ON THE NIGHT of July 9th, the global terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda released a video of its chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the message, titled ‘Don’t forget Kashmir’, Zawahiri called for terrorist groups in Kashmir to “single-mindedly focus on inflicting unrelenting blows on the Indian Army and Government so that the Indian economy bleeds and that India suffers sustained losses in manpower and equipment.” Terming the “fight in Kashmir” as part of the worldwide Muslim community’s “Jihad against a vast array of forces”, he called upon “scholars” to clearly state that the “jihad” in Kashmir (and other parts of the world) is an individual obligation on all Muslims. He also called Pakistan’s army and government “toadies of America”, and cautioned terrorists not to fall into their trap.
Around the same time, the chief of Ansar Ghazwatul Hind, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Kashmir, Hameed Lelhari, issued a statement as well. He urged cooperation among terrorist organisations working in the state and called for the formation of a shura (council) to take collective decisions regarding military actions against the Indian state. The Ansar was raised by Zawahiri’s close associate, Asim Umar, who has earlier been with other jihadi organisations, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Zawahiri had himself announced the launch of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent in 2014.
Lelhari was appointed Ansar’s chief after the death of its earlier head, Zakir Musa, in May this year. Musa was close to Hizbul commander Burhan Wani. Musa succeeded him after his death in 2016, but soon distanced himself from the organisation’s pro- Pakistan stance. In an audio recording released in 2017, he urged that fighting in Kashmir should only serve the cause of Islam and would not be for a nation. “Sharia ya shahaadat (Islamic rule or martyrdom),” he had said. When he died in an encounter with the police, his men believed that the tipoff to security forces may have come from the Hizbul itself.
Even as security agencies are trying to ascertain how Zawahiri’s message could affect insurgency in Kashmir, they are keeping a close eye on the fight that has now begun between pro-Islamic State (IS) groups and pro-Pakistan groups like Hizbul and Lashkar.
The pro-Pakistan groups in Kashmir have a support system in the Valley currently that the likes of Ansar and the newly formed Islamic State of the Hind Province (ISHP) lack. According to intelligence agencies, Pakistan has also recently provided big funds to Jaish. But these organisations are under the Pakistan Army’s thumb and are now beginning to feel that the pro-IS groups may overthrow them as the main fighting force in Kashmir.
According to a senior police officer in Kashmir, Lelhari’s call for a militant council is seen by the Hizbul as an attempt to eclipse the United Jihad Council, an umbrella group of terrorist organisations, led by the Hizbul chief, Syed Salahuddin.
Pro-Pakistan groups in Kashmir have a support system in the Valley currently that the newly formed pro-Islamic state ones lack
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Days before Lelhari’s statement, Adil Ahmed Dass, a terrorist associated with the ISHP was found dead on June 27th in an orchard in South Kashmir. It turned out that he was killed by Lashkar and Hizbul terrorists after he deserted Lashkar with his weapon and joined the ISHP. His brother Musaib said that they had heard of his death on June 26th itself, but it was only the next morning that the army took him to the spot. Musaib said they also found an injured Lashkar terrorist, Arif Hussain, nearby. “I spat at him and asked him why they had killed my brother,” he said. Arif, according to Musaib, told him that it was a Hizbul militant Zubair Wani who had killed Adil Dass.
Two days later, an ISHP spokesperson Khateeb released a video statement, blaming Hizbul and Lashkar. He said that their cadre had laid a trap for Dass on the pretext of swearing allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and he was shot by them as he knelt in prayer. Khateeb accused these two organisations of killing innocent Kashmiris and said that they were not interested in Kashmir’s liberation but grabbing its land for Pakistan.
In the 1990s also, during the peak of militancy in Kashmir, infighting between Hizbul and another major terrorist group, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), had resulted in the killing of many cadres of the latter. In his video statement, ISHP’s Khateeb also blamed Hizbul for the killing of dreaded terrorist Qayoom Najar (he was killed by security forces in 2017) for his pan-Islamist utterings. He called the Hizbul’s current commander, Riyaz Naikoo, Riyaz “Nalaayak” (worthless).
In another statement released by the ISHP, the organisation said, “Our hands will feel no weakness while slaying these enemies of Islam.” It accused Lashkar and Hizbul of unleashing a reign of terror in the Valley in the last three decades and warned that their end was close.
After Adil Dass’ killing, Hizbul chief Syed Salahuddin also broke his silence; in a video statement, he appealed for mutual trust and unity among all militant ranks. He asked that Dass’ killing be investigated jointly and punishment meted out to those found to be involved. Salahuddin said that there should be no scope for differences in the ranks of separatists. “Our great struggle [for secession] has already suffered irreparable damage [in the past] because of these differences and inteshar [conflict],” he said, warning that once again there were similar “indications of damage beyond measure”.
It is not clear whether these statements will lead to any truce. Currently, the separatist movement in Kashmir is going through a tough time, owing to a crackdown by New Delhi. The Minister of State for Home Affairs, G Kishan Reddy, recently told Parliament that till June 13th, 113 terrorists had already been killed in the Valley. Since 2016, 733 terrorists have been killed. Recently, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) attached the house of Asiya Andrabi, the pro-Pakistan Kashmiri separatist leader. The attachment order, the first from the NIA in Kashmir, was issued under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
“Right now, our biggest headache is Jaish, especially after the Pulwama suicide attack,” says a senior police officer. But he admitted there was concern about what the ISHP could be up to. In South Kashmir, after a huge consignment of explosives went missing from a stone quarry, it set alarm bells ringing. The explosives were later recovered from nearby fields.
According to police sources, they are now keeping a watch on whether more desertions will happen from Hizbul and Lashkar. “We are also keeping an eye on a few young Kashmiris who are abroad,” another senior police officer revealed. In one case, a Kashmiri man, Adil Ahmed, an MBA from Queensland, Australia, has been in the custody of the US-allied forces in Syria for his involvement with the IS. His father, who works as a contractor in Kashmir, has now appealed to the Centre to bring back his son. In 2016, the NIA deported from the UAE a Kashmiri, Sheikh Azhar ul-Islam (24), and two others on charges of links with the IS.
“After Pulwama, and after Sri Lanka, we cannot take any chances in Kashmir,” says a police officer.