IS Operative's Killing Reveals Power Struggle in Kashmir Militant Ranks

Aadil Ahmed Dass's murder comes at a time when radical pan-Islamist groups are desperate for a toe-hold in Kashmir.

Srinagar: Last Sunday, WhatsApp groups across the Kashmir Valley all received an unexpected video. In it, Syed Salahuddin, the leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen who is based across the Line of Control, made a surprising appearance.

With a chequered keffiyeh wrapped around his shoulders and a grey Hogan cap on his head, Salahuddin broke into a monologue, his voice thick with what appeared to be grief. His message was directed to the ‘jihadist’ community. For the most part, he urged it to avoid confrontation; offered his best wishes for militants to withstand the ‘travails of time’; and pleaded for unity.

It is not in Salahuddin’s repertoire to release video-taped appeals or announcements, so this was an unusual step. It is easy to surmise what could have spurred him. The Friday before, Aadil Ahmed Dass, a young militant affiliated with Islamic State Hind Province (ISHP) had died in Sirhama village of South Kashmir’s Bijbehara town. Rumours initially pointed the finger at ‘Indian agencies’ but now Aadil’s death appears to have been the result of fratricide, triggered by competing ideologies which have been increasingly fragmenting the militancy landscape in Kashmir. What could also have led to the murder is the competition for resources in the face of what many feel is a decline in Pakistani assistance.

Among observers here, Dass’s death is now being billed as a turning point for militancy in Kashmir. 

In Waghama village of south Kashmir, Dass’s brother Musaib sits reading from the Quran in his newly-constructed house. The walls are yet to be plastered. Mourners trickle in. Young boys, sitting in a circle around him, offer their condolences.

Also read: Behind the Spurt in Recent Encounters Lies the Flow of Recruits to Militancy in Kashmir

“We heard reports about his death in the evening. Then I was taken by the Army and stayed at their camp [Sirhama 16 RR] for the night. At 3:50 am, we left to get the body. When we approached the site, the army men took their positions. I walked for few metres and saw my brother’s body,” Musaib tells The Wire.

A few more metres away lay an injured Aarif Hussain, a Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militant, says Musaib. He broke down at the scene, he says, asking Aarif repeatedly why his brother had to be killed. 

“He told me that it was Zubair Wani, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant from Kokernag who killed my brother.”

Aadil Dass’s brother Musaib.

Aadil’s death has led to intense discussions in media circles. An investigation into the Telegram chats of pro-militant channels has cast light on the sequence of events which led to his murder.

The death appears to be the beginning of an internecine dispute between militant groups. A section has been gravitating towards pan-Islamist ideologies and this has fractured political opinion in Kashmir. His family says Aadil had appeared serious about his studies at the Degree College of Bijbehara until he disappeared from home on July 19, 2018 to join the LeT. His family had no idea that he had joined ISHP.  

A pro-ISIS march in Kashmir. Photo: Reuters

According to the detailed open-source investigation, militants from Lashkar and Hizbul had led Aadil into believing that they were defecting to the ISHP too. 

Hizbul’s Zubair and Lashkar’s Aarif and Burhan Ahmad lured Aadil to a secluded location at the Sirhama orchards. A fifth militant, Turaib, who was an associate of Aadil’s, was also present. Then, as the militants were praying, Zubair reached for his rifle and pumped a volley of bullets into Aadil, killing him. A bullet also accidentally hit his aide Aarif, who was hurt and incapacitated. While Turaib managed to escape, Zubair and Burhan grabbed Aadil’s weapons — the ones given to him by Lashkar — and fled.

The findings of the investigation matches the account given to The Wire by Musaib, who pins the blame squarely on Zubair. Aadil’s family also say that a few days before the Sirhama incident, two Lashkar militants had come to their house demanding money to the tune of Rs 12 lakh.

“They asked us to tell Aadil to either return the weapons or give them Rs 12 lakhs. This has all been done by Abu Talha, who currently heads Lashkar in the region,” Aadil’s mother told The Wire 

This incident comes at time when radical pan-Islamist groups are desperate for a toe-hold in Kashmir in the face of challenges in the form of pro-Pakistan groups like Hizbul.

Earlier this year, IS announced the formation of Wilayat al-Hind which will be dedicated to operations in Kashmir. Then there is the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwat-ul Hind which is also trying to carve a space for itself and has succeeded significantly in that regard, riding on the sympathy wave following Zakir Musa’s death on May 23.

Also read: Why Zakir Musa, Voice of a New Extremism in Kashmir, Survived as Long as He Did

On Monday, pro-ISHP social media outlets released a video showing three masked gunmen in uniforms bearing Islamic State insignia. In the video, the men can be seen boasting about having “succeeded” in establishing jihad on the basis of tauheed (the Islamic concept of monotheism) and tearing down the idols of “nationalism, democracy and politics of self-determination.” The words affirmed that theirs was not a fight on the Kashmir dispute but a fight on the question faith. The 38-second clip elicited a strong response from hundreds of Kashmiris on social media. Soon, the hashtag #RejectISIS began trending, as many expressed their strong denunciation of “perverted ideas of religion”. 

It is still not clear how Indian security officials view the unfolding developments — and whether this infighting offers scope for an intervention that could weaken militancy as a whole. But the episode bears strong resonances with a similar string of events that took place during the early 1990s, which gradually led to the total ouster of the indigenous Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) from the field of armed insurrection, thus setting the stage for pro-Pakistan and Islamist groups to wrest control of the mantle. 

The beginning

The first phase of the Kashmir insurgency was led by four men — Hameed Sheikh, Ashfaq Majeed, Javed Mir and Yasin Malik — all of whom, in one way or another, participated in the 1987 Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly election.

Together, they formed the nucleus of the JKLF which resolutely professed to be non-sectarian. The group led a host of attacks almost effectively paralysing the administration in Kashmir during the initial phases of militancy. The JKLF also commanded considerable support from the civil society of Kashmir. Doctors, engineers, intellectuals and lay people comprised its ranks.

Initially, the local guerillas far outnumbered those who would sneak in from across the border. For instance, in 1991, the number of local militants fighting the Indian forces was estimated to be 844. Only two were non-locals, according to official figures of that time. Formed in the 1960s, the JKLF had lived a frugal existence until then as much of the pro-independence mobilisation had been monopolised by National Conference – followed by the All Jammu and Kashmir Plebiscite Front.

Sheikh Abdullah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It was only after Sheikh Abdullah’s accord with the Centre in 1975 that his stock plummeted. The JKLF – harvesting support from the public disenchantment which followed – rose to popularity in the aftermath of the 1987 poll rigging. However, it was only a matter of time before Pakistan’s relationship with JKLF, committed as it was to the idea of an independent Jammu and Kashmir, ruptured.  

The ferocity with which the uprising erupted in Kashmir after the 1987 polls had surprised even those at the helm of affairs in Pakistan. 

Robert G Wirsing, a political scientist, observed, “While the People’s Party was yet in power, Pakistani leaders became aware of the need to assert more Pakistani control on the uprising…. In early February 1990, a meeting was held in Islamabad, with prime minister Benazir Bhutto in the chair and the chief of army staff, General Aslam Beg and the president and prime minister of Azad Kashmir in attendance. They decided they had to curb the Azaadi forces, meaning they would not equip them and not send them into the Valley.” 

By the end of 1989, the internal clout of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence had swelled enormously, primarily by way of its status as the sole implementing agency of the United States’ proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It was an “army within an army” which enjoyed an outsized “partnership with the CIA with periodic access to the world’s most sophisticated technology and intelligence collection systems. The service had welcomed Pakistan legions of volunteers from across the Islamic world, fighters who were willing to pursue Pakistan’s foreign policy not only in Afghanistan but also across its eastern borders in Kashmir,” journalist Steve Coll writes.

The slow fall of JKLF

From 1991 onwards, however, the ISI downgraded its aid to the JKLF, promulgating a two-pronged strategy to reorient the uprising in the Valley to its favour. First, it weakened the JKLF by inciting defections out of the group. Second, it engineered a rise of a pro-Pakistan jihadist superstructure spearheaded by the Hizbul Mujahideen.

A newspaper survey recorded that there was sudden spurt of at least 150 tanzeems countering JKLF. “Pakistan feared that a single body will settle with India as Sheikh did,” legal jurist A.G. Noorani has observed. 

Those who volunteered to take up this new role to fragment the movement were recruits looking for adventure, petty criminals, earnest Kashmiri youth who nursed a grouse against India and also foreign jihadists. For the next few years, the Indian state responded in a relentless, iron-fisted manner. It is estimated that between 1990 and 1992, 2,213 militants were killed – a majority of whom were JKLF fighters.

As for the four who began it all, Ashfaq Majeed died on 30 March 30, 1990 and Yasin Malik was detained on August 6 of the same year. Hamid Sheikh was also captured but released in 1992 by the Border Security Force which had, by then, realised that the JKLF might be instrumentalised to counter the Hizb. The Indian Army, which was against this decision, killed him in November of the same year.

April 1991 saw the first public confrontation between the JKLF and the Hizb. In February, 1992, the JKLF made an attempt to reclaim its space in the popular imagination when it called for a cross-LoC march to emphasise the unity between the two sides of Kashmir. Close to 30,000 people marched to the LoC, where Pakistani troops fired from their positions, killing 21 of them. 

This led pro-freedom demonstrators across the Valley to gather near the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar ‘defying Indian curfew’ in an expression of solidarity. India Today magazine described the episode as “the first major victory for JKLF groups operating in the Valley over Pakistan-sponsored factions like Hizbul Mujahideen.”

Yet JKLF’s influence continued to suffer until Yasin Malik’s release from prison on May 17, 1994, after which he, as part of a last ditch effort to salvage the group’s importance, declared a ceasefire. 

In his book Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, scholar Sumantra Bose quotes a veteran Kashmiri journalist who says, “A total of 300 surviving JKLF members were killed by Indian counterinsurgency forces after the group’s unilateral ceasefire in 1994. Often Hizb members would provide information on their identity and whereabouts, thus completing the decimation of JKLF’s field presence.”

Hizb takes the mantle

These events pushed Kashmir to come under the direct influence of a pro-Pakistan fighting force, which was ironically leading a struggle for a population overwhelmingly pro-azadi in its outlook.

This was followed by the Hizb’s effort to recklessly weed out any opposition. Its fighters started assassinating members of civil society who were ideologically allied with the JKLF and those whose competing definitions for self-determination did not correspond with its own. The venerable human rights activist Hriday Nath Wanchoo and cardiologist Abdul Ahad Guru were some of the prominent individuals who became victims of Hizb hitmen.

The Hizb also brought a brand of narrow puritanism to the interpretation of faith and mounted attacks on local Sufi shrines. In June, 1994, its militants allegedly killed Qazi Nissar, a preacher revered in south Kashmir. Nissar had accused the group of “holding Kashmir to ransom, to hand over to Pakistan on a plate.”  At the qazi’s funeral, angry agitators shouted slogans like ‘Hizbul Mujahideen murdabad’ (‘down with Hizbul Mujahideen’).  

A paramilitary soldier patrols a deserted street during restrictions a day before the death anniversary of Burhan Wani, a commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group, in downtown Srinagar July 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Scholar Paula Newberg observed in 1995, “Pakistan’s heavy influence on the movement is deeply resented especially among JKLF supporters. India clearly hopes to exploit this sentiment, once the Kashmiris find the fight is futile. In the long run, Pakistan’s powerful intervention may prove to have undermined the very uprising it sought to fortify.”

It was therefore the combined force of Indian counter-insurgency and Pakistan’s support for rival factions opposing the JKLF that caused the group’s downfall and led to the emergence of the Hizb, that then established its almost complete monopoly over the Kashmir insurgency.  

Resentment against Hizbul Mujahideen

The current crisis, however, seems to have been prompted by Pakistan’s sudden decision to cut off patronage to militant groups as it stares at the potential of being blacklisted by the Paris-based terror-funding watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF). It has banned several Islamic seminaries and seized assets that belong to militant groups over the last few months.

Also read: When Pro-Plebiscite Kashmiris Found Common Cause with ‘Hindu Nationalists’

Amid mounting global pressure, Pakistan has also renewed, at least as far as public optics are concerned,  its crackdown on Hafiz Saeed and charities owned by him. The lack of aid from Pakistan has led the Hizb’s operational chief in the Valley, Riyaz Naikoo, to concede that militant groups have now been forced to fight with small pistols. “While the enemy’s technology is increasing and they are armed with modern weapons, our weapons are decreasing,” he said last year, in a statement. Which brings us back to the Sirhama incident which seems to have been partially motivated by a duel between two groups over weapons.

Besides, Pakistan’s recent decision to tip Indian officials off on an IED attack in south Kashmir has cemented the belief among the young in the Valley that Islamabad may perhaps be self-seeking and opportunistic. It is this realisation that has bred a politics of despair in the region in which more radical forms of expressions are incubating. 

At his house in Waghama, Musaib and his family say they will not settle for anything less than retribution. “We want the killers of my brother to be punished,” he says.

Aadil’s funeral is the first in a while where no Hizb flags were raised. No pro-Hizb slogans were shouted either. Only Ansar Ghazwat-ul Hind and Islamic States flags were seen.

In fact, there is noticeable resentment against the Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar across Waghama. “It isn’t lost on us how Aadil’s murder at the hands of the Hizb received very little media coverage. The Hizb’s domineering attitude will soon end,” a student from the same village, who attended the funeral, says.

How strong can the pro-Islamic State winds blow, this reporter asked him. He smiled. “It’s already here and will grow stronger.” 

Shakir Mir is a Srinagar based journalist.