By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On June 26, 2019, ‘spokesperson’ of the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH, supporters of holy war in India), Shabir Ahmad Malik alias Abu Ubaidah, was killed in an encounter by the Security Forces (SFs) in the Tral area of the Pulwama District of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
On June 23, 2019, SFs killed four AGH militants, Ahmad Mir aka Arsha ul Haq, Hafiz Azad Ahmad Khanday aka Samiullah Haq, Suhail Yousuf Bhat aka Huzaif ul Haq and Rafee Hassan aka Imaam ul Haq, during an encounter at Daramdora Keegam area in Shopian District.
In the intervening night of May 23-24, 2019, Zakir Rashid Bhat aka Zakir Musa, the ‘founder’ and ‘chief’ of the AGH, was killed in an encounter with the SFs at Dadsara village in the Tral area of Pulwama District.
According to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, the AGH has lost (killed by the SFs) at least 19 of its cadres since its inception in July 2017 (data till June 30, 2019). The SFs have arrested another nine AGH cadres during this period.
On July 27, 2017, the Global Islamic Media Front, an online propaganda platform of al Qaeda, issued a statement announcing Zakir Rashid Bhat aka Zakir Musa as ‘commander’ of its new-found AGH. Reports then suggested that Musa’s group comprised of around two dozen terrorists.
Musa, an engineering student at the time of his joining Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) in 2013, became a close aide of the then HM’s ‘operational commander’ Burhan Muzaffar Wani and worked for the outfit, helping recruit a number of ‘new generation’ educated youth into the militancy. Musa succeeded Wani as HM’s ‘operational commander’ in Kashmir, after Wani was killed on July 8, 2016. In May 2017, Musa broke away from HM claiming ‘ideological’ differences and even threatened to behead the separatist leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) for calling the ‘Kashmir issue’ a political struggle instead of a religious struggle to establish an Islamic State. In an audio message released on May 13, 2017, he had warned, “I will not fight for Azadi for a secular state. I will fight for Azadi for Islam, for the establishment of an Islamic state. Not only in Kashmir but in India and Pakistan too. “
Not surprisingly, most of the early AGH cadres were former HM militants. Some cadres of the Lashkar-e e-Taiba (LeT) also joined AGH, notably including Abu Ubaidah, the AGH ‘spokesman’ killed on June 26. An unnamed police spokesman disclosed, “As per the police records, he was initially affiliated with proscribed outfit LeT and later on was part of Zakir Musa group.”
There was a significant degree of ideological ambivalence in the earlier stages of Zakir Musa’s efforts to forge a new terrorist formation, after his breakaway from the Hizb. A May 30, 2017, report quoted an official stating, “There have been several instances of ISIS [Islamic State or Iraq and Syria, now known as Islamic State] flag being displayed in Kashmir. Initially it appeared to be some sort of mischief. But now a small group led by Musa is openly advocating the ISIS ideology.” On July 16, 2017, on the first death anniversary of Burhan Wani, Musa hailed Wani as the propagator of the caliphate, declaring, “Burhan Wani laid down his life for khilafat. Burhan and militants did not do this for the love of country (freedom) but he laid down his life for establishment of caliphate and khilafat. Will meet Burhan soon.” Musa appeared to have inclined towards the Islamic State (Daesh), before finally settling on the al Qaeda.
Thus, AGH was a group which revolted against the Pakistani proxies in India – the separatists as well as the terror outfits operating out of Pakistani soil. Unsurprisingly, the fountainhead of terror, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), did not support AGH. Its success and survival were, consequently, always doubtful as it has long been established that, for any Islamist terrorist outfit to make inroads or succeed in India, it is imperative for it to secure ISI support.
Despite the high profile its purported affiliation with al Qaeda gave AGH, the outfit failed to carry out a single terrorist attack in J&K. The National Investigation Agency (NIA), however, filed a charge sheet against AGH in the September 14, 2018, grenade attack on the Maqsudan Police Station in the Jalandhar District of Punjab, in which two Police personnel were injured. The charge sheet stated that the attack was part of a conspiracy hatched by the AGH to target security installations throughout the country. In November 2018, Zakir Musa and some of his associates had reportedly been spotted in Amritsar in Punjab.
Subsequently, however, there seemed to have some realization on both sides – the ISI as well as the AGH – that they needed each other for their jihad to succeed. The realization in the ISI came as almost all the top militant leaders of Pakistan-based terror outfits operating in India had been killed in quick succession over the past three years, and and that Musa was the only surviving ‘poster boy’ of militancy (before his killing). According to a May 26, 2019, report, eight top ‘commanders’ of HM, JeM and AGH have been killed in SF operations during the current year. They include Al Badr ‘chief commander’, Zeenat ul Islam Shah aka Dr. Usman, (killed on January 12); LeT ‘district commander’, Irfan Ahmad Sheikh, (February 6); February 14 Pulwama attack ‘mastermind’ and JeM ‘commander’, Mudasir Ahmed Khan aka ‘Mohd Bhai’, (March 10); and ‘commander’ of an Islamic State-inspired module, Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK), Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi aka Umar (May 10). Meanwhile, the Government informed the Parliament on June 25, 2019, that, since January 1, 2016, at least 733 militants had been killed in J&K, including 113 in the current year (data till June 16, 2019).
Musa also realized that rebellion against the ISI has not paid any dividends.
Indeed, reports indicated that Musa had decided to cooperate with the ISI-backed terror outfits in J&K, which was evident from his last few audio messages, where he withheld criticism of other militant groups, unlike his earlier pronouncements. Moreover, according to a December 23, 2018, report, present HM chief Riyaz Naikoo, in an audio message supporting Zakir Musa, had stated, “We are not against Zakir Musa. Our initial priority is getting freedom from India, and we all are fighting for Islam.”
Islamabad had lately tasked Musa to create a ‘militant hybrid group’ comprising HM and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) militants in Kashmir. A May 24, 2019, report quoted an unnamed Government official as stating,
Creating a hybrid group, by amalgamating the two terror groups — Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) — was a plan of Pakistan. Had it come through, he would have been a nuisance.
However, the ‘patch-up’ came too late. Musa was killed. Though Abdul Hameed Lelhari was named the new emir (chief) of AGH, with Ghazi Ibrahim serving as the deputy, the outfit is on the verge of extinction.
Following Daesh’s June 2014 declaration of jihad in India, including Kashmir, instances of raising of Daesh flags during street protest were reported occasionally from the Valley. A group called Islamic State-Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK) was formed in 2016 by two militants – Mugais Mir and Dawood Salfi – who defected from the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TuM). Both Mir and Salafi were killed in separate encounters in 2017. Dawood Sofi who replaced Mir as leader of ISJK was killed along with three others, during an encounter in Anantnag on June 22, 2018. The IS has found few takers for its ‘ideology’ in the State, and appears to have failed to establish a direct link with Daesh in Syria and Iraq. The Parliament was informed on February 12, 2019,
As per reports, no specific connection has surfaced between the outfit ISJK and the groups operating in Iraq and Syria. It has been reported that 7 local youths have joined ISJK through self-proclamation. Out of these 4 terrorists were neutralized on 22.06.2018 [June 22, 2018] at Khiram Srigufawara, Anantnag, 2 were arrested and 1 is presently active in the Valley.
Tough its present strength is not known, a ‘commander’ of ISJK, Aadil Rehman Dass, was killed in a group clash with the LeT in the Sirhama village of Bijbehara in Anantnag District in the night of June 24. Sources disclosed, “He (Dass) was killed in a group clash with LeT militants as he had recently switched sides. The LeT then decided to get the weapon back from Dass which he may not have accepted and was killed.” Dass’ body was recovered on June 25. The SFs also arrested his associate, Arif Hussain Bhat, who was injured during the clashes, from the incident site.
Meanwhile, the NIA, in a charge-sheet filed on May 22, 2019, disclosed that most ISJK members were previously associated with the LeT, the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TuM) and the HM.
Al Qaeda’s attempts to make inroads into India, especially in the J&K, which started as far back as in 1996, and were given renewed impetus in July 2017 with the formation of AGH for J&K, have comprehensively failed, as have Daesh’s efforts since 2014. The ISI and its proxies remain the principal sources of Islamist terrorism on Indian soil.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management