After Saifullah’s Death, Hizbul Begins Search for New Leader
This comes after the killing of Mir Saifullah in an encounter in the outskirts of Srinagar on 1 November.
The Hizbul Mujahideen outfit is likely to appoint Zubair Ahmad Wani, an MPhill scholar who joined the outfit in 2018 after returning from Pakistan, as its next chief operational commander for Kashmir.
This comes after the killing of Mir Saifullah in an encounter in Srinagar outskirts on Sunday, 1 November.
A senior police officer told The Quint that after Saifullah’s killing, the Hizbul outfit has started the hunt for choosing its next commander, and three names are doing the rounds, all of whom hail from south Kashmir.
Zubair, 29, an A++ category militant, is the frontrunner for taking the reigns of Hizbul Mujahideen in Kashmir. Armed with an MPhil in Sociology, Zubair comes from a poor family. His father and younger brother work as labourers. Zubair joined the outfit in April 2018.
“He had gone to Pakistan on a study visa but he underwent arms training there. In recent months, he has spread terror in south Kashmir areas and indulged in the killings of political workers and attacks on security forces,” said the police officer.
Zubair, who has a younger brother and three sisters, hails from Dehruna village of Kokernag in south Kashmir. In 2018, The Quint had spoken with Zubair’s mother, Rashida, who had said that her son plunged into militancy after witnessing a spate of civilian and militant killings in Kashmir that year.
“I had never thought he will join militants. But now that he has joined them, I can’t tell him to surrender,” Rashida, a housewife, had said.
Sources said that the second name doing the rounds, for being nominated as the successor of Dr Saifullah, is Farooq Bhat, alias Nalli, who hails from Yaripora village of the restive Kulgam district.
Police sources said that Nalli joined Hizbul Mujahideen in 2015 and is one of the most experienced militants in Kashmir. He comes from a rich family who is associated with the apple industry.
“He is an A++ category militant. One of his brother is a doctor. He comes from an educated family but he has been involved in the killings of political workers in Kulgam and attacks on security forces,” sources said.
Another A++ category militant whose name is being considered for nomination as the operational chief of Hizbul Mujahideen is Ashraf Bhat, alias Molvi, a resident of Anantnag in south Kashmir.
A recycled militant whose first affiliation with militancy has been traced to 2000, sources said Ashraf Molvi has got arms training in Pakistan. He became active in 2015 and is credited for reviving militancy in Kokernag belt of south Kashmir.
“He is an experienced militant with Jamaat background. He is a close associate of Bashir Lashkari, a Lashkar operative who remained active for 18 years before being gunned down in 2015. Molvi hasn’t got much formal education, but he has studied religion and his knowledge of Islamic teachings perhaps surpasses other local militants presently active in Kashmir,” another source said.
Hizbul on a Decline
The killing of Saifullah is the latest in a series of setbacks suffered by the Hizbul Mujahideen outfit, with at least seven commander-level militants gunned down in counter-insurgency operations in 2020, sources said, leaving the outfit leaderless and rudderless.
“The outfit has 56 militants presently active in Kashmir which is down from over 100 militants last year. Only 30 percent of new recruits joined Hizbul this year which shows the outfit’s waning popularity. Tral, once a hotbed of Hizbul, has no Hizb militant presently,” a source said.
In fact, the fortunes of the Hizbul continue to dwindle in Kashmir post Article 370 abrogation with Saifullah lasting barely few months after taking over the outfit’s command from Riyaz Naikoo who was gunned down on 6 May this year.
Sources said that Saifullah, a resident of Pulwama in south Kashmir who maintained a low profile since his elevation this year, was in the capital Srinagar, along with his associate for the treatment of his kidney ailment.
Saifullah had done two diplomas in medical electronics, including one from the prestigious National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology in Srinagar, earning him the title of ‘Doctor’.
“The J&K Police got a tip-off about the presence of militants at a residential house in Rangreth in the city outskirts. When they were asked to surrender, they opened fire. In the ensuing gunbattle, Saifullah was killed, while his associate surrendered,” said DGP J&K Police Dilbag Singh in a press conference.
‘Local Recruitment on Rise'
In Kashmir, the recruitment of locals in militancy has gone up in 2020, with at least 135 youths taking to arms till September. In the whole of 2019, only 117 youth had joined militant outfits. In 2018, the figure stood at 199.
Official Army data shows that there are 207 militants presently active in Kashmir with 117 locals and 90 foreigners. The figure is likely to be on the higher side.
“The concentration of foreign militants is very high in north Kashmir as compared with the south where mostly local youth have joined militants.”A senior Army officer (wishing anonymity)
Of these, 56 militants are affiliated with the Hizbul Mujahideen, 89 militants are with Lashkar-e-Toiba, 52 with Jaish-e-Mohammad and 20 are with Al Badr.
“Data shows that around half of the new recruits are killed within six months of joining militancy. Besides, around a dozen new recruits surrendered before security forces which is an encouraging sign,” the officer said.
(Jehangir Ali is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @gaamuk.)
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