A consensus is emerging that the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba is responsible for the Mumbai attacks that left at least 188 people dead last weekend. The group's trademark is what it calls fidayeen, or "life-daring" attacks; it prefers this term to the more common "suicide" attack because the ultra-orthodox Islam favored by the group's members strictly prohibits suicide. Nonetheless, "the raids ... have an undeniably suicidal character," wrote Sumantra Bose in his 2003 book Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, one of the best English-language explanations of the dispute over the troubled region on the border between India and Pakistan. In Chapter 3 of Kashmir, Bose, who has an op-ed about the attacks on the BBC's website, offers an account of "the fidayeen phase" of the war, during which groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba formulated their identity and modus operandi.
From Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace, out in paperback from Harvard University Press:
The Fidayeen Phase (1999–2002)
The onset of the fidayeen phase of insurgency was presaged by a brief thaw in India-Pakistan relations. The year 1998 was South Asia’s nuclear summer, when India tested five nuclear devices and Pakistan responded with six tests a few weeks later. Initially it seemed that overt nuclearization of the subcontinent might produce some benign side effects. In February 1999 India’s prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee traveled to Pakistan on the first run of a bus service connecting Delhi with Lahore, a major Pakistani Punjab city close to the border with Indian Punjab. Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, “sharing a vision of peace and stability” and “recognizing that the nuclear dimension of the security environment of the two countries adds to their responsibility for avoidance of conflict,” signed a “Lahore Declaration” during the visit. The declaration pledged a “composite and integrated dialogue process” on the basis of an “agreed bilateral agenda,” and resolved to “intensify efforts to resolve all issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Vajpayee’s decision to extend an olive branch to Pakistan was possibly encouraged by the Indian security establishment’s upper hand over guerrilla militancy in IJK. But the promise of Lahore evaporated on the barren peaks and ranges of Kargil, in IJK’s Ladakh, in the summer of 1999, as Pakistani regular units supported by jehadi volunteers infiltrated the Indian side of the LOC and the Indian military launched a massive land and air campaign to evict the infiltrators. Indian officials and commentators have claimed that the Pakistani operation was masterminded by General Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s chief of army staff. Six weeks into the fighting, Nawaz Sharif agreed to withdraw Pakistani forces after a tense meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton on 4 July 1999 in Washington. The humiliating climbdown sealed the fate of Sharif ’s civilian regime, already unpopular in Pakistan because of rampant corruption and persecution of critics and political opponents. In October 1999 Sharif moved to dismiss Musharraf in a failed preemptive strike, and the armed forces deposed Sharif. The border conflict in Kargil aroused jingoistic nationalism throughout India, with the notable exception of Indian Jammu and Kashmir, where public opinion in most areas ranged from sullenly indifferent to bitterly hostile.
The first fidayeen (literally, life-daring) raid occurred in July 1999, shortly after the end of the Kargil hostilities, when two guerrillas simply barged into a BSF camp in Bandipore, a northern Valley town, firing indiscriminately from automatic rifles and lobbing grenades. The Indian army’s cantonment area in Srinagar’s Badami Bagh locality was penetrated with the same simple but deadly tactic later in 1999. Between mid-1999 and the end of 2002, at least 55 fidayeen attacks, usually executed by two-man teams, were targeted against police, paramilitary and army camps, and government installations in IJK, mostly in the Kashmir Valley. Of these, 29 took place in 2001, making that year the high point of the fidayeen campaign. According to Indian counterinsurgency authorities, 161 military, paramilitary, and police personnel died in these attacks (the Indian army alone lost 82 men), and 90 militants perished while executing them.
The bulk of the raids have been attributed by Indian security sources to one militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which consists of religious radicals from Pakistan and was headquartered until early 2002 at Muridke, near Lahore in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Most of the rest have been attributed to Jaish-e- Mohammad (JeM), another zealot group that is led by Pakistanis, has a predominantly Pakistani membership, and is the direct descendant of Harkat-ul Ansar, which was active in IJK in the mid- 1990s.44 LeT denies that its raids are suicide missions—preferring to call them “daredevil” actions—since the group follows an ultraorthodox version of Sunni Islam that strictly prohibits suicide, but the raids nonetheless have an undeniably suicidal character. The attackers almost never return from these penetrate-and-kill missions—their aim is not to save their own lives but to maximize the frightening psychological impact on the enemy by inflicting death and destruction on their targets. The LeT’s mouthpiece Jihad Times (published until 2001 from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital) and JeM’s fortnightly Urdu journal (also published in Pakistan) have both discussed suicidal warfare in Kashmir. LeT refers to members who execute such operations as fidayeen (those who dare their lives), while JeM refers to its khudkush shaheed dasta (self-sacrificing martyrs’ unit).
In December 2001 a heavily armed five-man squad managed to enter the compound of India’s Parliament building in New Delhi and then attempted to enter the building itself, where hundreds of parliamentarians and government ministers were present at the time. The attackers were killed by security officers after a forty-five-minute battle with guns and grenades. Nine other people, including security staff, parliament stewards, and a gardener tending the grounds, also died. Indian authorities said the raiders were Pakistanis and had been helped and harbored by three men from the Kashmir Valley residing in Delhi. India began a massive military buildup on Pakistan’s borders. Primarily in response to U.S. pressure, in January 2002 General Musharraf announced a crackdown on jehadi groups operating across the LOC from Pakistani territory. LeT and JeM were banned along with several other violent sectarian groups active within Pakistan.
But after a four-month lull, three gunmen struck again in fidayeen style in May 2002, targeting a camp near Jammu city housing families of Indian soldiers. They killed more than thirty people, mostly civilians, and war tensions escalated sharply in the subcontinent. In July 2002 gunmen suspected by Indian authorities to be LeT members struck on the outskirts of Jammu city, massacring twenty-nine Hindus in a slum district before fleeing. Whether by design or accident, the date of the massacre was the seventy-first anniversary of the 13 July 1931 Srinagar massacre of twenty-one Muslim protesters by police, the incident that catalyzed mass political awareness in Kashmir. The Hurriyat Conference coalition and other groups favoring “self-determination” organized protests in Srinagar against the massacre. In an interview given to an Indian news agency by satellite phone from his mountain base, the top Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander for the Jammu region condemned the carnage as “inhuman and un-Islamic” and said he “suspect[ed] that the massacre was carried out by foreign militants.”46 In early August 2002 an annual Hindu pilgrimage in the southern part of the Kashmir Valley was attacked, and nine pilgrims and a gunman were killed. In November 2002 two gunmen struck in the heart of the old bazaar in Jammu city, and one of them entered a popular Hindu shrine in the neighborhood, firing indiscriminately. A dozen people, mostly civilians, were killed in the incident, along with the two attackers. Indian authorities once again suspected the LeT of being behind the raid.
By the end of 2002, however, it was clear that the frequency of fidayeen raids had decreased significantly in IJK compared to 2001 or even 2000. At the same time, the selection of targets had widened beyond the security forces, and targets appeared to be chosen, and attacks timed, to increase communal antagonisms in IJK and, most important, to keep India-Pakistan relations in a precarious limbo. The highly publicized attacks, especially those against “soft” targets, provided the Indian government’s Hindu nationalist leadership with the main justification for its hard-line stance rejecting resumption of a dialogue on Kashmir with the Musharraf regime—branded in India as the “sponsor” of “cross-border terrorism”—overruling mild pressure on New Delhi by the United States and other Western countries.
Peace efforts faltered in this atmosphere of violence. In July 2000 HM, the only insurgent force composed predominantly of IJK residents (augmented by some from AJK), declared a temporary ceasefire, but withdrew it after two weeks amid a sharp escalation of guerrilla violence, including a car-bomb explosion in the center of Srinagar claimed by HM and a series of massacres of Hindus in the Kashmir Valley and the Jammu region for which jehadi groups of Pakistani origin were generally considered responsible. The episode exposed a rift between moderate and hardline HM members, and pro-truce commanders were purged from the organization in 2001. In November 2000 Prime Minister Vajpayee announced a one-month halt to offensive operations by Indian security forces in IJK to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramzan/Ramadan. This too petered out within months amid intensified guerrilla and state violence. In July 2001 Musharraf visited India at Vajpayee’s invitation for talks with the top members of India’s government, which proved inconclusive. The Indians emphasized the destabilizing effect of “cross-border terrorism” originating in Pakistan, while the Pakistanis emphasized the need for Indian commitment to a serious political dialogue on the Kashmir question.
Three points can be made about the fidayeen phase of insurgency in Kashmir. First, the use of suicidal tactics as a weapon of war is neither novel nor the monopoly of militant Muslims. The Japanese kamikaze of World War II used the tactic extensively. Among contemporary political movements, Palestinian militants—especially but not exclusively their Islamist wing—have resorted to the tactic with increasing frequency and decreasing discrimination since the second intifada began in the autumn of 2000. But the most effective and most deadly practitioners of suicidal warfare in the South Asian subcontinent—and possibly in the world—since the 1980s have been the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, whose fighters are Hindu, Christian, agnostic, or atheist.
Second, it is true that the main ideologues and practitioners of suicidal warfare in the Kashmir war are radical Islamist groups of Pakistani provenance. JeM, for example, claimed responsibility for an October 2001 raid by a fidayeen squad on the Indian legislative assembly complex in Srinagar in which thirty-eight people were killed—mostly local Muslim policemen on guard duty and Muslim civilian employees of the legislature secretariat—and even identified a member from Peshawar, Pakistan, by name as the driver of the jeep bomb that exploded at the heavily guarded entrance and enabled the other members of the suicide squad to enter the complex (the group retracted the claim two days later). However, suicidal warfare in Kashmir is not exclusively a “crossborder” phenomenon, but rather is the product of the incendiary infusion of the ideology and tactics of trans-national Islamist militancy into a brutalized, desperate local environment—that is, of a conjunction of internal and external factors. In May 2000 JeM carried out its first suicide attack in the Kashmir Valley when a JeM militant exploded a car bomb at the entrance to the Srinagar headquarters of the Indian army’s 15th Corps, which is deployed in the Valley. The militant was Afaq Ahmed Shah, aged seventeen, a high school student from Srinagar’s Khanyar neighborhood. Born in 1983 into a religious family, Afaq had endured a childhood consumed by rebellion, oppression, and despair. Like Nadeem Khatib, he was internally tormented by what he saw around him and eventually decided that he could no longer be a passive witness.
If Ashfaq Wani and Yasin Malik personify the intifada generation of the azaadi movement, Afaq Shah and Nadeem Khatib represent its fidayeen generation. In December 2000 another JeM car bomber attempted to breach the perimeter of the 15th Corps headquarters—this time it was twenty-four-year-old Mohammed Bilal from Manchester, England, a British citizen of Pakistani descent. In September 2000, on a day I happened to be in the Kashmir Valley, a RR camp in the town of Beerwah in Badgam district— not far from the village of Soibugh—was attacked by two fidayeen. They killed an Indian major and thirteen soldiers before they were finally cornered and killed. One of them was a jehadi militant from Pakistan, the other a Kashmiri-speaking Muslim from a mountain village in the Jammu region’s Udhampur district. Two years later, in November 2002, a fidayeen duo armed with assault rifles and hand grenades penetrated a CRPF camp in the heart of Srinagar, killing six troopers and losing their own lives. A LeT spokesman named the attackers as Abu Younis, a Pakistani militant, and Reyaz Ahmad Khan, a local fighter from the southern Valley town of Qazigund.
The third point about the fidayeen phase is that its most spectacular and most publicized attacks have been directed against such high-profile targets as the Indian army’s cantonment and operational headquarters in Srinagar, the headquarters of the SOG in Srinagar, Srinagar’s airport, and the legislature’s premises in Srinagar, in addition to multiple attacks at various locations in Jammu city, including its railway station, its old bazaar, and at least one shantytown district. However, the crucial theaters of war in this phase lie away from urban centers, in the rural areas, dotted with small towns, of IJK’s sprawling interior. These remote locales and frontiers of conflict in Rajouri-Poonch (Jammu region) and Kupwara (Kashmir Valley)—scenes of a deadly, daily war of attrition— are key to an understanding of the complexity of the contemporary Kashmir problem.
Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace is copyright © 2003 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.