A BSF patrol along the international border in Jammu’s Samba sector, February 12 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
ON FEBRUARY 12TH, the Jammu and Kashmir Police arrested a terrorist, Zahoor Ahmed Rather, from a Muslim locality in Bari Brahmana, an industrial town in Jammu’s Samba district, near the International Border (IB) with Pakistan. Rather belonged to TRF (The Resistance Front), a frontal group for the terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Toiba. He had taken a house on rent in the locality and lived here with his wife and children. Last year, he had killed three workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party and a policeman in South Kashmir. The police had prior information about his movements. According to them, Rather was to collect a consignment of weapons, which his handlers in Pakistan were supposed to drop with the help of a drone, somewhere along the border in Samba.
The IB in Jammu has now become a new hotspot for terrorist activities from Pakistan. In the past few months, Pakistan has used drones to drop drugs and weapons easily across the fencing on the border onto Indian territory. At the same time, it has built tunnels to enable the infiltration of terrorists from organisations like Jaish-e-Mohammed. Both weapons and terrorists are then picked up by a Kashmiri network of terrorists and overground workers, ultimately making their way to Kashmir.
“The aim of these tunnels and drones is to beat our line of interception along the border,” says NS Jamwal, the inspector general of the Border Security Force (BSF) in Jammu, responsible for guarding the IB in the sector, including the one in Samba.
On January 23rd, the BSF detected a tunnel in the sector during the unearthing of a patch of land, close to the border fencing. It was 30-feet deep and estimated to be about 150-feet long. This was the second tunnel detected in 10 days and the fourth in six months in this sector. It appeared to be a few years old, and according to BSF officials, in use for a long time.
When BSF officials began to explore it, they realised that the tunnel was quite sophisticated. The top of the tunnel was dome-shaped and both sides had been lined with sandbags at the exit to prevent caving. “You could run trucks and tractors over it and still not suspect that there was a tunnel beneath,” says a senior BSF official.
The selection of the Samba sector for tunnelling suits Pakistan well. The area is favourable to digging as the water table here is low. BSF officials suspect that Pakistan uses satellite imagery to select proper tunnelling routes. The tunnels work like this: on their side of the border, the Pakistani army has kept the area totally unkempt. They allow the growth of foliage, especially sarkanda or elephant grass which requires very little to grow. From here, the experts start digging and go beneath the fence, past BSF fortifications and patrols to emerge in Indian territory in the middle of a similar growth. “These tunnels are an engineering marvel,” says Jamwal, “it is a collaboration between the Pakistani army, their engineers and their scientists.”
For years, the BSF had been keeping an eye on the ground for possible attempts at infiltration. Sometimes, infiltrators broke the fence somewhere and entered. Sometimes, they would just walk along nallahs like Tarnah to enter. While the BSF kept a tight vigil over these, it did not know that the Pakistani army was
deploying other means.
The first tunnel in this area was detected in 2012. It was about 500 metres long, with 150 metres inside Indian territory. But in the recent past, smaller or shorter tunnels, in the range of 150 metres, have been detected.
To make it easier for them to be detected on this side, the BSF has now begun to encourage villagers to cultivate land. “This year, we assisted them to grow wheat. Gradually, they have begun to get interested in cultivation close to the border,” says a BSF official posted in the sector.
In June last year, a BSF patrol heard a whirring sound. When they looked up, they found a hexacopter (large drone) flying low. It had developed a technical snag due to which its batteries had been exhausted. The patrol commander shot at the hexacopter, after which it crashed into a field nearby. The BSF found a Chinese-made clone of an M14 rifle, pistols and grenades attached to its belly. But in this case the BSF had just got lucky. Had the hexacopter not developed a snag, it would have gone unnoticed. “It would have crossed over us right up to the national highway, where in all likelihood someone from Kashmir would have picked them [the arms and ammunition] up,” says a BSF official.
It is not clear if the consignment the TRF terrorist Zahoor Ahmed Rather was supposed to pick up from Samba had entered Indian territory on a similar drone. But police sources say that many such drones with weapon consignments have landed in Indian territory.
In November, the police intercepted a truck at a toll plaza near Nagrota on the outskirts of Jammu city. There were four Jaish terrorists hiding inside the truck. In the ensuing encounter, all four were killed. In the episode, the police were tracking the overground Jaish workers who had been sent to the border to meet the infiltrated terrorists and ferry them on the truck to Kashmir. A huge consignment of weapons, including 11 AK series rifles, 29 grenades, 7.5 kg RDX and three pistols were recovered from the truck. The Jaish terrorists, according to the police, had come to carry out attacks to disrupt the District Development Council elections being held in Jammu and Kashmir around that time. A GPS recovered from one of the slain terrorists was examined. It led investigators to retrace their journey, ultimately reaching the exit of a tunnel in Regal village in Samba from where they had entered India.
A few days before Rather’s arrest, a joint team of police from Jammu and Kashmir arrested a terrorist, Hidayatullah Malik, from Kunjwani in Jammu. Malik is from South Kashmir’s Shopian district and was heading an organisation called Lashkar-e-Mustafa, which the police believe is a front for Jaish. Malik had come to Jammu to meet his wife, a lawyer, who upon interrogation revealed that she had divorced her husband in order to marry him. They had travelled in the past to Jammu and Chandigarh, staying at prominent hotels. Sometime earlier, Malik had taken a flight to Delhi to conduct a recce of the office of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. He had made a video of the location and sent it to his handler in Pakistan who went by the code name of Doctor Sahib. The investigators have now identified the handler as a Jaish commander, Abu Talha.
Malik had also been involved in creating a vehicle-borne IED for a possible attack on security forces, just like the one used in Pulwama in February 2019. But timely action by the police saw the vehicle being intercepted in Pulwama in May last year. The explosives were later blasted in isolation by the bomb disposal squad.
Malik’s interrogation had one more shocking revelation. He told the police that he had escorted a Jaish terrorist, Ashiq Ahmed Nengroo, and his wife and children from Kashmir to a tunnel in Samba in December 2018. From here, Nengroo and his family had fled to Pakistan.
Nengroo played a key role in the revival of Jaish in Kashmir. The National Investigation Agency (NIA), while investigating the Pulwama suicide attack, learnt that between October 2017 and September 2018, Nengroo had made seven trips to Punjab and Jammu in three trucks owned by him and transported 33 hardcore Jaish terrorists to the Kashmir Valley. All of them had completed the most advanced training, called Daura-e-khas, in Pakistani terrorist camps. All of them infiltrated into India across the international border in Punjab and Jammu. One of the Jaish parties that Nengroo had helped enter Jammu from Samba, and subsequently move to Kashmir, happened to be the one led by Jaish chief Masood Azhar’s nephew, Umar Farooq. It is he who planned the entire attack in Pulwama—resulting in the deaths of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel—including motivating the suicide bomber, Adil Ahmed Dar, to carry out the attack.
As Nengroo came under the scanner, he quietly left Kashmir with Malik’s help. Malik told interrogators that 20 minutes after entering the tunnel in Samba, Nengroo had called him. Nengroo had told Malik that he had reached his destination safely and was then having tea with his Pakistani handlers.
This tunnel in Samba’s Galar village was detected by the BSF in August last year. Like other tunnels, it was also re-enforced with sandbags carrying markings of Karachi and Shakargarh (the area just across the border in Pakistan’s Narowal district).
But sources in Kashmir Police say that there could be many undetected tunnels in the sector that Pakistan will continue to use to carry out terrorist activities in Kashmir and elsewhere. They say that security agencies in the neighbouring Pathankot district of Punjab had also been alerted about the possibility of infiltration through such tunnels. The urgent need, says a senior police officer posted in the area, is to invest in technology that could help security forces in the detection of these underground and overground invasions.