Srinagar: Ineligible for a driving licence, the 15-year-old left home on his brother’s motorcycle, clearing many security checkpoints during a 3.5-km ride to a deserted corner of the Eidgah locality in the summer capital of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
It was 3 pm on 2 October 2021 when the teenager pulled up and waited till two men appeared and climbed onto the motorbike with him, according to the police. He dropped them at a marketplace called Karan Nagar, a hub of pharmacists and medical diagnostic centres clustered around Srinagar’s premier tertiary care centre, the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital.
At the bazaar, the two men walked up to a man called Majid Ahmad Gojri, 24, a self-styled “social-media influencer (here and here)”, whom militants suspected of being a police informer, a claim the family and police denied. One of them shot Gojri six times with a pistol. As Gojri collapsed, the two men climbed back on their teenage driver's getaway motorcycle and fled.
“Later, the boy attended Gojri’s funeral prayers and returned home,” an investigating officer privy to the case told Article 14 on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Article 14 contacted the teenager's family, but they only said the case was going on in court and they had “full faith in the judiciary”. They said the 15-year-old was “too young to kill anyone”.
“We don’t want to talk about it, the case is going on in the court and we have full faith in the judiciary,” said the boy’s father, whose identity we are withholding because the juvenile cannot be identified as per the law.
The Rise Of ‘Hybrid’ Militancy
In 55 civilian assassinations over the last 20 months in Kashmir, over 70% are now attributed by police to 'hybrid militants', of which one in five was a juvenile, according to data shared with Article 14 by the J&K police.
These hybrid militants lead double lives as school or college students or dropouts, shoot dead targets assigned to them, according to police by Pakistani handlers, and return to normal lives without families knowing.
Unlike the previous generation of militants who used social media and often attacked security forces, the new generation shuns social media. Their targets: civilians, minorities and unarmed police.
Security officials in Kashmir, determined to disrupt what they call the Valley’s “terror ecosystem”, have gained some success, with overall killings of civilians down by 42% over the last three years, according to police data.
Stone-throwing incidents dropped from 618 between January and July 2019 (there were none later because Kashmir spent the rest of the year under curfew) to 222 in 2020 and 76 in 2021, according to data from the union ministry of home affairs.
Unlike the 1990s, when militant groups were often dominated by foreign fighters, militancy over the last eight years became increasingly home-grown, with a starring role for social media, which became both a major vehicle for radicalisation and was used by young militants to create online personalities and recruit others to the cause.
“Social media gave Kashmiris new channels for their grievances and political aspirations,” wrote Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, an ORF fellow, in a July 2021 research brief. “Anti-India narratives grew stronger, and mass radicalisation and alienation heightened.”
Local recruitment, for instance, went from 53 in 2014 to 218 in 2018 to 128 in 2021. But the social media persona of these militants, experts noted, also allowed security forces to track and capture or kill them.
The Desire For Anonymity
Police officials that Article 14 spoke to for this story said they regarded these secretive, new militants as more dangerous versions of their predecessors in the 1990s and the years preceding the ending of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional privileges in 2019.
On 5 August, 2019, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted limited autonomy to the conflict-torn region, and converted it into a union territory directly government by New Delhi.
Since the abrogation of Article 370, 118 civilians, including 21 Hindus, among them five Kashmiri Pandits, have been killed in J&K, union minister of state for home Nityanand Rai told Parliament on 21 July 2022.
In 2022 alone, 24 persons were shot dead by militants, including seven policemen and eight civilians, six of them minorities.
The teenagers involved in the latest series of attacks, according to police, were trained online to use handguns and tasked to attack “soft targets”. Their cover was the mundane daily lives they lead, making it difficult to track them, said a J&K officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity since he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Families tend to know their children were militants or associated with insurgency after they are arrested or killed. “Sadly, some of our boys are becoming fresh fodder for Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir,” said a counterinsurgent officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Associated with hybrid militancy is another term that security forces have evolved: over ground workers or OGWs as they are known in official parlance. OGWs are not militants but, according to police, those who provide logistic support without attacking civilians or armed forces, unlike hybrid militants who do.
The new terminology has been criticised by human rights activists who argued it was being misused by security agencies. Anyone, they said, can now be branded an OGW or hybrid militant, in a region where police excesses are widely alleged (here, here and here), and the army has had special powers and immunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, for 30 years.
Revelations From An Assassination
The emergence of the hybrid militant was made evident to India at large when the union government awarded the 2022 home minister’s medal for excellence in investigation to deputy superintendent of police (DSP) Sachit Sharma, the only officer from J&K among more than 150 nationwide to be so recognised.
Sharma had solved what was called the Krishna dhaba militant attack, in which the son of the owner of a popular eatery was shot dead by militants in Srinagar on 17 February 2021, after which security forces coined the term “hybrid” militant.
The DSP, who found the alleged assassins within 24 hours after examining footage from closed-circuit cameras, discovered they were not listed in police records. The cameras revealed how two unmasked pistol-borne youth came on motorbike around 7:15 pm and shot Akash Mehra, 22, the son of the dhaba owner, as he sat at the counter, Sharma told Article 14.
Mehra was rushed to the hospital, where he eventually succumbed to his injuries, 11 days after the attack.
“The Krishna dhaba case was a blind one as we had no clue about the killers,” additional director general of police (ADGP), Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, told Article 14.
Kumar said the police, after identifying two young assassins and their two teenage associates involved, called their families.
“They (the families) couldn’t believe it, but their sons’ cellphones gave away their radicalised mindset and method,” said Kumar. “Those boys had already received online training.”
“Insurgent groups have now adopted an anonymized identity online to protect themselves,” political strategist Roshni Kapur wrote in February 2022 for the Middle East Institute, a think tank based in Washington DC.
A particular distinguishing feature this time around was the low key manner of operation. “Their online material is published through anonymous administrators,” wrote Kapur.
Among the groups that have been involved in recent killings have been the TRF (The Resistance Front), an offshoot of Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and the indigenous Muslim Janbaaz Force, a 42-year-old organisation that on 17 Feburary 2021 claimed responsibility for Mehra’s assasination, alleging he was an “outsider” who sought domicile in J&K.
But Mehra, according to his family and the police, was from Jammu.
The Secret Lives Of Their Sons
Mehra’s attackers, according to the police, identified two teenagers aged 16 and 18 from Pulwama, 24 km from Srinagar. They were allegedly assisted by Suhail Mir, 23 and Owais Sofi, 22 a school drop-out from a village called Nowgam in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, around 53 km from Srinagar.
Sofi, a school drop-out, helped his father, Manzoor Ahamd Sofi, a shepherd, at the family’s sheep farm. His mother, Kounsar Manzoor told Article 14 that on 17 February 2021, the day Mehra was shot, her son received a call at around 5 pm from a friend.
"After some time we called him, but his phone was switched off,” said Kounsar. “We were worried.”
The next day, the senior Sofi received a call from an unknown number from his son, who said he had been detained by police. The family said Sofi was never involved in any case nor had the police detained him previously. His friend Mir also lived in Nowgam.
One of the teenagers, aged 16, accused of involvement in Mehra’s killing is the son of a carpenter and a Class 10 student. The 18-year-old was also a student, the son of a labourer.
According to the investigating officer, one of the juveniles went missing two days prior to the attack. He fired at the hotel owner’s son while the others gave him cover, said police.
Seated at the cash counter where his son was shot, Ramesh Mehra told Article 14 his family belongs to Jammu but has lived in Srinagar for several decades. “We were living peacefully with our Muslim brethren,” he said. “I know it wasn’t my son that was the target but our business.”
The vegetarian-only fare at Krishna Dhaba is popular enough that other local businesses were affected when the eatery remained closed for more than two months after the killing. “The dhaba witnesses a rush of locals and tourists,” said Manzoor Ahmad, president of the Durga-Nag Traders’ Union. “After having meals, they come to us for shopping. That attack shook all of us.”
Following the Krishna Dhaba shooting, the Valley witnessed a series of targeted killings of Kashmiri Hindus, non-local labourers, J&K police personnel and members of other minority communities. These attacks fell in line with the narrative that Kashmiri Hindus and non-locals had supported the BJP’s move to revoke J&K’s special status.
Most of these killings were carried out by the ‘hybrid militants’ with pistols, said ADGP Kumar. “These hybrid militants have been annoying us for the last one and a half years,” he said, “but 80% of these militants are on our radar now.”
Despite the new security challenge, ADGP Kumar was upbeat, he said security forces have “neutralised” 35% of all hybrid militants. These were among the 140 militants killed in the first eight months of 2022, he said.
“The life of a new-age militant has drastically come down in Kashmir,” Kumar said, referring to the years a youth operates as a militant. Most are neutralised within three to nine months, he said, through the use of technical surveillance, social media and human resources. “Be it hybrid or regular militant, all of them are meeting the same fate in encounters with security forces now.”
For some years, the number of active militants in Kashmir hovered around 200, a number now challenged by the frequent firefights, including some that broke out on busy streets.
According to the counterinsurgency officer, they face deadlines to “alter the arithmetic of militancy” in the region. “In Naya Kashmir, numbers matter like anything.”
In Naya Kashmir, A New Militancy
On 5 October 2021, militants shot dead well-known Kashmiri Hindu chemist Makhan Lal Bindroo inside his Srinagar shop. Minutes after his killing, a street-food vendor, Virender Paswan, was killed in the Lal Bazar area of Srinagar. Two days later, a Sikh school principal and a Hindu teacher were shot dead in an execution-style killing inside their campus in Srinagar.
These killings continued in 2022 despite the new “deadlines”. Two big changes in militancy have been recorded, especially post-abrogation of Article 370, according to ADGP Kumar, who continues to serve as inspector general of police for Kashmir despite a promotion in rank, mainly on account of his anti-militancy track record.
One, the militants don’t name their outfit after committing a terrorist act. Kumar said LeT men would identify themselves as TRF, while terrorists from Jaish-e-Mohammad called themselves the Kashmir Tigers, “just to show that their action is indigenous”.
The second big change, Kumar said, was militants’ recruitment of juveniles without a police record to carry out targeted killings. “They just execute the orders from their handlers in Pakistan,” he said. “Without leadership and separatist sway, these young guns have become brutal, they don’t even spare innocents now.”
On 18 November 2021, the police claimed they had killed two militants, a hybrid militant and the owner of a building in Hyderpora locality of Srinagar.
Following protests by the family who claimed that at least three of the four men killed were innocent, police returned the bodies of two Srinagar residents. The family of a third person, who belonged to Jammu’s Ramban district, moved court seeking that the body be returned to them. On 12 September, the Supreme Court turned down their appeal for exhumation of the body.
Former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah questioned the security forces’ christening of the young men as ‘hybrid militants’. “I have read so many intelligence reports and I do watch happenings across the world but I haven’t heard about hybrid militants,” he said. “Someone should make me understand what it means.”
Small Arms Fuel Violence
According to investigators, drones drop off small weapons along the Line of Control from across the border. An SSP-rank police officer, who wished not to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media, told Article 14 that this trend grew fast after the revocation of J&K’s special status.
J&K director general of police (DGP) Dilbag Singh also told reporters on 27 June 2021 that this “payload” was being dispatched to disrupt the peace.
Apart from hidden handguns and drones, the new phase of hybrid militancy has also relied on ‘sticky bombs’ that can be attached to a vehicle and then detonated remotely or using timers. These were used by the Taliban in Afghanistan to target North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces (NATO).
Their appearance in Kashmir has alarmed the forces. “This phase of militancy might not be massive,” ADGP Kumar said, “but the number is enough to keep the valley disturbed.”
Police categorise the hybrid militants into three groups—those in the pipeline who have not carried out any violent act, those neutralised during encounters and those arrested. “Many youth in the pipeline of becoming hybrid militants have been stopped with the help of parents.”
The counterinsurgency officer said the new militancy in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370 has remained "leaderless", for most top commanders have been killed by security forces while major separatist leaders are behind bars.
No major attacks post 5 August 2019
Barring the Zewan attack on the outskirts of Srinagar in December 2021 in which three J&K armed police personnel were killed when militants attacked a police bus, hybrid militants have not been able to attack any army or police establishment. The last such attack took place on 26 August 2017 in the district police lines, Pulwama. In that incident, it was three Jaish militants who killed eight security personnel.
“After the Pulwama attack and the Indian response at Balakot, Pakistan’s deep state will also think twice before sanctioning big-ticket terror strikes because risk of war will be high and the Indian government has shown greater resolve towards adopting a punitive stance for anything that crosses our red lines,” said Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain, former general officer commanding (GoC) of the Indian army’s Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He said the hybrid militancy is a strategy to keep terrorism alive and to ensure “alienation of people against India”.
The choice of soft targets itself suggests that the strategy is to let the world know that militancy continues to be a live challenge in Kashmir irrespective of political and constitutional measures, according to Zafar Choudhary, a political analyst and journalist from J&K.
“The random killings of very unsuspecting targets, such as school teachers, street vendors, minority members etc, take very little effort,” Choudhary said, “and cause a high degree of fear and anger.”
He said the prolonged militancy can be equally impactful. Just as people start to feel normal after one killing, hybrid militants will launch another round of killings, the element of surprise making it a challenge for counterinsurgency officers.
An Era Of Online Radicalisation
Once security fences, radars and sensors were deployed along the LoC, as exfiltration and infiltration of militants became difficult, an era of “new age” militancy emerged around 2001, when Kashmiri youth glamorised militancy via social media rather than with attacks on security forces. As hybrid militancy emerged in its place, youth began to receive terror training online.
“The old terrorism was all about calibrated actions more in the kinetic domain, while new age terrorism is a lot about the exploitation of modern technologies, social media, ideological conversion and remaining in a networked state for least visibility and yet maximum action,” Gen Hasnain said. “New weapons of terror are drones and online drills.”
It was such a drill that allegedly stirred “hybrid militant” Tajamul Bilal, 19, a student, to shoot a traffic policeman in the Rajouri Kadal area of Srinagar on 4 December 2021. The policeman, Mohammad Abdullah, survived the attack, but three days later, Tajamul Bilal was arrested. “A pistol is easier to use than large weapons like an AK-47,” said a police officer who was part of the investigation. “Tajamul was provided a pistol and a camcorder to record the act, to glamorise it.”
The 19-year-old recruit was given the pistol and the recording device days before the attack. “Once he was done with the act,” the officer said, “they took away the weapon and camera from him and asked him to return to normal activity.”
The Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK) released a video of the shooting. Shortly thereafter, investigators found the youth had come in contact with militants in south Kashmir’s Shopian where he travelled frequently.
Inside his modest home in the Guzarbal Noorbagh locality of Srinagar, Bilal Dar, 47, sat unhappily. He had no inkling of his son’s inclination towards militancy.
“All I know is that my son has been my support after clearing his Class 10 exams,” Bilal Dar told Article 14. “We would sell clothes on a cart in the Batamaloo area of Srinagar and also travel to Pulwama for the same purpose.”
On the day of his arrest, Tajamul Dar was in Pulwama, selling clothes along with his father, when he received a call from his cousin, Barik, who lives in the same town. Barik had already been detained by the police. “They had come to detain my son as well,” Bilal Dar said.
The next day, Bilal and his wife Shayista rushed to the police station in Pulwama, where they were informed that their son had been shifted to the Cargo center in Srinagar. On reaching Srinagar, the couple was informed that their son has been arrested for firing a firearm at a traffic policeman. “We never thought our son would be involved in militancy,” Bilal said. “I always told my wife to keep an eye on him.”
Shayista did not believe that her son was involved in militancy. “Would he keep his phone with me if was involved in militancy?” she questioned. She said her boy had never even been involved in a stone-pelting case.
The parents conceded, however, that their son would keep pictures of slain militants in his cell phone despite their warnings against it.
ADGP Kumar told Article 14 that when police scanned the cellphones of three hybrid militants involved in the Krishna Dhaba attack, they came to know that the accused had been radicalised and had received training online.
Entry Ticket To Militancy: A Kill
Teenagers who come in touch with handlers are first “tested”, according to police. One hybrid militant was asked to kill two non-locals in south Kashmir before he could be recruited. The officer said, “He was eager to join and he did it. He killed one non-local labourer in South Kashmir.”
Similarly, investigations revealed that in the killing of a salesman, a Kashmiri Pandit, in downtown Srinagar on 9 November 2021, three young men were tasked with killing Sandeep Mawa, a Kashmiri Pandit politician, to earn the handlers’ trust. Mawa, however, had been alerted by police about a possible attack and left hastily, leaving behind his SUV. Mohammad Ibrahim Khan, employed as a salesman for Mawa, tried to bring the car home and faced the militants’ bullets.
The J&K police arrested the trio—Aejaz Ahamad Lone, Naseer Ahmad Shah and Showkat Dar—all residents of Lelhar Pulwama. “Showkat was the one who fired at Khan,” the investigating officer said. “He wanted to join the terror ranks and Mawa’s blood was an entry ticket.”
The trio, police said, were linked with LeT/TRF and were acting on the directions of a handler from across the border.
Naseer Shah, a truck driver, had no plans to join militancy but got involved on being promised Rs 10 lakh. Aejaz Lone arranged to transport the weapon used in the crime from north Kashmir’s Sopore to Pulwama.
A police officer said Pulwama, where the trio lived, is a volatile region of many pro-militant sympathisers. “So it is easy for anyone to become militant,” said the official.
The probe revealed that the three young men were linked to the LeT / TRF and executed the attack on the directions of handlers across the border.
The Logic Of Recruiting Juvenile Killers
On 23 May 2022, the J&K police arrested two local hybrid militants of LeT/TRF in Srinagar, recovering 15 pistols from them. It was one more in a string of similar police press notes.
“Most of these militants are child recruits,” said a police officer who is investigating the killing of another policeman, sub-inspector Farooq Ahmad. “Honestly, I’ve lost interest in the case because you can’t imprison juvenile killers for more than three years.”
Farooq Ahmad, a resident of south Kashmir's Samboora Pampore, was killed when he was working in his paddy fields near his home on 18 June 2022.
The probe led police to three suspects, all juveniles and residents of Samboora Pampore.
The killer was a class 12 student who had left home to join militancy four days before the killing. A resident of Ladhoo village in Pulwama, the juvenile was killed on 21 June in an encounter with security forces in Tujjan, Pulwama. According to school records, he was 16 years old.
Under the Juvenile Justice (Care And Protection Of Children) Act, 2015, the maximum punishment for murder is a three-year stint in an observation home and rehabiitation. “When a murderer is released after three years, you obviously will lose interest in the case,” the officer said. “Handlers in Pakistan are taking advantage of the law.”
In the case of Faroq Ahmad’s killing, the three accused youngsters are alleged to have hatched a conspiracy along with a militant from Ladhoo, who was also killed in Tujjan Pulwama on 21 June. “One of the juveniles even offered funeral prayers for the slain police officer after killing him,” said the police official.
In October 2021, a 15-year-old from Srinagar’s Chattabal area reportedly “assisted” two TRF militants—Mehran Shalla of Srinagar and Basit Dar of Kulgam—in the killing of social media influencer Majid Ahmad Gojri. On 24 November 2021, Shalla was killed along with two other militants in an encounter with security forces. Dar continues to be an active militant.
The juvenile, meanwhile, landed in an observation home.
Survived by old parents and a young sister, Gojri was his family’s lone breadwinner, working as a salesman at a medical shop in Srinagar.
As a social media star, the 24-year-old would intervene and resolve domestic matters, his family told Article 14. His killing caused a furore on social media, and kindled rumours that his killing was an outcome of gang rivalry in the city.
In July 2021, Gojri’s friend, who allegedly belonged to the ‘16 Gujjar’ gang, Meeran Ali Pathan, was shot dead outside his downtown Srinagar residence. But State Investigation Agency investigations clearly indicated the involvement of the TRF in Gojri’s killing.
According to Gojri’s cousin Azhar, he had received a WhatsApp call from the juvenile asking to meet him at Madina complex. The TRF had released a hit-list, including Gojri’s name.
“He was informed by the police earlier and they suggested that he stay alert. The hit list was released shortly after Meeran Pathan’s killing and Gojri was anxious,” said the cousin. “He agreed to meet the juvenile to resolve the issue.” As it turned out, he was walking into a death trap.
The J&K police told Article 14 that they didn’t provide security to Gojri but had summoned him to the police station and informed him to lie low. Gojri’s family argued that their son was killed after he allegedly thrashed the juvenile and others after an argument broke out.
“He settled the scores by killing my son,” said Fameeda, Gojri’s mother. “Can we call this jihad?”
(Auqib Javeed is an independent journalist.)