Junaid Ashraf, son of Hurriyat chief Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai. Photo: Majid Hyderi
Junaid Ashraf, son of Hurriyat chief Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai. Photo: Majid Hyderi

The son of the new leader of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat political party is believed to have taken part in his first attack on security forces barely a month after joining the ranks of militants.

Junaid Ashraf Sehrai is the son of Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai, a hardliner who replaced veteran separatist Syed Ali Geelani as chairman of the pro-Pakistan group in March.

Junaid is believed to have been part of a raid on April 25, helping to disarm a police post, right near Geelani’s residence in Kashmir in northern India, without firing a bullet.

At around 10pm seven heavily armed militants stormed the post guarding a temple in Hyder Pora on the high-security Airport Road. The spot is a stone’s throw from Geelani’s residence and the fortified Police Headquarters. The militants decamped with four service rifles, without engaging police in a gunfight.

A senior police officer privy to the investigation said the identity of one of the militants resembled Junaid, who allegedly masterminded the raid. “The kind of identification details we got from [the disarmed cops] clearly suggested beyond reasonable doubt that it was him [Junaid],” the official said, on the condition of anonymity.

A senior police officer told Asia Times Junaid had been the “first suspect” for the attack because the police post, in the middle of a residential area, had “otherwise remained hidden from the eyes of militants.”

Police said “logical fingers” were pointed at Junaid because he had belonged to the nearby Barzulla colony, and before joining militancy he would often visit the area, as well as Geelani’s residence.

“There had been no militant active in the area that would put this police post on their radar. So it was believed to be someone who knew details about this particular police post quite well. It could be someone who was an inhabitant or a frequent visitor,” a police official said.

On the night of the raid, the heavily armed militants took officers at the police post by surprise. Five police were meant to be rostered on, but only two were present, with the others “on leave.”

‘Surrender or die’

Sources close to the investigators said the militants offered the police a chance to “surrender to live or fight to die.”

The two officers are still being questioned over their failure to show resistance and look likely to be suspended. But police are not ruling out the “involvement of an internal hand.”

Sources close to the investigators said that, initially, the cops pretended there were only two weapons but the militants were so “well informed about the installation” that they didn’t leave till they snatched all the firearms, leaving the police post “fully disarmed.”

“The precision of the attack shows how meticulously it was planned and executed. But we’ll crack the case and grab them with more precision,” said an official with the police counter-insurgency wing, the Special Operations Group, investigating the case.

The Deputy Inspector General of Police for Central Kashmir VK Birdi declined to confirm that Junaid was part of the raid. “The case is under investigation and it it’s very premature to say [who was involved]. But we’re on the job,” he told Asia Times.

Junaid joined Hizbul Mujahideen in March, less than a week after his father Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai replaced Geelani as the Hurriyat chief.

A 28-year-old postgraduate from Kashmir University, Junaid allegedly preferred guns over “soft separatism”, as preached by Hurriyat, to resolve the Kashmir conflict.

Initially, his family filed a report with police that he had mysteriously disappeared, then Junaid announced his entry into militant ranks by sharing a photo of him holding a gun on social media, which has become a trendy thing to do among “new-age militants” in the restive region.

251 weapons snatched over three years

The Jammu and Kashmir Police have been frequent victims of weapons snatches over the past three years, which has seen a revival of militancy.

Some 251 weapons had been snatched from security forces, mainly police, over the last three years, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti revealed in a reply to the Legislative Council in January 2018. She said 90 people were arrested and but only 76 weapons recovered.

Mehbooba said stationery guards have been ordered to remain extra-vigilant so that “anti-national elements do not succeed in snatching weapons”.

But the recent weapon snatch at the police post in a fortified area has left police in a tizz. “Such disarming where militants succeed without a gunfight seems to be a new brain-game against counterinsurgency,” a retired police official said.

With the militancy largely confined to rural areas, Junaid is seen as one of few young radicals from the summer capital making their presence felt in the city. But, like many before him, he has clearly taken a great personal risk.

The Indian government launched a major offensive against militants in May 2017 called Operation All Out. More than 200 militants were killed last year. And in first four months of 2018, a further 50 militants have already been killed.

Meanwhile, the director-general of police in Kashmir, SP Vaid, has appealed for the Sehrai family to get their son to return home.

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