Can Militancy In Kashmir Survive Without Pakistan’s Support?

As claimed by Al Qaeda chief Al Zawahiri, is Pakistan really ‘exploiting’ Kashmiri militants? 

5 min read
 Masked Kashmiris hold the national flag of Pakistan and a banner displaying militant leaders of the Hizb-ul Mujahedeen during a protest. 

Who is the ‘rightful’ owner of the guns used by militants in Kashmir? Is it the militant himself, or is it the outfit that he works for? Or is the question of ownership settled by ‘religion’, as many deem the Kashmir conundrum to be a ‘religious struggle’?

These questions are at the heart of a new and dangerous ideological war that has broken out between militant outfits in Kashmir that are affiliated with groups headquartered in Pakistan, and those disillusioned and radicalised Kashmiri youth who are pledging allegiance to global terror outfits such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.

On 27 June, the body of Aadil Ahmed Das, who joined Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba in July 2019 but had recently defected to Islamic State Wilayah Hind, was recovered from an orchard in the region’s southern area of Bijbehara.

Initial reports suggested Das was killed in a nocturnal encounter with security forces. There was no confirmation that the encounter even took place, but J&K Police said that another Lashkar militant, Arif Hussain Bhat, had been captured alive.

Message For Pakistan’s ‘Murtadeen’

In the days after the incident, the two sides publicly exchanged allegations and counter allegations. Under a new leadership, a video statement by an unidentified Islamic State Wilayah Hind recruit blamed the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and the Hizbul Mujahideen for the killing of Das.

“Under the pretext of pledging allegiance to Sheikh Abu Baqr Al Baghdadi, Hizbul, and Lashkar militants laid a trap. This conspiracy was hatched by Pakistan, and Riyaz ‘Nalayaq’ (referring to Riyaz Naikoo, Hizb’s Kashmir chief) long time ago, and they have executed it now,” the ISHP militant says in the video.

“We want to tell these murtadeen (those born to Muslim parents but who have rejected their faith) that they are doing this jihad for the unholy government of Pakistan. We have pictures to prove how they laid a trap. The martyrdom of Adil bhai will be avenged,” the militant says, unfazed, as a chopper hovers above him in what appears to be a forested area.

The militant then goes on to show the pictures of three Hizb and Lashkar members posing with Adil after allegedly (falsely) pledging allegiance as evidence of their complicity.

“They are spreading false rumours that Indian agents killed Adil bhai. Pakistani agents killed him. The apostates killed him.”

A Bid For Unity Among Militant Outfits Of Kashmir & Pakistan

The war of words is now threatening to turn into a full-blown battle.

Police sources said that the militants from the two sides have been raiding each other’s hideouts and residences, particularly in south Kashmir, prompting the chief of Hizbul, Syed Salahuddin, to declare a truce.

In a recent video message, Salahuddin, who is based in Pakistan-administered-Kashmir and also heads the United Jihad Council — a conglomerate of nearly two dozen militant outfits operating in Kashmir — promised an inquiry into the Bijbehara killing.

“All of us are on the same path — jihad — for the sake of Allah,” Salahuddin says in the video. He adds, “We must respect each other’s thoughts and emotions and try to cooperate. Our great struggle has already suffered irreparable damage because of these differences.”

“There are similar indications of irreparable damage taking place,” he adds, terming Das as a ‘shaheed’ (martyr) and calling for stringent punishment for his killers.

Echoing the sentiments of Salahuddin, Hameed Lelhari, the successor of Zakir Musa and newly-appointed chief of Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, also called for unity among the militant outfits.

“This is unacceptable under any circumstance. In such situations, it becomes imperative to resolve the issue as per the Shariat, and if proven, there must either be qisas (retribution) or diaat (blood money paid to the slain’s kin),” said Lelhari in a video.

“Will Not Be Enslaved By Pakistani Interests”

In a ‘first of its kind’ move that is likely to be seen as an affront by Pakistan-based militant outfits, Lelhari calls for setting up a ‘shura’ (council), comprising members of all militant outfits, that will decide on “military decisions” in Kashmir. In the nearly six-minute-long video of Lelhari, released by online channels linked to Al Qaeda, Lelhari lays down three principles for the proposed militant council.

Lelhari says there should be uniformity of motives in fighting: the ‘enforcement of Allah's law in Allah's land’. The second principle calls for all military decisions to be taken on the ground “based on ground realities and strategic interests”, while the third principle seeks "separation of jihad's interests from organisational and agency interests (referring to Pakistani intelligence services)".

In a direct challenge to Pakistan, Lelhari says his outfit, after the killing of Zakir Musa who had rebelled against Hizbul Mujahideen, would not be “enslaved by Pakistani interests”. 

In the video, he urges all militant groups to join hands for the sake of ‘jihad in Kashmir’. “If our jihad is weak, we are responsible for it,” he said.

“Pakistan Exploiting Kashmiri Militants”

Following Lehlari’s statement, a 14-minute video titled “Don't Forget Kashmir” was released on a channel titled ‘As-Sahab’, an in-house production of Al Qaeda.

In the video, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s global chief, targets Pakistan for “exploiting” the militants — a view that is echoed by the new recruits of militancy (in conversations leaked on social media.)

“The Pakistani Army and government are interested in exploiting the (Kashmiri) Mujahideen for specific political objectives, only to dump or persecute them later. Mujahideen in Kashmir, at this stage at least, should single-mindedly focus on inflicting unrelenting blows on the Indian Army and government, so as to bleed the Indian economy and make India suffer sustained losses in manpower and equipment,” he said.

The popularity of Lelhari-led and Al Qaeda-linked Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind in Kashmir, and the growing rift between the Valley’s militant outfits, together signals a major shift towards pan-Islamism and rejection of political nationalism, that apparently doesn’t bode well for the prospects of peace in the Asian subcontinent.

Will Global Jihad Outfits Truly Impact Kashmir’s Militants?

“The inability of India and Pakistan to chalk out a meaningful resolution in Kashmir over the past three decades, has made the region a fertile recruitment ground for global jihadi outfits. This dynamic can make Kashmir another Syria,” a senior J&K Police officer said on condition of anonymity.

However, security experts don’t see the growing influence of global jihadi outfits among Kashmiri militants to have a lasting impact on the ground situation.

“These are just sentiments,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi, referring to the growing influence of pan-Islamic outfits in Kashmir.

“Zakir Musa wasn’t able to carry out any attacks on security forces in Kashmir because of lack of logistics. At the end of the day, wars are fought on the basis of capacities, not rhetoric,” Sahni said.

“Any Kashmiri militant outfit will require the support of Pakistan for survival,” the senior security expert added.

On 13 July, an audio clip started doing the rounds on social media. In the clip, Hizb's Kashmir Chief Riyaz Naikoo, can be heard warning that they won’t hesitate if the militant killing in Sirhama is to be resolved by a ‘call for war’.

“We must resolve our issue through dialogue,” Naikoo says at the end of the 16.32 minute audio clip. “From today onwards, we will neither answer questions nor explain ourselves to anyone,” he added.

In this new battle of competing religious ideologies, the last word clearly has not yet been spoken.

(Jehangir Ali is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @gaamuk. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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