With Naveed Jatt’s death, Lashkar-e-Taiba has lost one of its most prominent faces in Kashmir

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Naveed Jatt burst into public view in February, when he bolted from police custody at Srinagar’s Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital. Two policemen were killed in the hospital, where Jatt had been taken for a medical examination. A few months later, the Pakistan-born Lashkar-e-Taiba militant made headlines again, this time as one of the three people accused in the high-profile killing of journalist Shujaat Bukhari.

Since his escape, according to officials in the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the Pakistani militant was under surveillance. But Jatt acquired a reputation for being able to escape every time security forces closed in on him. “It has been quite tough,” said Dilbag Singh, director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir, on Wednesday. “We have been tracking him for six to seven months, since he ran away from the custody. He had escaped from many cordons but today he wasn’t that lucky.”

On November 28, two militants were killed in a pre-dawn operation in Kuthpora in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. Naveed Jatt, alias Hanzalla, was one of them, the police said. Jatt was one of the longest-surviving militants in Kashmir, said the police statement issued after his death. It said that Jatt was involved in the killings of several security force personnel and civilians.

With his killing, the Lashkar-e-Taiba has lost one of its most prominent faces in the Valley. “Certainly, the organisational strength of the LeT will be much weaker now,” said Singh.

The Lashkar commander

According to the police, Jatt was a resident of Multan and went through arms training at the religious seminary in Pakistan where he was part of a group named after the 26/11 Mumbai attack convict, Ajmal Kasab. He crossed into the Kashmir Valley along with a group of militants in October 2012, the police said. They had made their way in through North Kashmir’s Kupwara district. Once in the Valley, Naveed would make his presence felt, mostly in the southern districts of Kashmir where militancy had taken root.

Police records show Jatt was involved in the killing of an assistant sub inspector in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district in May 2013. Several grenade attacks on security forces were also credited to him. In August 2013, Jatt’s name surfaced in the records again, as militants killed two Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Shopian district’s Awneera village.

“He was also involved in conspiring and executing several bank robberies and terror attacks in South Kashmir including attack on Court Complex Pulwama in March 2014 in which two policemen were martyred, attack on polling party in Shopian on April 2014 in which several civilians sustained injuries and one presiding officer namely Zai-ul-Haq Wani was killed, attack on police party at Bongam Shopian on June 2014 in which several civilians and policemen were injured,” says a detailed profile on Jatt prepared by the state police.

In June 2014, Jatt, who had reportedly risen to the rank of the Lashkar’s deputy chief in the Valley, was arrested in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district. A close associate of Abu Qasim, then the Lashkar’s senior most commander in the Valley, Jatt remained in jail for four years. During the course of his imprisonment, Lashkar steadily lost its top leadership in Kashmir to military operations. They included Qasim and Abu Dujana, another top commander, who became a popular figure in South Kashmir, acquiring a name for hiding in plain sight.

Jatt’s escape on February 6 this year was calculated to fill a leadership vacuum in the outfit, said police officials. It was a well-scripted plan, according to them. Jatt was brought to the Srinagar hospital with a group of five militants. As the two policemen accompanying the group were shot dead, Jatt managed to escape with the help of militants already waiting on the premises.

The police believe that Jatt’s killing will now disrupt the Lashkar’s operations in the Valley, at least for now. “After any killing, their network gets broken up and that will, in a way, have an impact for a time,” said Vidhi Kumar Birdi, deputy inspector general, Central Kashmir.

A popular militant

While his escape was a major embarrassment for the security apparatus in the Valley, it boosted Jatt’s personal popularity in the Valley. His round, child-like face, which often wore a smile, belied the fact that he was a well-trained militant. Videos showing Jatt giving arms training to other militant recruits or roaming casually on highways had created a storm on social media. He also made frequent appearance at militant funerals but stayed away from audio or video messages to the public, unlike Hizbul Mujahideen chief Riyaz Naikoo or Anzar Ghazwat ul-Hind chief Zakir Musa, both local militants.

Said Saqib Ahmad, a shopkeeper in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district: “Even though he was not popular like Burhan or Manan, but people knew of him as a very brave militant. Foreign militants are usually well trained than local rebels but he was more than that.” Burhan Wani was the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander whose killing by security forces in 2016 gave rise to mass protests in the Valley. Manan Wani was the PhD scholar from Aligarh Muslim University who joined the Hizbul Mujahideen earlier this year and was killed in a gunfight in October.

But this very “bravado” and the “ease” with which Jatt escaped security cordons gave rise to whispers in Kashmir, where suspicions are quick to form. “When he was continuously giving slip to forces, many believed that may he’s their [security forces’] guy only,” Saqib Ahmad added.

Still, protests broke out in parts of Kashmir after his death and the state police said it would write to the Union home ministry to inform the Pakistani government to take his remains. It is possible the police are prompted by law and order concerns. In 2015, thousands had flocked to Qasim’s funeral, after which the police had stoped handing over the bodies of foreign militants to local residents in Kashmir. Since 2015, all foreign militants have been buried in Uri’s Boniyar area, near Line of Control in North Kashmir.

Jatt’s killing caps a bloody month, which has left around 30 militants dead, police records show. On November 23, security forces killed six militants in a pre-dawn operation in Anantnag’s Bijbehara town. One of the slain militants was Azad Ahmad Malik, alias Dada. He was also one of the three accused in the killing of Shujaat Bukhari and believed to be one of Jatt’s close associates.

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