By Nijeesh N.*
On August 3, 2017, two Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) terrorists, identified as Aaqib Ahmad Itoo and Suhail Ahmad, were killed in an encounter with Security Forces (SFs) at Gopalpora village in the Damhal Hanji Pora area of Kulgam District. Their bodies were recovered along with two AK 47 rifles.
On July 30, 2017, two HM terrorists, identified as Shariq Ahmad and Showkat Ahmed aka Shabir, were killed in an encounter with SFs in the Tahab area of Pulwama District. One Army trooper also received minor injuries in the encounter. SFs recovered an INSAS (Indian Small Arms System) and one SLR (Self-Loading Rifle) from the slain terrorist’s possession. The killings triggered protests in the area in which over one dozen demonstrators were injured.
On July 12, 2017, three HM terrorists, identified as Javid Sheikh, Dawood Ahmad Sofi and Aaquib Gul were killed in an encounter at Radbugh village in Budgam District. The gun battle had started at around 7.30 pm on July 11, after SFs launched a search operation following a tip-off about the presence of terrorists at the village. Dead bodies of the terrorists were recovered along with three assault rifles.
Three HM terrorists, identified as Jahangir Ahmad Khanday, Kifayat Ahmad Khanday, and Mohammad Akhter were killed, and four SF personnel were injured during a 30-hour long encounter in the Bahmnoo area of Pulwama District. The gun battle began in the morning of July 3 after the SFs launched a search operation following a specific tip-off about the presence of HM terrorists in the area. Two terrorists were killed on July 3 and the body of a third was found in the morning of July 4.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 126 terrorists have been killed by SFs in the current year (data till August 7, 2017). Group identities of 70 of these have been established – Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), 38; HM, 29; Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), 2; and Al Badr, 1. Thus, 41.4 per cent of the terrorists whose group identity was established belonged to HM.
In fact, out of a total of 1,087 terrorists killed in J&K since 2010, group identities of 601 were established. These included 345 of the LeT, 186 HM, 55 JeM, seven Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HuM), and three each of Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI), Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI) and Al Badr. Thus, HM has suffered the second largest losses since 2010.
Among leadership elements, HM’s most prominent loss in recent years was the July 8, 2016, killing of its ‘operational commander’ in Kashmir Burhan Muzaffar Wani who had emerged as the ‘poster boy’ for a new generation of Kashmiri terrorists. He was the main draw for many young and educated youth in South Kashmir turning to terrorists. Wani had joined terrorism in 2010, and carried a reward of INR one million on his head. After his successor Zakir Rashid Bhatt aka Musa defected from the outfit in early May 2017, Sabzar Ahmed Bhat was named the new ‘operational commander’. Bhat was killed on May 27, 2017. According to media reports, Riyaz Ahmad Naikoo, is the current ‘operational commander’ of HM in Kashmir. Mohammed Yusuf Shah, aka Syed Salahuddin, remains the head of HM, and is located in Muzzafarabad in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Further, at least 286 HM cadres have been arrested since 2010. The number of HM cadres arrested in 2017 stands at 21 as of August 7, 2017.
Headquartered at Muzaffarabad in PoK, HM once had several hundred active cadres in J&K. It now has an approximate 95 active cadres left in the State. Prominent among these are the current ‘operational commander’ Riyaz Ahmad Naikoo; Altaf Dar aka Kachroo, ‘district commander’ of Kulgam; Mohd Yasin Ittoo aka Mansoor, ‘district commander’ of Badgam; and Saddam Paddar aka Zaid, ‘district commander’ of Shopian. These four are among the list of 12 ‘most wanted terrorists’, in the Kashmir Valley, reportedly released by SFs in May 2017. The others on the list were: Zakir Rashid Bhatt aka Musa; Wasim aka Osama, LeT ‘commander’ Shopian; Showkat Tak aka Huzaifa, LeT ‘district commander’, Pulwama; Abu Dujana aka Hafiz, LeT ‘divisional commander’, South Kashmir; Bashir Wani aka Lashkar, LeT ‘district commander’, Anantnag; Junaid Mattoo aka Kandroo, LeT ‘district commander’; Zeenat-ul-Islam aka Alkama, LeT (his position not known); and Abu Hamas, JeM ‘divisional commander’. Abu Dujana aka Hafiz, was killed along with another LeT terrorist, Arif Lilhaari, in an encounter in Hakripora village in Pulwama District on August 1, 2017.
Internal rifts within HM are also endemic. On May 13, 2017, Zakir Rashid Bhatt aka Musa quit HM, declaring, “Hizbul Mujahideen has said that we have nothing to do with the statement of Musa. So, if Hizbul Mujahideen doesn’t represent me then I also don’t represent them. From today onwards, I have no association with Hizbul Mujahideen.” On May 12, 2017, Musa, had stated, “We will slit the throats of resistance leaders – leaders of Hurriyat Conference – before the Kafirs (infidels) in Lal Chowk, main hub of Srinagar, if they don’t refrain from turning the Kashmir issue into a political (sic) from the struggle for Islam.” Soon, after Musa’s warning, HM’s ‘spokesman’ Saleem Hashmi had issued a statement from Muzaffarabad in PoK noting that “the outfit has neither got anything to do with the statement of Musa nor the statement is acceptable to it.” Meanwhile, on July 27, 2017, Global Islamic Media Front, an online propaganda platform of al Qaeda, issued a statement announcing Zakir Musa as ‘commander’ of its new-found Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (supporters of holy war in India) for J&K. Reports suggest Musa’s group comprises of around two dozen terrorists.
Despite sustained reverses, however, the terrorist threat in the Valley persists. Operationally, HM remains one of the most important terrorist outfits, perpetrating violence across the State at regular intervals. According to SATP data, out of 39 civilians killed in terrorism-related incidents in the State in 2017, the group identities of terrorists involved was established in 25: LeT, 14 and HM, 11. HM carried out the second worst attack, in terms of fatalities among civilians in 2017, on May 6,, 2017, in the Mir Bazaar area in Kulgam District. Four persons, including two civilians, a Policeman and a HM terrorist were killed on the spot, and two injured civilians died later – one on May 7, 2017, and on May 14, 2017. In the worst attack of the year on civilians, LeT terrorists killed seven Amarnath pilgrims and injured 19 others as they struck at a bus in the Batangoo area, near Pahalgam, Anantnag District, on July 10, 2017. One of the injured civilian died later, on July 16, 2017.
Terrorists have also killed 43 SFs in 2017, with group identities of the terrorists involved established in 30 of these killings: HM, 14; LeT, 13; and JeM, 3. HM was also responsible for the second worst attack, in terms of fatalities among SFs, reported in the current year: On May 1, 2017, five Policemen, including an Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) and two Bank security guards, were killed when HM terrorists attacked a J&K Bank van in the Phambai area of Kulgam District. The terrorists decamped with four INSAS and one AK 47 rifles. The worst attack on SFs was recorded when LeT terrorists ambushed a Police party at Thajwara village in Achabal in Anantnag District, killing six Police personnel, including a Station House Officer (SHO), on June 16, 2017. In the most recent attack targeting SFs on August 3, 2017, HM terrorists killed two Army personnel, identified as Major Kamlesh Pandey and Sepoy Tanzin Chhultim, in the Zoipora area of Shopian District. Three terrorists believed to be involved in the attack managed to escape in the darkness.
Reports suggest that HM is continuing with its recruitment drive in the State. On July 16, 2017, SFs neutralized a HM module luring youth to militancy, arresting three HM terrorists in Baramulla District. Headed by HM ‘commander’ Parvez Wani aka Mubashir, a resident of Gagloora in Handwara in Kupwara District, the module had plans to send many boys to Pakistan on ‘valid visa’ to get them trained at terrorist camps in PoK. Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP, Baramulla), Imtiyaz Hussain disclosed, “One of the accused Abdul Rashid Bhat had visited Pakistan in the month of May this year  and got training for undertaking terrorist activities in Khalid bin Waleed camp of HM located in PoK,” He also revealed that Bhat had taken a visa from the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi on the recommendation of a separatist organization. According to a July 16, 2017, media report, Police sources claimed that attempts of over 80 youth heading for arms training into PoK had been scuttled by SFs as a result of timely action over the preceding three months. Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir informed the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament) on March 29, 2017, that as many as 104 local youth of J&K had joined terrorism since 2016. At least 88 local youth joined the extremists in 2016, mostly after the Burhan Wani’s killing, and another 16 have joined in the current year.
Meanwhile, reinforcing the direct connection between the Pakistani establishment and HM, as well as with all other Islamist terrorist formations operating in India and in the wider region around it, HM’s current ‘operational commander’ in Kashmir, Riyaz Naikoo declared, on July 30, 2017, “The Pakistani flag is our flag. Linking our struggle with al Qaeda and IS [Islamic State] is a ploy to defame it.” He was making the statement in the aftermath of Zakir Rashid Bhatt aka Musa being declared as the ‘head’ of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind.
Efforts to weaken HM on the ground inside Kashmir have met with significant success, and need to be intensified, even as greater pressure is mounted – diplomatically and strategically – on Pakistan to end its support to the extremist jihad in Kashmir. Significantly, on June 26, 2017, the United States (US) State Department designated the ‘chief’ of HM, Syed Salahudeen as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’, imposing a prohibition on all US citizens from engaging in transactions with Salahuddin and blocking all of Salahuddin’s property and interests in property subject to US jurisdiction. Though India welcomed the US move and expressed the hope that the US decision would help in choking Salahuddin’s movements and finance, the actual impact of this action is expected to be marginal at best, as many earlier ‘acts of designation’ targeting other terrorist leaders and formations operating out of Pakistan have failed to produce tangible results.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management