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Five heists in 5 months: A cash crunch has turned militants in Kashmir into bank robbers

Four of the robberies came after demonetisation, which wiped out the cash reserves of militants, according to the police.

On Thursday, four men robbed the Jammu and Kashmir Bank’s branch in Turqwangam village in Shopian district of South Kashmir and took off with Rs 3 lakhs. Days later, on Sunday night, unidentified men attempted to break into the bank’s branch in Magam town of Budgam district in Central Kashmir but failed to get past the iron grilles at the door.
According to the police, this is the latest in a string of bank heists carried out by militants. Since October, they have reportedly robbed five branches of the bank in the Valley of over Rs 40 lakhs, largely in new currency.
A senior police official in South Kashmir – where most of the robberies have taken place – said militants groups are facing a cash crunch for various reasons, including demonetisation. He said the government’s decision on November 8 to withdraw high-value bank notes had rendered the militants’ “hoards [of cash] useless overnight”. In such a situation, where they needed to raise funds in bulk and in as short a time as possible, they found banks to be an easy target.
The police believe the decision to rob banks was taken at the local level by area commanders, and that the loot was shared by the two most prominent militant groups in the state, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen.
The senior official, who wished to remain anonymous, said the four men who struck the bank in Turqwangam were probably new militant recruits “inspired by the previous incidents of robberies” carried out by a module of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
In December, the police had issued a statement saying that only about Rs 2 lakhs of the stolen money, all in demonetised notes, had been recovered. The rest, they believe, is being used to fund militant operations and for logistics and “technological upgradation” – for instance, to buy laptops and high-end phones with sophisticated security features. According to the official, last week on Tuesday, an iPhone 7 smartphone was recovered from a vehicle abandoned by a group of militants, believed to include top Lashkar operative Abu Dujana, who fled a checkpoint in South Kashmir. “The iPhone 7 was definitely used by a militant,” the official said, elaborating, “No call had been made from the phone so far. Why would anyone buy an iPhone and not use it?”

The module

While the first robbery took place in October, the rest came after the demonetisation announcement. In November, the police zeroed in on a militant module comprising a local member, two foreign gunmen and five overground workers (a term used to refer to non-combatant operatives). The group would hand over demonetised currency to two other overground workers to turn it into legal tender, for a nominal cut, they said.
The same month, when the new notes were still in short supply across the country, the police in Kashmir recovered Rs 2,000 notes from militants killed in an encounter in Hajin village in the northern district of Bandipore.
The police official said all the overground workers were arrested and interrogated, and were later granted bail by the courts.
One of the heists, at the Jammu and Kashmir Bank’s Ratnipora branch in Pulwama in South Kashmir on December 15, was caught on closed-circuit camera and bank officials picked out some locals from the footage, the police official told He added that the Lashkar stopped targeting banks for a while after this, perhaps for “fear of bad publicity”.

String of robberies

The first robbery took place on October 25, when three militants barged into the Jammu and Kashmir Bank branch in Kadder village in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district and took Rs 2.9 lakhs at gunpoint. Though the police cordoned off the area as soon as they were alerted, the militants got away.
Another senior police official in South Kashmir, who too did not want to be identified, said the three militants were Hizbul Mujahideen operatives, and that an overground worker, a resident of Kulgam, was arrested in connection with the incident.
The second robbery came two weeks after demonetisation, on November 21. The Jammu and Kashmir Bank was the target again. The robbers took Rs 13 lakhs – Rs 11 lakhs of it in demonetised currency – from the bank’s Malpora branch in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district.
On December 8, the militants looted Rs 13.3 lakhs – Rs 11.1 lakhs in new currency notes – from the bank’s Arihal branch in Pulwama district.
And a week later, on December 15, approximately Rs 10 lakhs was taken from the bank’s Ratnipora branch, also in Pulwama. Of this amount, demonetised notes comprised only about Rs 16,000.
Security and surveillance at banks, especially the Jammu and Kashmir Bank that has over 800 branches across the state, has been heightened after the string of robberies, which – if the two incidents in the past few days are anything to go by – seems to have resumed after a brief lull.



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