By Balasubramaniyan Viswanathan
Kashmir has been on the boil for the past one year. The annals of Kashmiri history have not witnessed a bigger chaos than this; one can see a transition in the color of Kashmiri militancy, from Azaadi to an Islamic Caliphate. This transition is fueling vertical splits in Kashmiri militant groups which could translate into escalating violence levels in the future due to sibling rivalry. The situation appears to be conducive for groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to gain a toehold in Kashmir, and later in India, as there is an alignment of interests between AQIS and other local Kashmiri groups which support an Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir.
AQIS Takes Aim at Kashmir
In June 2017, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent released a “code of conduct” for its members to follow. This document, which was released by Al Qaeda (AQ)-linked media arm, As-Sahab Media Subcontinent, was widely circulated through pro-AQ social media platforms.
This latest message, in the form of a report, gives a clarion call to implement Sharia and also to unite other Jihadi groups under one single umbrella in the Indian subcontinent. It calls upon other jihadi groups to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State of Afghanistan. It states: “We will work with jihadi groups (that are independent from intelligence agencies influence) in India, Bangladesh and Arakan (Burma), based on these same principles.” The operational arc as outlined by this document encompasses India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma.
The document also lays its main targets which are as follows: “In Pakistan – US interests, military, police, and intelligence officials, the Government of Pakistan, Kafirs (infidels) who suppress Muslims. In India and Bangladesh – police and military officials, heads of Hindu separatist organizations. In Burma – the military and the armed Buddhist groups.”
This newest message is conspicuously different from previous messages released by AQIS. For one, there’s its newfound focus on India, particularly Kashmir. For example, a video message in March 2016 released by AQIS states its main targeting priorities as: “the United States; the military, intelligence, and security agencies in Pakistan; the Pakistani government; persons who extort Muslim businesses and kill Sunni religious scholars and atheists, blasphemers and nonbelievers who actively oppose Islam.” Notwithstanding other direct messages aimed at Kashmir, the above AQIS document stands out as unique as it reflects their objective and purpose for the entire South Asian region. The reason for this focus, AQIS claims, is that the Indian state is the “fundamental obstacle” in the formation of an Islamic India.
Factoring the above, there is an imperative for Indian security planners to understand the timing of this release which would actually be germane to understanding the reasons and the possible impact of this newfound focus of AQIS on Kashmir.
Nationalists versus Islamists
Events preceding this latest release might have played a very important part in shaping the present focus and direction of AQIS.
Firstly, since Burhan Wani’s death last year, Kashmir has been in a state of turmoil. Burhan Wani’s first death anniversary was observed on July 8, 2017, and it was marred by clashes between the security forces and the Kashmiri militants. AQIS has repeatedly tried to leverage the turmoil created by Burhan Wani’s death. AQIS head Maulana Asim Umar has even released an audio recording eulogizing Wani during the anniversary last week.
Secondly, the split in the Hizbul Mujahideen’s ranks created following the departure of Zakir Musa is another important factor. Musa succeeded Burhan Wani as the commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, and he gave a clarion call to enforce Sharia in Kashmir in May 2017. Noticeably, Musa departed from Hizbul Mujahideen’s known position of fighting for Azaad Kashmir to Islamic Kashmir. Musa in his first address on implementing Sharia:
If Hurriyat has to run its politics it shouldn’t be a thorn in our way, otherwise we will chop off their heads. If you will be a thorn in our way, we will leave the infidels and kill you first. These have come to run politics. Our Kashmir war, particularly of the Mujahideen, is only to enforce Sharia. It is an Islamic struggle. The people need not be confused (sic).
Later in June 2017, Zakir Musa floated a new outfit, Taliban-e-Kashmir linked to the Al Qaeda. Zakir Musa on the first anniversary of Burhan Wani’s death in July 2017 stated: “Today the slogan of Shariayat or Shahadat (Islamic divine law or martyrdom) and Caliphate reverberating in Kashmir is because of the mentorship and guidance of Burhan Bhai” (sic). (This message was circulated widely through pro-Kashmiri telegram channels).
This sudden departure from “Azaad Kashmir,” rejecting nationalism to create an “Islamic Kashmir” or “Islamic rectification of the Kashmir struggle,” as the Taliban magazine Nawai Afghan Jihad calls it, has actually found some resonance with local Kashmiri youngsters as well as with AQIS, as it is in alignment with their already stated approach to implementing Sharia in Kashmir.
Against this background, the split in local militant ranks, especially in the Hizbul Mujahideen and the convergence of ideology between the emerging local groups and AQIS, presents AQIS with a window of opportunity to gain entry into India; the group has to date failed to mobilize Indian Muslims to conduct terror attacks within India.
A Wake-Up Call for India
This marriage of convenience would have serious ramifications for India’s internal security:
Integration into the regional jihadi theatre. Firstly, the Kashmiri freedom movement which has largely been relegated among its peer movement in other parts of the world such as the Palestine, Iraq, and Syria in the eyes of the Islamic community, especially the global jihadis, will find its recognition. This is due to the fact that there is a conflation of Sharia ideology between the international terrorist organizations which espouse extremist Islamic ideology and the various emerging Kashmiri militant groups such as those headed by Zakir Musa.
Attempts to highlight the Kashmiri struggle to outsiders on lines similar to Palestine, Sham (Syria), and Khorasan (Afghanistan) are already afoot in social media platforms linked to Kashmiri groups which support the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir. Even the semantics used in the messages appear to have undergone transition. Some of the telegram channels are trying to mimic or imitate jargon used on channels such as “Khilafah News” that propagate Islamic State ideology. Terms such as mushriqe (non-believers, referring to the Indian army as a “Hindu” army) and Kashmir as “Hindu-occupied Kashmir” are being repeatedly used in telegram channels supporting Islamic Sharia in Kashmir. Such channels are using terms such as Rahimullah and Hafizullah (while referring to the Mujahideens who have died or still waging jihad respectively). This kind of terminology is widely used among telegram chats linked to Islamic State and Al Qaeda; it indicates a changing narrative adopted by emerging Kashmiri groups to appeal to the larger section of the Islamic community outside of India, and more particularly – to the jihadis outside India.
This is where AQIS stands to gain as it will find it less difficult at present to gain traction among the indigenous Kashmiri population compared to earlier occasions. AQIS’ primary focus is to integrate jihadi operations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar under one single umbrella in South Asia.
Integration of India, especially Kashmir into such a regional jihadi theatre will have serious consequences. It will ensure movement of men, materials, and money across these countries. Such an integration based on establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir will also increase patronage and will ensure that there is a steady flow of funds into Kashmir from outside India, apart from Pakistan, which has been the primary financier of militancy in Kashmir to date. Ground realities indicate that the concept of “Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir” has already earned support among other jihadi brethren.
Co-option and institutionalization. Two important things stand out from the AQIS document: the call for unity and the call for Sharia. AQIS’s invitation to other likeminded groups to merge or work with them in South Asia is in line AQ’s original objective of co-opting local terrorist networks. This was also emphasized while formally creating AQIS in September of 2014. In doing this, AQIS intends to institutionalize the operational mechanisms with other smaller terrorists groups in South Asia.
Autonomous modules. Smaller groups such as Zakir Musa’s which are growing in numbers, will gravitate towards AQIS and act as an extended reach of AQIS in India. In the future, larger groups could be replaced with smaller autonomous modules owing allegiance to AQIS. Smaller modules are more efficient and highly difficult to interdict compared to larger groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen, as they tend to enjoy better advantages such as secrecy of operations and self-sufficiency.
These autonomous, self-contained groups could pose serious problems not only in Kashmir but also in other parts of India. There are already ominous signs of things to come in India. Last year, a small self-contained module owing allegiance to Al Qaeda, known as the ‘Base Movement’ was busted in Tamil Nadu. This cell was responsible for a series of bomb blasts in courts in Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. This cell did not have any direct links key AQ operatives, though it was inspired by AQ ideology. Similar episodes could well play out in the future in other parts of the country.
Spiraling sibling rivalries among jihadi groups. The swing toward Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir could actually intensify jihadi rivalries there. Groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Hizbul Mujahideen, which strive for Azaad Kashmir supported by Pakistan, will be pitted against transnational groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda respectively who strive for establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir. In that sense, AQ-linked Zakir Musa group will also directly take on other larger terrorists networks who fight for the nationalist cause. And add to this the existing bitter rivalry between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State elsewhere globally, both of which share Islamic Caliphate ideology. Each of these groups would try to up the ante against each other which would actually translate into spiraling violence in Kashmir. Groups linked to AQIS support Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, commonly referred to as Tahrir al-Sham, which opposes Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. This rivalry would actually play out in Kashmir as well.
Aggressive progenies. Finally, the nationalists vs. Islamic Caliphate debate is going to create vertical splits in larger groups. According to open source reports, Zakir Musa’s group has already succeeded in poaching a sizable number of recruits from other terrorist organizations operating in Kashmir, with estimated strength of 20 to 25 members. Splinter groups are far more ferocious and aggressive compared to their parents as they would try upstage their former allies by ramping up violence levels, thus attracting new recruits and funds.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent may have just found the opening it has been looking for over the years to gain a foothold in India. Yet, AQIS may also find a bitter enemy in Islamic State and other jihadi groups rather than the Indian state. On one hand, we have groups which espouse a nationalist cause and on the other, groups which espouse the establishment of an Islamist Caliphate. There is no love lost among the groups advocating for an Islamist Caliphate in Kashmir. Thus, there is a vicious triangle of hatred and violence which is bound to escalate as each of these groups attempt to one-up the others.
To summarize, pro-Caliphate graffiti, photos of kids holding jihadist posters, and few armed young men may not mean anything to the Indian security establishment. Yet, if left unchecked, these trends could lead to a groundswell in the future against the Indian government. The Indian government needs to implement various measures in tandem, including the development of approaches such as providing opportunities to youngsters, fine-tuning existing surrender policies as well as organizational approaches such as leader liquidation and restricting funding sources to terrorist groups. In spite of the grave threat that this situation represents, it may also present the intelligence agencies with an opportunity to tap potential fissures among the groups, albeit at high human cost due to the potential for spiraling violence.
In the end, the present turmoil in Kashmir has not been witnessed ever since the militancy broke out. Recent incidents indicate that there is an orchestrated effort to change the color of militancy in Kashmir, i.e., one from Azaad Kashmir to Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir. A clarion call to establish Islamic Kashmir under Sharia may appeal not only to the Kashmiri youngsters but also to other jihadis outside India as well. As the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant is losing territory, the prospect of more and more of the wannabe jihadis looking for greener pastures is growing, and Kashmir could well become one of those greener pastures.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the authors are theirs alone and don’t reflect any official position of Geopoliticalmonitor.com, where this article was published.
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