October 1998 News

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Bin Laden's Mercenaries Gather for Kashmir Jihad, According to London Times

4th October 1998
Sunday Times(London)

SRINAGAR: The Attic room in the outskirts of Srinagar appears empty apart from bales of drying grass and stacks of firewood. Behind a false plaster-and-mud partition covered with posters declaring "Muslims are being massacred by the forces of imperialism", a tall, bearded youth whispers instructions into a radio set using code words from the Koran.

Ghulam, 25, is one of hundreds of Kashmiris recruited to bring the jihad of Osama Bin Laden - the Saudi millionaire accused of masterminding the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania - to Indian-controlled Kashmir, the flashpoint of the subcontinent.

In the past few months, men like Ghulam have helped more than 700 elite Islamic mercenaries to cross the Pir Panjal mountains from Pakistan and establish bases in the spectacular Kashmir valley. They come with clear orders: to bring terror to Kashmir and beyond.

Ghulam was recruited by a member of Harakat-ul-Ansar, an armed Islamic guerrilla group fighting Indian security forces. The group is funded by Bin Laden and is accused of having kidnapped Paul Wells and Keith Mangan, two British tourists seized three years ago.

Taken to Al-Badr, a training camp in Khost, Afghanistan, Ghulam underwent a 90-day course before being introduced to a 10-man unit which he had to guide back to India. He received a payment of 50,000 rupees (700) in Afghanistan. Each of the mercenaries had signed two-year contracts to fight in India and were paid 400,000 rupees (5,600).

"We were told to leave the Al Badr camp before the Americans attacked it in August and were given instructions to cross into India," said Ghulam. "Our 'father' Bin Laden has sent brothers from Afghanistan to wage jihad."

Many Kashmiris have welcomed Bin Laden's men. In the bazaars of Srinagar's old town, chuddar-clad women now speak of the jihad and the bearded foreigners in their midst. "Bin Laden is coming - he will purge the Indian army from Kashmir," said one middle-aged woman doing her shopping.

India and Pakistan - both now equipped with nuclear weapons - have clashed repeatedly over Kashmir. There had been signs that security was improving and tourism, once an economic mainstay of the mountainous area with its treks, orchards and houseboats, might pick up again. Bin Laden's insurgents have changed all that.

The 500,000 members of the Indian security forces stationed in Jammu and Kashmir are on the alert to combat an influx of his men before heavy snow blocks the mountain passes. In the past month dozens of militants have been killed in nightly firefights with the Indian security forces, which have also suffered casualties. Twelve Muslim rebels and a Hindu civilian were killed in separate incidents of secessionist violence last week alone.

Three militants - two of them Afghan mercenaries - died in a shoot-out on Tuesday near Banihal, 60 miles from Srinagar, after they opened fire on passing Indian troops.

"Bin Laden has set his sights on Kashmir and has sent over die-hard fundamentalists, highly armed and trained suicide squads, who want to take on India and the West," said a lieutenant-colonel from a unit charged with rooting out mercenaries. "Out of every group of militants we are now encountering, many have been trained in Bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and at least half are from Afghanistan itself."

The Indian army has rescued 50 teenagers, the youngest aged 14, taken from their homes by militants using threats and inducements to persuade them to cross the Pir Panjal range.

Bashir Mohammed, a 14-year-old boy from Alamgang, southern Kashmir, said: "They told us they would harm our families if we didn't go and that there would be guns, money and even girls waiting for us on the other side."

On arrival in the Kashmir Valley, Ghulam's unit and others like it are instructed to keep Kashmir "on the boil" by selecting soft targets such as civilians and the few foreign tourists who still visit.

Indian intelligence sources say bonus payments have been promised to those who generate international headlines with an abduction or by killing a senior Indian army officer.

"Bin Laden is financing a sophisticated fighting force. This is not a riff-raff operation," said Lietenant-Colonel Rahul Samuel, whose unit recently recovered solar-powered rockets and a haul of explosive devices fitted with detonators that can be programmed up to 194 days in advance.

There are fears that the violence could spill over from Kashmir into the rest of the country. The Indian army believes Bin Laden's men plan to contact Islamic cells established in states throughout the country in preparation for a terror campaign.

"There are fundamentalist units in many Indian states, which could be activated to bring terror to other cities," said Lieutenant-General Mohinder Puri, of the Eighth Mountain Division, India's most decorated counter-insurgence unit. "Foreign militants are coming for a jihad and they want to be blooded in battle."


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