Srinagar: On Thursday evening, scenes in Kashmir recalled the chaos and fear of July 8, 2016 – the day Burhan Wani, the influential Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) militant, was killed. As reports of the killing of Wani’s successor – Zakir Rashid Bhat, aka Zakir Musa – flooded the internet, bands of young men across South Kashmir poured into the streets to protest.
Since 2017, Musa had headed the Ansar Ghazwat-ul Hind (Helpers of Holy War against India), a militant group driven by overtly pan-Islamist ambitions. It scorns any political motives of the insurgency in Kashmir and raves about establishing a ‘caliphate’. Borrowing its vocabulary liberally from groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda, AGuH introduced a new, alarming dynamic to the conflict in the state.
The rise of AGuH in Kashmir has been deeply polarising within the separatist movement. Its strident Islamist language and apparent goals provoked both backlash and some endorsement from pro-azaadi Kashmiris.
It took Hurriyat leaders until Friday evening, 24 hours after the news of Musa’s death, to issue a strike call – otherwise almost a customary practice when a militant dies fighting security forces.
‘Only and only for Islam’
A close aid of Burhan Wani until Wani’s death, Musa succeeded him as Hizbul Mujahideen commander, but soon ran afoul of the armed group after his Islamist ambitions were rebuffed by Hurriyat leaders.
“I see that many people in Kashmir are engaged in a war of nationalism, which is forbidden in Islam,” he said in an audio recording, released online in 2017. Musa emphasised that fighting in Kashmir should only serve the cause of Islam “so that Sharia is established here.”
Musa grew up in Noorpora, in Tral, and joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2013, after dropping out of college in Chandigarh. Jammu & Kashmir police have accused him of an array of terror-related crimes, including a bank heist, a grenade attack on a CISF camp in Noorpora in 2014, and a role in the abduction and killing of at least two civilians in South Kashmir.
He also figures in the records of the National Investigation Agency, for his involvement in a series of blasts in Jalandhar, Punjab, on September 14, 2018.
The proponents of self-determination in Kashmir exist across the spectrum; from secularists to political Islamists to jihadists. Musa’s rhetoric expressed a new radical persuasion, in the idiom of groups like the Taliban, Islamic State and al Qaeda.
Separatists were chagrined about this language, which conflicts with their ideals and exposes their ‘legitimate’ political purposes to smears and confusion.
Musa’s statement in May 2017 was dismissed both by the Hurriyat Council as well as a HM spokesperson. Both Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had already reproached the IS and al Qaeda, saying their movement “had nothing to do with these world-level groups and they are practically non-existent in the state.”
It was in response to this censure that Musa threatened to behead Hurriyat leaders “and hang their heads in Lal Chowk” if they interfered with his goals. He later broke ranks with the HM to float the AGuH, swearing allegiance to al Qaeda in the summer of 2017.
Officials in Kashmir believe that Musa’s death may doom pan-Islamist radical groups at the organisational level, though not ideologically.
“You can kill a person but you cannot eliminate an ideology,” a senior police official told The Wire. “In Kashmir, we have differentiated Islamists as per three categories. First are those allied ideologically to the Muslim Brotherhood like Jamaat-e-Islami. We believe JeI can be reasoned with. Their formula places Islam in the same frame of reference with representative democracy.”
“Then there are the Salafi or Wahabbis, who appear beyond redemption [including Musa and his followers],” he said. “Tthe third group consists of Shia religious reactionaries.”
With his killing, the official said, the group has been incapacitated. This is just weeks after forces killed Ishfaq Sofi of the Islamic State (Jammu & Kashmir), leaving the group with only two surviving members: Umar from Panzgam, Pulwama, and Aadil from Shopian.
The militancy turns on itself
At a certain point in 2017, the HM attempted to wrest space back from AGuH. Its efforts were handicapped when its influential commander, Yaseen Itoo, died in an encounter in Awreena, Shopian on August 13 2017.
Police described Itoo, whose nom de guerre was Mehmood Ghaznavi, as the “anchor of the Hizbul Mujahideen’s activities and the only top commander preventing cadre from coming under Zakir Musa’s influence.”
Itoo had also publicly admonished Musa, saying that “those challenging the legal and historic nature of Kashmir conflict” are “sowing the seeds of discontent”.
Police had communicated to the press that their decision to not target Musa was deliberate. “We are systematically going after the HM commanders, particularly those who have had the experience and training,” the Indian Express quoted an official saying. “Once this is over, the network will crumble. If there is information, operations are also carried out against Lashkar. But the main focus is Hizb… Musa isn’t the focus currently.”
“The understanding is that once Hizb is neutralized, Musa’s group would take the centre stage. That isn’t strategically bad for us. It will only endorse our view that militancy in Kashmir isn’t a threat to India alone but a worry for everyone who is fighting Al Qaeda and ISIS.”
On the ideological front, the effort to counter AGuH was led by scholar-turned-militant Manan Wani. A 27-year-old doctoral student at Aligarh Muslim University, Wani showed a relatively progressive streak.
In two letters in 2018, Manan Wani affirmed that his “struggle was gender neutral” that intended “to create an environment of peace and justice wherein every thought and ideology would be discussed and debated and people will be given their right to chose whatever they like.”
It was a far cry from what Musa was promoting. Wani’s letter anchored Kashmir’s conflict firmly in its political moorings. State police filed a case against the press outlet that published it, and had the letter removed. Wani was killed along with an associate on October 11 last year, in Handwara, in north Kashmir.
The HM’s efforts suffered another blow in January 2019, when security forces killed Zeenat-ul-Islam – a militant who joined the HM in 2015 but last year switched to ‘al Badr’, an older group revived during the 2018 Ramzan ceasefire.
His brother, Faizan-ul-Islam, explained to The Wire that Zeenat was driven back into the militancy under duress. “He was previously with the militancy as well, I admit that. He served time in jail and then wanted to extricate himself. He even pleaded with his father to get him married so his attention is diverted,” he said. “But run-ins with the police happened every week, so he left home one day and never returned.”
Recruits like Zeenat, allegedly driven to arms out of personal frustration rather than ideology, have tended to hold the ground against the Islamists. Police have also hinted that Zeenat moved into al Badr as part of the HM’s effort to strengthen like-mind groups and contain “the influence of al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar Ghazwatul Hind as well as JKIS, which have been critical of Pakistan’s policies.”
The end of the Ansar
Action against the AGuH began early in May 2017, when three of its members – Zahid Ahmad Bhat, Ishaq Ahmed and Muhammad Ashraf Dar – were killed in the Gulab Bagh area in Tral. In March 2018, two more members – Owais Nabi and Shabir Ahmad – were killed at Balhama village. They had attacked a cop guarding a local BJP leader.
The group had another setback on November 28, 2018 when Shakir Hassan Dar died during a gunfight. Dar joined the HM in April 2015, but like Musa, he too broke ranks and moved to the AGuH.
Less than a month later, Indian forces stamped out six more of their colleagues – including Musa’s deputy Sualiha Akhoon – in an operation in Arampora, Tral.
By 2019, the AGuH was already a rudderless ship, with fewer than five men on board. Earlier this year, AGuH recruited Naveed Hassan Tak from Batpora, Pulwama. Tak was a friend of Burhan Koka, a leading member of the AGuH who is likely to have drawn Tak into their fold. Unconfirmed reports on Friday suggested Koka may also have been killed in the gunfight on Thursday.
However on Friday morning, only Musa’s body was recovered. “Only 3-4 militants are surviving from the AGuH now,” a senior official from South Kashmir told The Wire. “We never underestimated the group. It was as credible a security threat as any other terrorist group operating in the region.”
On Saturday, the Kashmir valley remained under curfew, with mobile internet services and local cable networks shut down. At Musa’s funeral, thousands of mourners braved rains to crowd his village. “The fact is every militant has multi-layered identity here,” said a political analyst from Shopian. “What Musa said represented his one layer. Another layer is that, across the repression-battered villages of south Kashmir, any militant who bothers the forces becomes a rallying figure. He embodies strength and defiance that boys here cannot have, but want to experience vicariously.”
Shakir Mir is a Srinagar-based journalist.