Mission Al-Faraan

In the summer of 1995, a shadowy outfit abducted five Western tourists from Pahalgam. One was killed, one escaped and the fate of others remains shrouded in mystery. Many credit the event for making a major shift in US policy on Kashmir. Maqbool Sahil narrates his rendezvous with the event.

Foreign hostages at an undisclosed location in South Kashmir

Pack up your camera, switch off your voice recorder and sit back if you want to listen to the real story…but you have to promise me that you will keep this all off the record, he told me. “At least till I am alive, you won’t publish it or tell anybody.”

I followed his instructions. He was reluctant to reveal the story on camera or even on a voice recorder. He was clever enough to detect any of my electronic or journalistic tricks. He asked his associates to disperse for Night prayers, which was followed by dinner in a high altitude Gujjar Kotha, (temporary huts of grazers) in the Shaikhpora forests of Pahalgam. He was known to me for some time. I had interviewed him once before and he would call me occasionally to tell about his of outfit’s activities for publishing in the newspaper.

Javed Ahmed, known better as Commander Sikander, was a Science graduate, an RDX and electronics expert, for which he had undergone training in Afghanistan, where he had been with the Mujahideen of Commander Ahmed Shah Masood and Moulana Azhar Masood. He was the first commander of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen in Kashmir, an outfit which was later merged with Harkat-e-Jihad e Islami (Nassarullah Langdiyal) and Harkat-ul-Ansar was formed. A 30-year-old tall and healthy guy from Dabran village of Islamabad, he was also known by the names, Saifullah or Abdul Jabbar and his cadres used to call him “Baba”.

It was September 1995. Five European and American tourists had been abducted from the forests of Pahalgam about two months ago (July 5 1995) and I was wondering for some clue of the abductors by an unknown outfit “Al-Faran”. The outfit had suddenly surfaced in the slopes of Pahalgam and abducted the five, one was killed and one had managed an escape from them. I was after Sikander because I knew that he was an influential and active commander in the area and the head of the co-ordination committee of many militant outfits of district Islamabad. His outfit had mostly foreign members.

Maqbool Sahil

He trusted me and wanted to reveal the story but had been told by his seniors to remain tightlipped on this sensitive issue. I insisted and promised to keep the secret. He opened up: “Many of our senior commanders, including Sajad Afghani, and Moulana Azhar Masood have been arrested by Indian forces and our outfit has lost almost all its senior commanders.

They are very important for us at this time, our elders in Pakistan knew that India is not going to release them easily, so they decided to abduct some foreigners, particularly some engineers or technical persons, working on many hydro-electrical projects like Uri Civil or Dul Hasti in Kishtwar, so that we can bargain and get our commanders released. So the heads of Harkat-ul-Ansar in Pakistan decided to send a special mission of well-trained commandos to take some important foreign hostages and move them to another side of LoC. Then ask India to exchange them with our detained commanders through some international agency.

Al-Faran was a well-trained group of nearly 25 militants and all of them were from another side of the LoC, they were given particular training to abduct foreigners and move them to a safer place, to resist and make their hideouts up in the forests. They were sent in the command of Abu Jindal”

“Unfortunately…..”  he paused,  “ When this group reached  Chrar-e-Sharief (in January, 95), Major Mast Gull (Militant Commander holed up in Chrar siege) insisted the boys stay with them for some time as this area was safer at that time. But later on, when army laid a siege of Chrar-e-Sharief, Al-Faran boys could not move and neither was it a proper time because members of HM outfit were fighting Indian army there. Towards the end of the encounter some of them were killed and the group leader Abu Jindal was arrested along with some other Mujahedeen,” Sikander said.

“We, in Kashmir, had nothing to do with Al-Faran. We were informed about them and directed to provide them assistance or guidance only, if they required, otherwise it was wholly and solely their own task. But after Cherar-e-Sharief incident (Feb 18 – May 9, 1995), as the group leader was arrested and many of his boys arrested or killed, the group was badly disturbed. Rest of the boys somehow managed their escape but now they were under no one’s command. They could not take a right decision. When they reached the Pahalgam heights, they saw some English men and took them hostage,” Sikander said.

After a little pause and a deep breath, he further added, “It was not the plan. They were told to reach some under construction power project or factory, where some foreign engineers would be working, take them hostage, as engineers are valuable and it could create problems for India. But as soon as they abducted common tourists, we disassociated ourselves from the mission. We were in touch with each other through radio (wireless sets) but after that, we did not respond (to) their messages, neither did we provide them with any assistance,” Sikander said.

This was my second meeting with Commander Sikander. I had met him first in July 1994, during the Amarnath Pilgrimage, which was banned by Harkat-ul-Ansar and south Kashmir was tense due to extraordinary security deployment.

I had interviewed him and taken pictures of him along with his cadre. He had around 30 Pakistani and Afghan militants with him, then. The pictures were published in many newspapers and magazines. But during the second visit, I insisted him to comment on Al-Faran before my video camera. He did not want to comment on the issue.

My friend and the then South Asia Correspondent of BBC world TV, Mr David Lyon, was waiting for the video in a Srinagar hotel.

I came back with the video (without hostage comment) and it was telecast on BBC world TV for many days but I was eager to know more about Al-Faraan and get any clue for my source. This was an international issue and I was not ready to give up. I tried to contact him again, but he did not respond. I was told by one of his contacts that Baba had some doubts and I should not meet him for some time as it could be dangerous for me. I decided to wait for some time and about six months later, I met Jane Shelly, wife of Donald Hatchings, one of the abducted tourists from the US. She addressed a press conference in Srinagar and I fixed an appointment with her for an interview.

During the interview, Jane, a school teacher in the US, said she was facing a lot of social problems due to the abduction of her husband. She insisted me to try and get any clue about them as she wanted to know whether her husband was alive or dead and if dead, where he was buried. And if the tests could prove, she would go home and forget Donald forever.

“My students tell me that we should send Rambo in Kashmir and get the hostages back and it kills me,” Jane said in a very sentimental way. I told her that I have a contact which may help me to help her.

“You will be provided whatever you demand,” she said “Money or home in any part of the world … US Embassy in New Delhi will talk to you in this regard and if you could take us to some conclusion, you can’t imagine, what you will get in return”

I decided to try once more. It was February 1996. I was able to contact Sikander. He received my message and called me back. I told him that if the hostages are released, they will get a lot of benefits, which they could utilize for their outfit, while as the Indian Government has shown no interest in release of their commanders and this issue was damaging the Kashmir movement, so it was not advisable to keep the hostages in their custody anymore’.

“I have some clues about them and I think three of them are still alive, I will try to motivate the abductors and let you know in next few days,” Sikander replied and disconnected the line. It was February 13, 1996.

Two days later, an unknown person called me and said that Baba will meet me on 16th. “You will be told where to reach,” he said. I agreed. It would be Jummat-ul-Vida and I had to go my home in Kokernag, which falls on the same route. On Friday, the 16th, when I was about to leave, a bad news came. Sikander’s contact, who had called me two days back and fixed an appointment, called me again “Baba is no more” he said. “He died this morning in a hideout near Islamabad town, where an explosion took place and his body was pierced.

Later, it appeared in many newspapers that it was a conspiracy to eliminate Sikander as their seniors were not ready to release the hostages.

After many years in 2005-06, during my detention in various J&K jails, I met many militants, who had worked with Harkat ul Ansar.

I wanted to know about the hostages as it was my “Mission incomplete” but none of them was fully aware. However, I was told that after Sikander’s death, it had become very difficult for Al-Faran militants to keep the hostages with them. With security forces after them, they had problems to move foreigners along. Even though they had a long beard on their faces, and weapons in their hands, to pass them off militants, but it was quite a problem to keep them alive as the government showed no interest in getting them released. I was told that they were killed secretly and buried in some graveyard, somewhere between Dialgam and Hakoora in South Kashmir.

(Maqbool Sahil is Associate Editor of Urdu Weekly Pukaar. His book Shabistan-e-Wajood details his experience in jail after he was arrested under Official Secrets Act in 1995.)

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