In May 2017, nearly a year after the infamous Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Burhan Wani was killed in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, his close aide and successor Zakir Musa, an engineering student-turned-militant, parted ways with the Hizbul — and established Jammu and Kashmir’s first al-Qaeda-affiliated militant outfit— Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGuH).
Within just four years, the outfit has been ‘wiped out’ twice, first after Musa’s successor Hamid Lelhari, was gunned down in the Awantipora encounter of October 2019, two months after J&K lost constitutional autonomy in the form of Article 370.
On 9 April 2021, it was for the second time that police claimed that the al-Qaeda-affiliated AGuH had been ‘completely wiped out’ from J&K.
Why a Semblance of the AGuH Had Remained
Quoting J&K DGP Dilbag Singh, The Indian Express reported: “Both the ongoing operations at Shopian and Tral are over. Five militants in the first, and two in the second operations were neutralised. Both the militant groups are from the same outfit. 7 AKs and 2 pistols have been recovered. With these two encounters and elimination of 7 militants, the militant outfit AGuH has been fully wiped out once again.”
However, the Inspector General of Police, Kashmir Range, Vijay Kumar, said that while the AGuH had been almost wiped out, elements in the form of over ground workers (OGWs) may be still there.
“They suddenly crop up and join militant ranks, and we have information that one unknown militant of this cadre is still active.”
On 24 May 2019, Musa was killed in an encounter at Dardsara village of south Kashmir’s Tral area, some 40 kms from Srinagar.
Before Musa was killed, he was named the head of the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind for the Valley in May 2017. This was after he quit the Hizbul. Before he could quit his association with Hizb, however, Musa, in a video message, threatened to behead Kashmiri separatist leaders of the Hurriyat Conference for calling Kashmir a ‘political dispute’ instead of a ‘religious struggle’ to establish an Islamic state.
The AGuH outfit entered as a new ideological strand in Kashmiri militancy. In the early years, it had been dominated by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which claimed to fight for an independent secular state. Then came the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen outfit which recruited local as well as foreign militants.
In the mid-1990s, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba entered the Valley followed by the al-Badr in 1998 and Jaish-e-Mohammad in 2000, while the Resistance Front arrived recently.
The Fall of AGuH
In the first month when it was established in May 2017, the AGuH outfit lost three militants in the Gulab Bagh Tral gunfight.
In the bone-chilling cold of December 2018, the AGuH suffered another major setback after the outfit lost six militants, including the Deputy Chief Sauliha Mohammed alias Rehan, in the Tral encounter.
In a major anti-militancy operation that erupted in a hideout in Arampora village of south Kashmir’s Tral, six militants were killed, leaving Musa alone with two new recruits.
How Musa’s Men Were Shot Down Or Arrested
Before this encounter, in November 2018, Shakir Hassan Dar, another close associate of Musa, was gunned down in the Reshipora Tral encounter.
“Both Shakir and Sauliha were the architects of the Ansar outfit. Both had joined militancy in 2015 and were close associates of slain rebel commander Burhan Wani. When Musa, who was pictured with Burhan in the Tral jungles, decided to part ways with Hizb, the duo followed him. After their killing, Musa could not expand his network and was also killed in May 2019,” said a senior police official on condition of anonymity.
Besides losing the militants regularly, the security forces have been arresting a number of AGuH over-ground workers from time to time. “Cash, arms and ammunition were also recovered from these OGWs, which further jolted the outfit,” said a police official.
The police officer operating out of Awantipora police district recalled that in April 2018, six local youths — who were planning to join the Musa-led AGuH — were apprehended by the police in the area, and handed over to their parents after proper counselling.
‘Involvement’ of Civil Admin in Annihilating Militant Cadre & Militancy
The AGuH, according to the Police, mostly remained confined to police district Awantipora in south Kashmir.
A post-graduate student in Tral told The Quint that because Musa — in his audio recordings — was speaking against Pakistan, it means he may not have had any financial support or arms and ammunition.
“Due to lack of weapons, the militants in his cadre were killed without retaliation. When Musa lost six militants in December 2018, there were not many weapons which security forces could recover,” he said.
In August 2017, Hizb, a Pakistan-based militant outfit, termed the AuGH as “an Indian intelligence operation” to “divide the Kashmiri nation”. Although, a year later, Hizb Commander Riyaz Naikoo — who was later killed — in an audio message, clarified that his group was not against the AGuH.
According to security agencies, militants associated with the AGuH cadre do not depend on the usual infiltration route for “arms and ammunition”, and would depend on training the local youth in the forest ranges, mostly in south Kashmir.
A senior Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) officer, currently posted in the civil secretariat, Srinagar, told The Quint that there is hardly any major role of civil administration in annihilating any militant cadre or eliminating militancy. “A civil servant, let us suppose a district magistrate, on the recommendations of superintendent of police can only slap public safety acts on militant workers and over ground workers. Other than that the civil administration cannot do much in combating militancy.”
Why Zakir Musa Was Considered ‘Dangerous’
In October 2017, the Intelligence Bureau declared Musa a ‘top most-wanted militant’ operating in the valley.
According to the IB report, “Musa was considered quite dangerous because he was using propaganda to call for an Islamic caliphate in Kashmir and throughout India, an ideology that’s rapidly gaining ground in the valley.”
In the year 2018, security agencies posted posters carrying photographs of Musa, including one of him disguised as a Sikh, at various places in Punjab.
The posters were put up in the frontier districts of Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Bathinda and Ferozpur districts following reports that he could be hiding in Punjab.
Punjab Police and J&K Police together have busted modules, including that of engineering students, who had carried out terror activities in Punjab.
In 2019, Musa was declared a proclaimed offender by a special court of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Punjab's Mohali, in connection with serial blasts in Jalandhar in September 2018.
Increasing Anti-Militancy Ops in the Valley
Anti-militancy operations, as per the police, have intensified ever since the Pulwama attack took place in February 2019, killing at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers. The attack dealt a severe blow to India-Pakistan relations, consequently resulting in the 2019 India-Pakistan military standoff.
In the current year, 36 militants have been killed in different encounters across the valley.
A police source told The Quint that most anti-militancy operations were launched in Shopian district — where, since 13 March, six encounters have resulted in the killing of at least 16 militants.
When asked why anti-militancy operations are increasingly taking place in Kashmir, a senior police officer posted in southern Kashmir told The Quint that security agencies are aiming at zero militancy in the valley before the Amarnath Yatra begins on 28 June.
The Army also said that they will prevent fresh militant recruitment, bust the OWG network and counter social media used for radicalisation in the valley.
General in Command (GOC), 15 Chinar Corps, Lt Gen Devendra Pratap Pandey in a recent presser in Srinagar said: “Our priority will be to plug this OGW network. Anyone who chooses a path of violence will be dealt strictly. Local militants will be offered surrender or if they refuse, will be neutralised.”
In the previous year, 225 militants were killed in 103 operations across J&K, while in 2019, a total of 160 militants were killed.
(Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Kashmir and he tweets @irfanaminmalik. This is an opinion plus reportage piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)