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In Indian-controlled Kashmir, unprecedented attack puts focus on ‘homegrown’ militants

A soldier stands guard Sunday as a curfew continues for a third day in Jammu, the winter capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, following protests over Thursday’s deadly attack on Indian security personnel.
A soldier stands guard Sunday as a curfew continues for a third day in Jammu, the winter capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, following protests over Thursday’s deadly attack on Indian security personnel. (Jaipal Singh/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

GUNDIBAGH, India — Just a few miles separate the place where Adil Ahmad Dar grew up from the place where he ended his life in an act of wanton violence.

When Dar drove an SUV packed with explosives into a convoy of Indian security personnel on Thursday, he carried out the single deadliest attack in decades in a region torn by strife.

The bombing may mark a turning point in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where an insurgency against Indian rule has waxed and waned since 1989. The militancy is far smaller than it was at its peak, but it is increasingly drawing local recruits. 

The escalation of violence comes as tactics by India that critics decry as heavy-handed have alienated a new generation of Kashmiri youths and social media has proved a potent recruitment tool for militant groups, some of which are based in Pakistan.

The attack, which killed 40 paramilitary officers, has escalated the potential for conflict between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. The Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad claimed responsibility for the attack. But Dar, the suicide bomber recruited by the group, was a teenager who came from a village just six miles away from where it was carried out. Jaish-e-Muhammad was designated a terrorist organization by the United States nearly two decades ago.

In India, with national elections only months away, there is intense pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to respond to the attack. The public mood is a mix of sorrow and anger that has curdled into something uglier in some places. Kashmiris living in other parts of India reportedly were threatened in the wake of the attack. 

India and Pakistan have spar­red over Kashmir — a Himalayan region both countries claim in its entirety — for more than 70 years. Militant groups in Indian-held territory are fighting either to claim independence or to join Pakistan. In previous phases of the militancy, many of the fighters would cross from Pakistan into India.

In 2012, the number of militancy-related deaths in Kashmir dropped to an-all time low. But violence has risen in recent years, according to Indian government figures, particularly after India’s tough response to protests in 2016. Last year was the deadliest in Kashmir in a decade. It also registered an increase in the flow of local recruits to militant groups, with more than 100 joining the insurgency.

A senior police official in Kashmir who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of protocol said local recruitment started to rise after a charismatic militant commander named Burhan Wani was killed in 2016, but he said it had stalled in the past three months. “This attack was not from a position of strength, but as an act of desperation,” he said, adding that security forces had killed 29 militants in the first weeks of 2019.  

This generation of Kashmiri youths has “seen violence and instability from the time they were born,” said David Devadas, author of a recent book on Kashmir. On social media, he said, there is a constant stream of images of “Muslims oppressed and globally under attack.” These factors, along with personal experiences, have produced a degree of radicalization both in political and religious terms, Devadas said.

Nowhere is this sentiment more heightened than in the villages in the southern part of the Kashmir Valley, which has become a hotbed of militancy. On Sunday, three days after the attack, shops in the area remained shuttered and streets were deserted, save for a few people playing cricket games on roadsides. 

In Dar’s village, Gundibagh, mourners gathered near his home on Sunday. His relatives sat under a tent.

“Kashmiris can feel the pain of the families of those who died,” said Dar’s cousin Umar Ayyub, 25, “because every family here has lost someone.”

The uneasy silence is punctured by a woman’s wail from inside the house. 

Dar, 18, was among scores of young Kashmiris who joined mass protests in 2016. At one demonstration in which protesters threw stones at security forces, he was shot in the leg, his mother said, then spent months bedridden. He reportedly left home to join the militancy in March. 

Barely two miles from Dar’s village, on a lane dotted with three-story homes in the town of Kakapora, is the house of Majid Ahmad Mir. One day in June 2016, the 19-year-old engineering student did not return home from college.

Almost exactly a year later, his family spent a sleepless night as a gun battle raged nearby. 

 At 5:30 the next morning, the family received a call from police to pick up his body. Majid was 6 feet tall, recalled his older brother Imtiaz, but in death, his charred body was a fraction of its size. 

Imtiaz said after his brother joined the militancy, the authorities conducted multiple raids on their home. Even after Majid’s death, the scrutiny and harassment has not stopped, Imtiaz said. “I do not even have a photo of him on my phone,” he said. “The security forces stop and question me every time like a thief.”

Hilal Mir, a senior journalist based in the city of Srinagar, said the militants are not just increasingly local, but also younger. Thursday’s attack could be a turning point, he said. The Modi government’s tough approach to the Kashmir conflict is likely to harden further, sparking a new cycle of killings and reprisals. 

The scale of Thursday’s violence is also a major departure, Mir added. Security forces and militants “get killed routinely in twos or threes, which doesn’t register anymore,” he said. “This attack changes that.”

Slater reported from New Delhi. Ishfaq Naseem contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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