Muzamil Jaleel,New Delhi:
In death as in life, Abdullah Ooni remains a mystery, a legend having built around him largely because of his mastery as an escape artist. Till the Lashkar-e-Toiba commander, 27, was killed on Tuesday, stories about his origins and movements have remained a mixture of contradictions.
What was known about him, however, made him vital to the Lashkar and his capture or killing key to security forces’ operations. His mastery at escape was matched by a daredevilry that helped revive militancy in Sopore.
On a January morning last year, Ooni and three others hurled a grenade at the Sopore police station and then, rather than flee, waited in a narrow lane across the street. An hour later, they returned, hurled more grenades and fired at the SP’s personal guards. The SP was inside but the militants killed a policeman and a civilian besides injuring four cops.
The attack was a turning point for Sopore. In 2008, police had declared it a “free from militancy” area, and one of the legends around Ooni is that this was why he had been sent to Sopore. After the attack, a stunned government carved out a special police district, separating Sopore from Baramulla. Several more attacks would follow; daytime encounters would become frequent.
Security forces came close to getting him six times, with each escape adding to his reputation. Unlike other top Lashkar commanders, he avoided the jungles and bodyguards. Having mastered the art of disguise, he preferred congested neighbourhoods in Sopore town and adjoining villages — sometimes roaming around on a motorcycle, sometimes taking a lift from a Sumo driver. He had set up a vibrant network of Lashkar cells across north Kashmir.
Police records show Ooni was from Pakistan’s Punjab province in Pakistan. Some reports say his real name is Azhar Malik. Others say he belonged to a Malayali family in Karachi.
Ooni trained as a commando at Lashkar’s Mansera camp and was sent to Kashmir in 2005, around the time of the earthquake. At Lolab in north Kashmir, he worked under divisional commander Hafiz Nasir. In 2008, Nasir was killed with other top leaders, leading to a collapse of the north Kashmir network; even OGWs, local overground workers who act as the outfit’s eyes and ears, had surrendered or been arrested. This was when the police declared Sopore militancy-free, leading to the Lashkar sending Ooni there.
After the attack on Sopore police station, Ooni and his men attacked the official residence of the then Superintendent of Police, Sopore Altaf Khan, that same year. This put the police under pressure but Ooni escaped every trap laid for him.
One of his many escapes was on November 1, 2009. The Army had killed his aide Zubair and left, not knowing that Ooni was trapped under the debris of a house at Sopore’s Chinkipora. Locals pulled him out alive. A month earlier, he had escaped after a 16-hour standoff that saw police kill Lashkar commander Abu Mayia from Pakistan.
In 2010, he escaped three times in the space of three weeks. On January 30, police and the Army cordoned off New Colony neighbourhood but he slipped through. On February 23, forces laid a cordon that trapped eight militants, but six of them including Ooni escaped after a two-day encounter. Days earlier, he had broken through a cordon at a village, after a brief gunfight with soldiers.
It was love that eventually proved his undoing. He married a Sopore girl last year; the police knew it and kept a watch on the neighbourhood. Ooni’s wife delivered a daughter at Srinagar’s Lal Ded Hospital and he stayed overnight in a house in the neighbourhood, hoping to see her and their daughter. He never did.