J&K Amarnath Attack : How a phone call led the police to conspirators

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The Jammu and Kashmir Police on Monday filed a chargesheet in connection with last July’s terror attack on a bus carrying Amarnath Yatra pilgrims in South Kashmir in which eight pilgrims were killed.

A statement issued by the police stated that investigations had established the role of Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba in the attack. The chargesheet implicates 11 individuals, including the four Lashkar gunmen who participated in the attack and were killed in encounters with security forces later that year. A 16-year-old juvenile, whose name has been withheld, also figures on the list of the accused. Details of the investigation mentioned in the chargesheet also confirm that the pilgrims were the primary target of the July 10 attack, that it was planned days in advance, and that the accused had carried out reconnaissance in the area a day before the strike.

The Special Investigation Team set up to probe the matter submitted the 1,500-page document to the Anantnag sessions court and the chief judicial magistrate (juvenile court).

The chargesheet

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The investigation team was able to track the culprits after examining records of phones known to be in use by members of militant groups in the district, which were already under “lawful interception”. The team matched these records with data from cellphone towers located near the site of the attack.

According to police officials, a phone call made by an accused person near the site helped investigators to identify him and six other individuals who helped plan the strike.

The chargesheet states: “The technical evidences in the shape of voice clips and CDRs [call detail records] clearly establish the link between all the accused persons (A1 to A11) as part of their larger conspiracy hatched by the accused persons.”

Investigators first identified Zahoor Ahmad Sheikh, a driver with the State Road Transport Corporation, who is known to be a militant collaborator. Further investigations found that Sheikh had allegedly provided logistical help for the attack, including providing shelter to the attackers. The chargesheet states that phone call records established Sheikh’s presence near the attack site a day before the strike. Investigators then used Sheikh’s mobile phone number to identify other individuals who were in regular contact with him.

The chargesheet states: “It is pertinent to mention here that the chain of events and involvement of the accused persons (A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, A6, A7) in connection with the commission of offence [attack on Yatra bus] was established through CDRs and voice recordings of the number XXXXX of Zahoor Ahmed Sheikh.”

After identifying the suspects, investigators sought samples of their voices and matched them with intercepted phone conversations.

According to the chargesheet, four accused persons – Aijaz Ahmad Wagay, Bilal Ahmad Reshi, Zahoor Ahmad Sheikh, and the juvenile – admitted to the telephonic conversations and to planning the attack. The chargesheet said: “Accused persons further disclosed that they carry the militants [sic] namely Abu Ismail @Haroon (A8), Yawar Bashir Wani @Ayan (A9), Maaviya (A10) and Furqaan (A11) from Khudwani to Poshkredi on 09.07.2017 before day of occurrence.”

The chargesheet identifies Pakistani gunman Abu Ismail as the main accused. Ismail was killed in an encounter with security forces in Srinagar on September 14. The remaining three militants were killed in a separate encounter on December 12 in Qazigund, Anantnag. While two of them were Pakistani nationals, Yawar Bashir Wani was a local Kashmiri and a student at an Islamic seminary in Srinagar before he joined the Lashkar in February 2017.

According to the chargesheet, investigations by forensic teams found that at least 43 bullets had torn through the bus carrying more than 50 pilgrims. The weapons recovered from militants slain later that year have been sent to the Forensic Science Laboratory in Jammu for an analysis. Their report is awaited.

Of the remaining accused persons, three people, including Sheikh, are in judicial custody, while the juvenile has been released on bail. Three others, Khalid Muzafar Dar and Tanveer Ahmad Dar of Rehpora village and Sharjeel Ahmad Sheikh of Khudwani, all from the adjacent Kulgam district, are evading arrest.

‘Rare investigation’
All accused persons have been booked for murder, attempt to murder, causing grievous hurt by weapons, and criminal conspiracy under the Ranbir Penal Code. They have also been booked under the Arms Act for possession of weapons, and for terrorism, being part of a terrorist group, and criminal conspiracy under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

The last major attack on the Amarnath yatra was in August, 2000, when militants attacked a pilgrim camp, killing 27 people, including at least 17 pilgrims and six local Kashmiris. That attack is also believed to have been carried out by the Lashkar.

Police officials say that investigations into last year’s attack are continuing. “We have scientific and technical evidence and confessions [of the accused],” a police official said. “It is rare in investigations of terror attacks to have all these evidences. All of this adds credibility to the investigation.”

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