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Pulwama terror attack: Return of IEDs after a decade

File photo: Security officers stand guard near the site blast in Lethpora area of south Kashmir's Pulwama district some 20 kilometres from Srinagar. Photograph:( Agencia EFE )

New Delhi, Delhi, India Feb 16, 2019, 12.41 PM (IST) Written By: Syed Ata Hasnain

In 1987, while the Indian Army was advancing on Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka as part of Operation Pawan, the LTTE challenged the advance with a crude weapon it had mastered; the improvised explosive device or IED as it came to be called. Crude IEDs awaited the advance of the infantry on every route causing confusion and casualties. The mother of all IEDs was the one which targeted a T-72 tank. It was laid with 200 kg of explosive packed into a barrel and dug underneath a tarmac road. A young boy was known to have initiated it with an even cruder initiation device. The effect shook us all. The turret of the tank was blown away and that is saying something. 

To bring context to this, it would bring great awareness to learn that the car bomb which rammed the CRPF bus on the Srinagar Jammu Highway on February 14, 2019, is reported to have packed 350 kg of suspected modern explosive into a car. That too is a form of an IED and they have now come to be a potent weapon of sub-conventional warfare around the world. It went a few steps beyond in countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan where young men and even children have been motivated for the supposed cause to strap themselves with explosives and self-initiate them against targets such as vehicles, entry gates to buildings and at gatherings of people, to cause severe damage to life and property. 

Undoubtedly, the IED and its derivative the car bomb are today two of the most potent weapons of terror. The US encountered these in Iraq and in Afghanistan in a big way. However, surprisingly, as late as the year 2000, US servicemen did not even know the full form of IED. I was comprehensively questioned on it when I spoke at the US Pacific Command HQ at Hawaii that year. In three years’ time thereafter the US armed forces were encountering them everywhere. Despite all the technological advancement, the US and other modern armies found no answer to neutralise these. All kinds of devices to scan the communication spectrum to jam it to disallow radio-initiated devices have been developed but there are few answers yet to self-initiated switches which terrorists use to explode suicide vests and car bombs. 

Kashmir has had a history of IEDs through the Nineties and the early millennium. These were fabricated by explosive experts in the terrorist ranks; interestingly called IED doctors. Quite unlike public perception, it is not easy to fabricate an IED and even more challenging to put together a car bomb. It may take a couple of weeks to do so and once prepared it isn’t easy to lay the IED or deploy a car bomb appropriately to undertake targeting. It is this intervening period involving preparation and laying on the ground or selecting a site for car bombs which intelligence agencies or troops on the ground can always use to discover the network that is intending to employ these weapons, and then neutralise it. 

However, that is only possible if there is a focused attempt to do so in an environment where the employment of IEDs and car bombs has been a norm. When they suddenly appear in first-time use after a long interval it is difficult to discover them at the preparatory stage. That is the case with the Pulwama incident; much criticism against the intelligence agencies and CRPF for alleged intelligence and procedural failure is in my opinion unfair. 

Now that is the interesting part. While IEDS were frequently in use in Kashmir their usage suddenly stopped after 2008. I witnessed the effects of the last major IED employed against the bus of the Kupwara Army division on July 20, 2008. There has been no major IED attack since then. Car bombs were used by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists against the Batwara gate of the Army’s Corps HQ at Badami Bagh in 2001; a Kashmiri youth was the human bomb in that effort. A similar incident took place that year against the J&K Assembly building leading to many casualties. There was even an attempt to blow up the officers’ bus of the Baramula Army Division in 2004 when a Maruti 800 prepared as a car bomb rammed into the bus near Pattan. In the ensuing explosion, only the driver was killed and all the passengers got away with minor abrasions. That incident has its lessons for today’s threat. The General in command of the division was an innovator. He had armoured skirt plates of Vijayanta tanks, lying in derelict condition in the depot at Delhi, transported to Srinagar and got these welded to the sides of the buses of his division. In addition, he used the waste industrial rubber of the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) to be melted and pasted on the bus floor. This is what saved precious lives. The Army took a line from that and started hardening its buses but in due course IEDs dried up and so did car bombs and perhaps the practice of hardening died a natural death. I am not sure what the effect of a 350 kg car bomb would have on a hardened bus but then such bombs are not everyday occurrences and smaller ones will probably have less devastating effect. 

The return of car bombs and IEDs does not necessarily mean that there is going to be an array of them lined up against the security forces in Kashmir. We found effective counter measures the last time we were hit many years ago, we will find them now as well. It requires a certain discipline in movement and pro-activeness in intelligence to neutralise these but I do fear there will be repeats because indirectly it forces the security forces to impose harsher population-control measures such as vehicle check-points, adding more misery to the already difficult lives people lead in proxy war zones. That will lead to greater alienation and that is exactly what Pakistan’s Deep State wants, as do the separatists in Kashmir. Moreover, with what is emerging in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s relevance to the international community is increasing. That will embolden Pakistan even more to risk big-ticket events against India in Kashmir. There are diplomatic measures to be vigorously undertaken to paint Pakistan the villain and a range of military options no doubt are under examination by the government. More on that later. 

(This article was originally published on The DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)

Syed Ata Hasnain

The author commanded the 15 Corps in J&K and is now the Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir

Story highlights

The IED and its derivative the car bomb are today two of the most potent weapons of terror.