Pulwama Attack Signals Return of Deadly IED Threat, Suicide Bombing in Kashmir

It is ironical that a day after the National Security Guard (NSG) conducted its national seminar focused on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the very day the Indian Army was discussing sub-conventional operations in an Army-level seminar, both in the National Capital Region, a major car bomb attack killed as many as 40 CRPF personnel travelling in a bus on the Srinagar–Jammu National Highway in Pulwama. Proportion wise this is the biggest terror-related event in Jammu and Kashmir since the Uri attack of 18 September, 2016 and probably one of the worst losses in the 30-year-proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir.

The attack comes in the wake of a festering situation described by some as ‘security stable’ and many others as ‘dynamic – awaiting the next event’. I place myself in the latter category, since for over two years I have feared the return of the IED threat to Kashmir and been writing about it. Even more than that, I have feared the advent of suicide bombing as part of the emerging threats. More on this later but suffice to say for now that suicide bombers have been rife in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan for past many years. This is one domain of sub-conventional violence which had largely eluded Kashmir and all such low intensity conflict theatres in rest of India.

The geographical location of the incident was the notorious Pampore-Letapur section of the Srinagar-Jammu highway. It was a vehicle laden with 350 kgs of explosives which detonated after ramming against the CRPF bus transporting CRPF jawans in large numbers as part of a convoy; mostly personnel stuck in transit camps due to the closure of the highway due to heavy snow. Apparently some indiscriminate firing by other terrorists also added to the casualty figures. It won’t take long establishing the facts. Already the name of the suicide bomber is known; Adil Ahmad Dar of Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The fact that the name is Kashmiri is all the more disturbing. Kashmiri ‘fidayeen’ have been rare but this incident may just spur more towards such a trend.

It is easy to blame this incident on lapse in security and insufficient vigil on the road when the CRPF convoy was due to pass. For the past few months, the Pampore segment of the highway has been relatively incident free compared to 2017 when a series of ambushes on several convoys claimed several lives of soldiers and policemen. In counter-terror operations often a certain domain of activity takes primacy; it could be targetting of policemen on leave or on duty, rocket attacks or standoff firing on posts and attempted entry into security posts by so called ‘fidayeen’ who are prepared to die in the course of their actions.

There are many such terrorist actions and the selected choice always remains in the hands of the terrorists which therefore gives them the initiative. Security forces have the major challenge of predicting these through intelligence-based assessment. Sometimes they are right and many times inaccurate. However, while an emplaced IED can still be discovered by alert security personnel on road opening duties, the threat posed by a car bomb or simply a wired up single suicide bomber is vastly different. Check of every car on the road is never possible nor of all individuals; there are thousands of cars on Kashmir’s roads every day and particularly on this stretch of the National Highway, being closer to Srinagar.

While the media is being critical of the security for movement of convoys it is entirely unfair to blame intelligence agencies or the police. When a trend takes course, such as that of IEDs or car bombs the alert is of a focused kind. Currently there was a threat but not something which could give leads for any substantial intelligence work.

At the same time it is not easy for terrorists or over ground workers (OGWs) to prepare and emplace an IED or fabricate a car bomb if the intelligence is hands on and the area domination is effective. Almost 16 years devoid of any car bombs had diverted attention to other types of threats.

Prediction that this trend could return was made by many experienced hands after analysing the security environment in other affected countries but accuracy and assessment of timing and nature of attack would always be questionable. That is why blame game in such situations is strictly avoidable. Where the blame must be genuinely apportioned is in the non-availability of hardened vehicles for movement of personnel.

A massive effort was undertaken in 2004-07 to harden such buses to minimise damage to personnel in the event of an IED related attack. Obviously replacements have been far and few and budget constraints have probably come in the way. The army, too, remains vulnerable on this count. It's good for the people and the leadership to know that in 2004 an army bus hardened with skirt plates of vintage tanks suffered such a car bomb attack; except for the driver whose cabin was unhardened all others survived with minor injuries. That car, too, was driven by a Kashmiri local just as the one which rammed Badami Bagh's Batwara Gate in 2001.

The likely effect of Thursday's dastardly attack will be of an immediate change in the nature of threats. Obviously one or more ‘IED doctors’ are at work in the terrorist ranks and explosives are not under any form of government control. Movement of VIPs, security convoys and even entry points of important institutions will immediately come under threat entailing much higher density of deployment for physical security. This will take away personnel from domination duties and intelligence-related deployment thus opening up more space for terrorist movement deployment and capability.

There will be an immediate necessity for greater population control measures and curbs on freedom of movement with many more checkpoints leading to more antipathy among the people. The cause is due to the terrorists but the blame will come on the security forces and the vicious cycle will continue exactly as intended by the sponsors of the proxy war in Pakistan. These are the typical travails of a sub conventional conflict and the sponsors know exactly how a failing situation can be retracted for effect by a big ticket event.

With what is happening in Afghanistan and the emerging advantage that is like to accrue to Pakistan in terms of enhanced importance in the eyes of major powers, there is likelihood that its risk taking propensity in Kashmir will increase. Thus the first of the steps that India needs to take is to enhance its diplomatic energy in major capitals and institutions of the world. Public opinion will be coloured by sentiment but it really is the time that the Indian leadership will have to relook at the entire strategy India has thus far played out. India cannot afford to be seen to be helpless but options are extremely limited and therein lies our 30 year old dilemma.

It is also important to ensure that vilification of the ordinary Kashmiri is not done. We already have a seething youth on our hands and alienating just about everyone is not going to be helpful. It calls for statesmanship of the highest order. Will India’s political community rise to the occasion?

This article was originally posted by First Post. It was posted here with the author's permission.

Photo Credit: PTI