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Transborder Intelligence Operations

October 18, 2019 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By BSF
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


All intelligence agencies operating in J&K have suffered setbacks as about 90 per cent of intelligence received is through technical sources.

According to news reports of October 15, 2019, quoting un-named senior officials, Army's monitors along the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan have fallen silent for over two months now, affecting intelligence operations. There are apparent concerns at the highest levels of government over this silence, especially with an official saying, "We know that messages are being sent to militants in the Valley. The terrorists and their handlers have changed the frequency [they communicate on] and we have not been able to crack the new one. We have been trying to intercept commands being sent to the Valley by terror organisations based there (in Pakistan) but have not been successful yet." This change reportedly occurred immediately post Article 370 was revoked in J&K. Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence has not yet been able to figure out if Pakistan-backed terrorist organisations have switched to a new system or just changed their frequencies.

According to intelligence from ground sources within the Valley, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) has been asked to target security forces and the Masood Azhar led Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) has been tasked to carry out bigger attacks like the Pulwama bombing on February 14 that killed 40 CRPF personnel. But with real-time intelligence having dried up, Army has for the first time been hit by a silent wall it is finding hard to penetrate. The Army is therefore trying to crack the new frequency to get up-to-date with terror chatter. All intelligence agencies operating in J&K suffered setbacks due to the communications blackout especially since about 90 per cent of intelligence received is through technical sources. Post-paid mobile services were resumed in the Valley on October 14 after 72 days, and agencies are hoping that this will help them re-establish contact with their sources. However, SMS service had to be blocked just one day after post-paid cellular services were resumed because of the killing of a truck driver. Two terrorists, including a suspected Pakistan national, shot dead Sharief Khan the driver of a Rajasthan truck and assaulted Shirmal, an orchard owner, in Shopian, South Kashmir on October 14 itself. Earlier in the day, Governor Satya Pal Malik had justified the ban on mobile phone services saying, "We imposed restrictions because terrorists use it for mobilisation and indoctrination."

This terrorist attack came almost a week after two Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists were killed and a civilian was injured in an encounter with security forces in south Kashmir's Pulwama district. On October 11, J&K administration had taken out newspaper advertisements asking people not to be afraid of militant threats and resume their businesses even as heavy deployment of security forces continued in Srinagar and other towns in Kashmir. Killing of the truck driver was apparently aimed at: deterring orchard owners from selling apples to the Centre; force suspension of part cellular service to show the government in poor light and increase international pressure to lift restrictions, and; instill fear in public to stay away from school, colleges and even offices.

On October 13, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated at an election rally at Jalgaon in Maharashtra that the situation in Kashmir would return to normal within four months. The question is what in 'normal' and how much effort is required to keep terrorism required given the state of radicalisation and Pakistan's full force to keep the pot simmering, if not boiling – very little indeed. On October 16, an apple trader from Punjab was shot dead in Shopian and a brick kiln worker from Chhattisgarh working in Pulwama was critically injured was critically injured, resulting in a procession of outstation trucks fleeing the Valley without picking up their full consignment. Also, same day three terrorists were killed by security forces in Pazalpora area of Anantnag district.

The Supreme Court wants the Centre to reply about the political detentions, which is not surprising because government has failed to prosecute them for their terrorist links and anti-national activities. Instead some of them have been set free, which will not even permit new young leaders to come up. But all said and done isolated terror incidents are likely to continue over a long period. Investment, development and job creation is not going to happen overnight, terror links of certain J&K politicians are not going to cease till examples are set and communications restrictions may have to be switched on and off concurrent to terrorist actions. But coming back to the wall of silence that the Army is facing with respect to transborder intelligence operations, it is a national problem that certainly cannot be attributed to the Army alone.

The NTRO, R&AW, IB and the NSA must be equally concerned, as should be the Defence Minister and the Home Minister. If the government is serious about real-time transborder intelligence, then three actions need to be taken:

  1. Immediately revive Army's Technical Support Division, which the Congress disbanded and the BJP by not reviving it has indicated their lawmakers are equally scared of skeleton tumbling out of themselves and their party;
  2. Covert special operations in enemy territory must be continuous on proactive basis which include intelligence operations and infiltrating terrorist organisations, and;
  3. Much has been talked about Israeli help in executing the Balakot airstrike to hit the JeM training facility.

So why not take Israel's assistance in monitoring terrorist communications, when even America is doing it jointly with them? All this requires serious thought, not just political statements like the Maoists problem will be over in next two years. Ironically, the cycle of elections at state or national levels is a never ending process, but we need to rise above vote-bank politics. Of the three measures suggested, the first two are vital but tough decisions. Whether the Modi Government is capable of taking these decisions remains to be seen.