TRF, Pakistan’s IT cell for terror groups in Kashmir?

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TRF owns three terrorists killed by forces in Kashmir.

New Delhi   “We shall meet again, in Srinagar; by the gates of the Villa of Peace; our hands blossoming into fists; till the soldiers return the keys; and disappear.”

These descriptive lines are from Agha Shahid Ali’s poem ‘A Pastoral’, published in his poetry collection ‘The County Without a Post Office’. Shahid was an Indian American Kashmiri poet from an illustrious and influential family in Srinagar, who captured the loss and grief of Kashmiri people during the violent conflict in the Valley that began in 1989.

In his collection, he bemoaned the loss of Kashmir’s syncretic culture and plural traditions following the exodus of the indigenous minority, Kashmiri Pandits, from the Valley. He dedicated the poem to one of his Kashmiri Pandit friends based in the US.

Recently, Shahid’s lines were quoted by the newly formed ‘The Resistance Front’ (TRF, a group that has falsely claimed responsibility for almost every terror attack in Kashmir in the last few months) in its eulogy for Kashmir’s Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Riyaz Naikoo, who was killed by Indian security forces in an encounter earlier this week.

Even as it is ironic that the poetic sentiment was meant for a member of the community that was selectively targeted and driven out from Kashmir by two local terror groups, Hizbul Mujahideen and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), it is not without reason that the TRF used Shahid’s lines.

Though Shahid’s poetry was published in 1997, its appropriation began only after the September 11 terror attacks, when all Islamist insurgencies, including that in Kashmir, came under the scanner worldwide.

Drawing their own inferences about Shahid’s poetry, the intelligentsia in Kashmir projected him through several articles in local and foreign press as the poetic voice of the ‘resistance’, the euphemism and native name for Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

“The idea was to give the foreign-funded Islamist militancy in Kashmir a local face and project it as freedom struggle from India. For over a decade, the narrative of Kashmir’s ‘azadi’ (freedom) was built and popularised across Indian and foreign universities and institutions,” Kashmiri writer and cultural critic Sualeh Keen told IANS.

Since the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, the discourse in Kashmir changed with many youth getting drawn towards its ideology and objective. Many masked boys were seen waving ISIS flags during violent protests in Srinagar.

Burhan Wani, who was killed by security forces in Kashmir in 2016, for example, employed the ISIS tactics like using social media for recruitment. Even though he was the commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, the terror group which seeks Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan, he was a vocal proponent of the Islamic Caliphate.

His aide Zakir Musa, who quit the Hizbul in 2017 and formed the provincial branch of al-Qaeda in Kashmir, Ansar-Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGuH), enjoyed substantial popularity among a section of youth in the Valley for his daredevil and radical statements. He threatened to slaughter pro-Pakistan and pro-Independence Kashmiri separatists if they created any hurdles in the path of turning Kashmir into an Islamic State.

“As a result, Pakistan-backed terrorism, which had for decades attempted to portray itself as an organic, local freedom movement in Kashmir, assumed pan-Islamic international characteristics,” a senior police officer said.

The discovery of an ISIS module in Kashmir in 2018 and the formal announcement of the formation of Islamic State of Jammu & Kashmir (ISJK) or Wilayat-al-Hind (WaH) in 2019 added to the global character of terror in Kashmir.

Following the killing of Kashmir’s most famous journalist-cum-peace activist Shujaat Bukhari by Pakistan-backed terrorists in Srinagar in June 2018, the Central government took several measures to crackdown on the terror network in the Valley.

While the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global watchdog for terror-funding, placed Pakistan in the ‘grey list’, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested politicians and businessmen for terror-funding, declared JKLF a terror group and banned the Islamist radical group Jamaat-e-Islami as well.

With all such measures and the government revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status by nullifying Article 370 on August 5 last year, Pakistan “lost ground and its hold in Kashmir dramatically,” an Army officer in Srinagar said.

However, as soon as the US-Taliban peace deal in Afghanistan came through in February this year, not only did terror activities in Kashmir increase, the TRF also began to appear everywhere on social media, even taking credit for the terror attacks that it did not launch.

Incidentally, in 1989, after the CIA-backed Afghan Mujahideen defeated Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the US had left the region at Pakistan’s mercy. Exactly around the same time, Pakistan’ ISI turned its attention to Kashmir, training and arming the Mujahideen against India.

Though Indian security agencies initially dismissed TRF as just another social media handle, after the arrest of six of its members and seizure of a huge cache of arms, they have been on a wild goose chase. On the ground, security agencies have found that TRF does not really exist as an organisation.

Defence security analysts believe that TRF is yet another attempt by Pakistan to project terrorism in Kashmir as an indigenous freedom movement, giving Pakistani banned terror groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad plausible deniability, and allowing Pakistan to evade international pressure.

“Since its surfacing on social media platforms, it has resorted to falsely claiming high traction acts and terrorists as its own. TRF has been holding to every thread there is to associate itself with any and every event. It is not a new tactic that the moment a group surfaces, it starts making a series of tall claims to set up and validate itself as the top rung among others,” a senior Army officer said.

What differentiates them from the others, he said, is the sheer planning and precision of execution. “Every claim they make is swiftly followed by an online barrage of tweets and telegrams. From nicely printed English announcements on a letterhead with serial numbering to professionally made videos of audio messages are the tools used for enhancing their image as an organised and ‘better’ outfit than others. It is an old marketing technique to establish your credibility in a new market,” he said.

TRF, incidentally, sounds like The Plebiscite Front (TPF) — a political group led by the aides of Kashmir’s most popular leader Sheikh Abdullah after he was arrested in 1953 on the directions of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a case related to sedition.

Also, in the last decade, the Kashmiri Muslim intelligentsia, its diaspora and the new generations backing Kashmir’s separation from India, have created and named multiple platforms across the world with the word ‘resistance’ in them.

“TRF is nothing but a bunch of Kashmiri Muslim separatists with some knowledge of media and literature like that of Agha Shahid Ali,” a counter-intelligence Kashmiri official said.

Cyber analysts, however, claim that TRF’s social media accounts, according to the internet protocol address, were being operated from Islamabad and that too, mostly from an iPhone.

“The connivance and support of Pakistan is clearly visible since Kashmir was still under a lockdown and the Internet had been snapped simultaneously for the very same reason when TRF accounts on social media began surfacing,” an official said.

All the terror attacks in the last few months in Kashmir, according to counter-terrorism experts, have been perpetrated by the usual suspects like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen.

“TRF is a front of Lashkar, by several assessments. Pakistan is sidelining Hizbul because it neither has strong leadership, nor the stamina to incite violence in Kashmir. So Lashkar and Jaish are likely to dominate the theatre, but TRF or some other neutrally named newbie will take the credit. Apart from using psychological operations as its biggest weapon, Pakistan is taking the well-established route in its hybrid war,” an intelligence officer said.

In his prognosis of ‘The New Rules of War’, Sean McFate described shadow wars as armed conflicts in which plausible deniability, not firepower, forms the centre of gravity. And in this information age, he said, plausible deniability is more decisive than firepower.
“This dynamic makes war epistemological: Telling what is real from fake will decide the winners and losers,” he wrote.

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