What the Unveiling of IS's 'Wilaya al-Hind' Branch Will Mean for Kashmir

The Islamic State is seen as a challenge by both the Indian security agencies and conventional separatist groups alike.

Sopore (J&K): In a curiously timed announcement, the Islamic State terror group on Friday quietly unveiled its new ‘India branch’ immediately after the killing of its last suspected operative in India, Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi, in Shopian in south Kashmir on Friday. Sofi was believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK).

According to BBC Monitoring, which first broke the story about the ‘Wilaya al Hind’ branch, “such a low-key announcement is in line with IS media behaviour regarding new branches in the aftermath of its territorial losses in late 2017.”

So far, security officials have not viewed the IS as a significant challenge in Kashmir. However, the latest development is likely to cause the government to revise its assessment of the strength of the group, and the extent to which its ideology has penetrated the region.

On the ground, however, it emerges that ideology is not the exclusive reason why the ISIS-affiliate might have been sustaining itself in Kashmir.

The Shopian gunfight

Young boys dashed out of mosques, pulling off their skull caps and shoving them in their pockets. Some quickly clung to the rear of a moving pick-up truck before it sped away. Many others waved down approaching cars to hitch a ride. They were all on their way to Model Town-B, a residential block in the north Kashmiri town of Sopore. Upon approaching the family home of Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi, the crowd grew thicker.

Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi

Sofi was killed over a hundred miles away in the Ram Nagri area of Herpora in Shopian early on Friday morning, in the vicinity of a heavily guarded wildlife sanctuary.

Police officials told The Wire that acting on a tip, security forces launched a cordon and search operation in the area. “During the search operation, the hiding terrorists fired on the search party. The fire was retaliated leading to a brief exchange of fire. In the brief exchange of fire, one terrorist was killed and he has been identified as Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi alias Umar son of Mushtaq Ahmad resident of Model Town-B, Sopore,” a release from J&K police reads.

At Sofi’s residence, mourners were trickling in. The house – with a big ISJK flag  – is 400 meters from the main Sopore road where a picket of police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) had already been stationed.

His family described Sofi’s journey. “He joined the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) in 2017,” said Mehrajudin, his uncle. “We were not surprised then because he was obsessed with resistance ever since he was a small child.”

Sofi’s father is a scrap dealer. He has a brother eight years younger than him. Both of them were not present at the house – they had gone to the police control room in Srinagar to complete the legal formalities for collecting Sofi’s body.

Also read: Black Flags in Kashmir – Mere Shadows or the Coming of Islamic State?

“We read the news in the morning that he was killed,” Mehrajudin said. Unlike during deaths elsewhere, there was not much wailing. “He doesn’t have a mother to wail, his sister is married,” said Maajid Nazir, Sofi’s cousin.

Sofi started having run-ins with security forces in 2005. “We have checked his previous case history and it has emerged that at various times he joined and then abandoned militant groups,” said a senior police official from north Kashmir.

The house of Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi with the ISJK flag. Credit: Shakir Mir

His neighbours and family members told The Wire that 31-year-old Sofi was charged under the Public Safety Act in 2005 when he first began consorting with militant groups. “Torture forced him to take up the gun,” Maajid said. “He was tortured by the Special Operations Group many times. His left arm never healed fully. Before that, he was a student at the Model Public School in Sopore. Police and forces  raided his house several times. In fact, his mother died precisely for this reason. She suffered a heart attack in 2007 when the security forces came to raid his home.”

When The Wire asked the police if they knew anything about the torture and the allegation that Sofi’s mother died during a raid, they said they had no information. “We are not aware of that matter since it’s a very old issue,” one police official said.

The police also denied there had been any specific radicalisation in Sofi’s case. “He is just like any other militant of any other group. He was with the HuM before and later joined the ISJK. He joined the armed groups for the same reason young boys everywhere else have. They are introduced to the network of militants first and then they get absorbed into its vortex,” said an official.

Later in the evening,  Sofi was buried amid sloganeering after a long procession. “The last time we witnessed such a huge turnout was during the killing of Maroof,” said Mohammad Amin, a resident, referring to a militant originally named Mehrajuddin Khan who was killed last November along with Naveed Jatt, a Pakistani militant who figures among the list of those responsible for the assassination of journalist Shujaat Bukhari.

With Sofi believed to be the last surviving militant of ISJK, the Shopian gunfight has brought attention back to the presence of the Middle East-based terrorist group in Kashmir.  Forced out of nearly all the  territory it once controlled in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the group also claimed responsibility for recent Easter Day attacks in Sri Lanka that killed over 300 people.

History of ISIS in Kashmir

Police and security agencies have often stressed in the past that the Islamic State’s presence in the state is not formidable. In fact, until the gunfight on March 11, 2018, when three militants of an ISIS module were killed, the police held that there was no presence of the terror group in the region. The ISIS reared its head in Kashmir in 2014. At that time, black flags printed with the Muslim declaration of faith began appearing during protests at Nowhatta in Srinagar.

That was the first time these flags were waved during demonstrations. In July 2017, the al-Qaeda affiliated information network, Global Islamic Media Front announced the formation of its affiliate in Kashmir led by Zakir Musa, a former Hizb ul-Mujahideen (HM) militant. This event was a shot in the arm of ISIS-inspired modules since Musa too has harped about establishing a caliphate in Kashmir in the past.

Also read: In Kashmir’s Tral, One Encounter Has Dealt a Death Blow to Zakir Musa’s Militant Group

In November 2017, the ISIS’s media wing Amaq claimed that its “fighters” had killed two “Pakistani policemen” in Kashmir. It was an error of judgment on the group’s part; in reality, the security forces in Kashmir had killed Mugees Mir of the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen (TuM). During the gunfight, a sub-inspector of the J&K Police also died.

Mir, a resident of Parimpora, Srinagar had shown Islamist inclinations and, according to his family members, joined TuM on April 9, 2016, to escape routine harassment from police. He became the first militant whose body was draped with the ISIS flag before being buried.

Links between TuM and ISIS

That incident unveiled connections between the TuM – which is a regional group – and ISIS. Later, on March 11, 2018, three ISIS-inspired militants were killed in Anantnag in south Kashmir. Among them was 19-year-old Eesa Fazili from the Soura area of Srinagar. Fazili was an alum of the prestigious Burn Hall School and had studied engineering at the Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University in Rajouri before joining militancy. Police have held Fazili responsible for the attack on the personal security officer of Hurriyat leader Fazal Haq Qureshi on February 25, 2018. ISIS had claimed that attack.

Upon his death, Fazili became the second militant to be shrouded with the ISIS flag, kicking off the new trend. This was when ISIS – as a new brand name – started to get popular in Kashmir. Along with Fazili, two more militants had died.

Fazili case’s demonstrated the frightening levels to which the youth were willing to go, and the new radicalised discourse they were ready to appropriate that put Pakistan on the same footing as India because both were being judged by the same yardstick which repudiated their lack of ‘true’ Islamic character.

In a video that appeared in 2017, Fazili delivered a monologue saying that “the sole motive of our jihad should be for Islam…and not to replace one ‘taghooti’ (infidel rule) with another” – referring to a word popularised by Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb who pioneered the doctrine of hikmiyyah or God’s rule as a legitimate form of governance. The other militants that died along with Fazili were Syed Owais Shafi or Kokernag and Taufeeq, a non-Kashmiri recruit from Telangana. According to the police, Taufeeq was radicalised through online pro-ISIS propaganda.

Curiously enough, the emergence of ISIS in Kashmir happened at the same time when security officials flagged concerns about the resurgence of TuM – whose role had atrophied during the early 2000s after many of its commanders were killed. Incidentally, nearly all the members of the ISJK killed so far during different encounters in Kashmir have been at one point of time associated with the TuM. This also led the police to speculate whether the TuM was a shadowy front designed to gradually introduce ISIS in Kashmir.

For instance, on June 22, 2018, a massive gunfight erupted in Srigufwara village in south Kashmir where security forces killed four militants of an ISIS-inspired module. They were Dawood Sofi from Zainakoot, Srinagar, Maajid Manzoor from Talangam, Pulwama, Ashraf Itoo and Aadil Hasan Mir from Srigufwara. Dawood, a school drop-out had first joined TuM before he switched to the ISJK. Mugees Mir, who died in Zakura in 2017, is credited with having revived TuM – but after his death, it was Sofi who took the reins. Both Mir and Sofi were adherents of the Ahl-Hadith school of thought.

Also read: ‘Come Back to Us’ Pleads Family After Missing Kashmiri Student Joins Militancy

Former Director General of Police J&K, Shesh Paul Vaid told The Wire that there indeed appeared to be a link between the two. “On the face of it, yes,” he said. It was during Vaid’s tenure that much of thw ISIS-inspired activity took place in Kashmir. According to sources, both Mir and Sofi turned up at the funeral of Wasim Malla and Naseer Pandit, two HM militants who were killed in Karimabad in Pulwama in April 2016 – before Burhan Wani’s death plunged the Valley into great turmoil.

They had appealed to the people to replace Pakistani flags with the black flags of ISIS. As of now, TuM has been banned. It was outlawed in January after the home ministry accused it of being involved in “terrorism” and “getting financial as well as logistic support from their handlers based abroad.”

According to the police, the June killings had dealt a blow to ISIS and its activities in the state, reducing its members to two. “Already ISIS has little to no infrastructure in the Valley,” Vaid said. “They can’t be considered as a challenge.”

Police officials have maintained that militants there have no organisational link to ISIS as such and are only motivated by their ideology. “Both factors have played the part. They are a product of both local factors that produce militants and the online propaganda that they consume,” Vaid said.

Ignorance about ISIS

Vaid’s view is consistent with the ignorance about the group The Wire witnessed at Ishfaq Sofi’s home.

In his home town, Sofi’s relatives and friends didn’t make much of him being part of an international terror group. “We don’t know the ideology of ISIS. For us every mujahid is our brother. They are fighting for our cause. It doesn’t matter whether they are with ISJK or HM,” said a young mourner at his home.

Even in Dawood’s case, very few people remember that his cousin Gowhar Nazir Dar (22) died in 2015 when the CRPF fired at a protest demonstration at Zainakoot in HMT. It’s likely that Dawood must have nursed anger against the security forces over that episode.

After the June gunfight, the region did not see much ISIS activity. However, on September 9, 2018, suspected militants shot dead Asif Nazir Dar, an alleged member of the ISJK near Naseem Bagh Srinagar. The 24-year-old former engineering student at MIET Jammu, Dar was exposed to the Islamist literature of Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. Asif first joined HM before breaking ranks to enlist at Ansar Ghazwat Ul Hind, from where he slipped into ISJK.

It is also speculated that HM might have been behind his killing. During the same month, the special cell of Delhi police claimed to have arrested two residents of J&K who were allegedly associated with Islamic State near Red Fort in old Delhi.

On November 25, J&K police detained three members of ISIS from Kothi Bagh area of Srinagar. The detainees were Tahir Ahmad Khan from Chandrigam Tral, Haris Mushtaq Kha, from Wathoora Budgam and Asif Suhail Nadaf from Rainawari Srinagar. Delhi police assisted its J&K counterpart on this operation.

Before that, on November 2, 20-year-old Ehtisham Bilal, a student at Sharda University, Greater Noida went missing from his campus only to resurface later in a video message carrying a gun and pledging fealty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His entry took place in] a fit of anger after he was thrashed by a group of students at his campus who mistook him for an Afghan. Bilal was later apprehended by the police in December; without naming him,  the police said that he was “brought back into the mainstream.”

Separatists leaders have chafed at the impression that ISIS should ever have a stake in Kashmir. By the end of 2018, indigenous resentment against ISIS-inspired groups began to get stronger after the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba denounced the ISIS flag wavers as “Indian agents.”

In January, separatists across the spectrum condemned the waving of ISIS flags inside Jamia Masjid in Srinagar. In fact, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq mourned the episode as ‘Youm-e-Taqadus’ and said that the plebiscitary movement in Kashmir was indigenous and had no global ambitions.

Syed Ali Geelani of Hurriyat, who addressed the congregation over the phone said: “Whether the act was committed intentionally or unintentionally, those who did it don’t represent Islam. Such acts don’t benefit Islam. Later, Riyaz Naikoo, who heads HM in Kashmir also condemned the waving of ISIS flags, alleging it was done at the behest of “Indian agencies” to defame the “freedom movement”.

Shakir Mir is a journalist who lives in Srinagar.