulla, Bhat dropped out of school after Class IX. He later took up odd jobs, even as a house painter, but spent much of his time in the company of older youth, members of Islamist-driven street gangs who would battle police on Kashmir’s streets.

 Slain LeT terrorist who attacked fruit-sellers family in Sopore shows how stone-pelters are turning to militancy

Representational image. Reuters

Local police say, in 2008, Bhat was among many children who were held and later released without facing charges for throwing stones at police officers. His name figured again in the police files on protests in 2010 and 2016.

Eight local residents — Aijaz Mir, Omar Mir, Tawseef Najar, Imitiyaz Najar, Omar Akbar, Faizan Latief, Danish Habib, and Showkat Ahmad Mir — the LeT associates who were arrested on Tuesday, were among those who were with him during the Islamist-led street protests. Like Bhat, all are poorly-educated and unemployed.

Following the revocation of the provisions of Article 370 in August, this group was part of a wider network of jihadist sympathisers tasked with putting up posters calling on government servants to resign, and shopkeepers to shut down their businesses.

In spite of receiving threats from the group, prominent Sopore fruit trader Abdul Hamid Rather declined to fall in line with the Lashkar’s orders. It was this trader's grand-daughter, Asma Jan, who was shot by Bhat at point-blank range.

The child’s father, Arshid Rather, was held down and forced to watch his daughter being "punished", before his elbow was blown apart. Two family employees, Muhammad Ramzan Dar and Muhammad Arshad Dar, were also shot in the leg.

Bhat, the police say, was also responsible for earlier shooting Shafi Alam, a migrant worker from Bihar, who remained in Baramulla despite demands from the Lashkar that outsiders leave the region.

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Local recruitment into the Lashkar has been falling since its peak in 2016, but a steady string of poorly-educated, and prospect-less youth continue to join it. Like Bhat, most were hardened through years in Islamist-led gangs.

“Lots of these kids mainly like the sense of power that a gun brings with it, just like kids drawn to street gangs in other dysfunctional societies," a police officer said. "But the idea that they are doing 'jihad' gives their violence respectability among a section of the community."

In 2007, the rape and murder of north Kashmir teenager Tabinda Gani was used to initiate a xenophobic campaign against the presence of migrant workers in the state.

Addressing a rally on 24 June, 2007 in Langate town of northern Kashmir, Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani had claimed that “hundreds of thousands of non-state subjects had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris.

He had further asserted that "the majority of these non-state subjects are professional criminals and should be driven out of Kashmir in a civilised way”.

Language of this kind mainly inspired a series of terrorist attacks on migrants, the last of which was the 2008 bombing of a bus carrying workers from Srinagar, around the time when the protests erupted against the right of use of land alloted to the Amarnath shrine board.

In the build-up to the unrest over the Amarnath row, such incidents had become commonplace: Islamists had mobilised against a career counsellor who, they claimed, had been despatched to Srinagar schools to seduce students into a career of vice; an Anantnag school-teacher came under attack, after a video surfaced showing that a group of his students had danced to pop film music on a holiday in Goa.

At a religious conference in Baramulla on 26 May, 2008, Geelani had warned his audience that the stakes were too high for the new realism. India, he said, was seeking to change "the Muslim majority into a minority by settling down troops along with their families here permanently”.

“After turning Kashmiri Muslims into a minority, they will either massacre Muslims as they did in Jammu in 1947, or carry out a genocide as was done in Gujarat (in 2002)," he had said.

Updated Date: Sep 12, 2019 07:50:41 IST