As violence steps up between rival jihadist groups in Kashmir, Sudha Ramachandran assesses the implications for militancy in the Valley
Militants operating in the strife-torn Kashmir Valley are turning their guns on each other.
In late June, Aadil Ahmed Dass, a militant affiliated with the Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK),was shot dead in south Kash0mir’s Anantnag district by three militants, Arif Bhat and Burhan Ahmad of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT),and Zubair Wani of Hizbul Mujahideen (HM).His killing, which has come at a time when radical jihadist groups are seeking a toe-hold in Kashmir, could be a turning point formilitancy in the region.
Dass was a member of the Pakistan-based and backed LeT before he enlisted in ISJK. It appears that Wani, Ahmad and Bhat tricked him into meeting them by expressing interest in joining the latter group.When they met, they reportedly argued over Dass returning LeT’s weapons. A gunfight followed in which Dass was killed.
The incident could trigger more killings and counter-killings. ISJK is reportedly furious with LeT and HM over Dass’death. In a video circulating on social media, Khateeb Ahmad, an ISJKsupporter and relative of Dass, referred to his killers as ‘dogs’ and described Riyaz Naikoo, the HM’s operational commander in the Valley, as ‘useless’. They are ‘murtad’ (apostates), he said, accusing them of ‘fighting for Pakistan and killing several militants following the Islamic State (IS) ideology’.
Although the black flags of IShave been visible at street protests in Srinagar since December 2014, it is only in May this year, when one of its fighters, Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi, was gunned down by Indian security forces in south Kashmir’s Shopian district, that the groupformally announced a new ‘India branch’ in Kashmir.Its claim to have established a ‘province’ in Kashmir was dismissed by India’s security establishment, as global jihadist groups have not only failed to attract followers in India so far but ISJK has no more than a handful of fighters in the Valley.
Like IS, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Valley which goes by the name of Ansar Ghazwatul Hind (AGH) is a recent entrant to Kashmir’s militant arena, having been formed in 2017 by Zakir Musa after he parted ways with HM.AGH, too,has just a handful of fighters in Kashmir.
Their small numbers notwithstanding, the entry of global jihadist groups into Kashmir’s militant space has triggered apprehension in the region among civilians, as well as among other Islamist groups such as HM, and political separatist organisations including the pro-Pakistan Hurriyat Conference. A group whose membership is predominantly Kashmiri, HM has benefited immensely from Islamabad’s provision of arms, funds, training and sanctuary to its leaders and fighters. It is in favour of Kashmir becoming a part of Pakistan.
Both HM and the Hurriyat Conference have said that there is no role for global jihadist groups like IS and al-Qaeda in Kashmir. With theirpan-Islamic vision, the latter are opposed to Kashmiri nationalism. Indeed, when Musa announced the formation of AGH in 2017, he described ‘Kashmir’s war’ as ‘an Islamic struggle’ that was ‘only to enforce sharia’and warned Hurriyat leaders that they would be beheaded if they continued to be a ‘thorn’impeding efforts toset up an Islamic state in Kashmir.
Fratricidal fighting among militant groups operating in the Kashmir Valley is not new. In the early 1990s, for instance, various groups fought each other to take control of the movement in order to corner a larger share of the weapons and money that Pakistan was offering them. During this period, fierce fighting erupted between the pro-azadi (independence) and relatively non-communal Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) on the one hand,and the Islamist HM. Such fighting culminated in the marginalisation of JKLF and the rise of HM. Indeed, it is widely believed that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) set up HM with the aim of eliminating JKLF.
As fierce as the fighting between militant groups has been the bloodletting among factions within HM. In 2000, Abdul Majid Dar, HM’s top commander in the Valley, announced a conditional ceasefire against the Indian security forces and began peace talks with New Delhi. But Syed Salahuddin, the group’s founder and Muzaffarabad-based leader, called off the ceasefire under pressure from the ISI, which was opposed to Dar steering the militancy in a way that would loosen Pakistan’s grip over it. Dar was labelled an ‘Indian agent’, and he and his supporters were expelled from HM. Killings and counter-killings ensued. Finally, in 2003, Dar was shot dead.
The current tensions between ISJK on the one hand and HM and LeT on the other could result in much bloodshed. Indian security forces are said to have inflicted heavy losses on militant groups in Kashmir over the past year; they are believed to have eliminated 101 terrorists between January and May 31 this year alone, according to official figures. Infiltration of militants from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is reported to have dropped by 43 per cent and recruitment of locals into militant outfits has fallen by 40 per cent.Consequently, militant groups in the Valley cannot afford to indulge in internecine warfare.
Three days after Dass’ killing, Salahuddin issued a statement describing the incident as ‘extremely distressing’ for the people of Kashmir, the ‘jihadi leadership and mujahideen’. In what seemed to be a truce offer to ISJK, Salahuddin not only called for an impartial probe followed by exemplary punishment for the guilty but also referred to the ISJK fighter as a shaheed (martyr). Salahuddin’s statement suggests that he was seeking an end to the tensions between HM and ISJK.
Worryingly for Salahuddin, HM could now be facing another split. Salahuddin’s recent extension of an olive branch to ISJK was met by stony silence from HM’s Valley-based leaders.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has also commented on the recent killings. He called on militant groups in Kashmir to focus at present on dealing ‘unrelenting blows’to the Indian Army and government, and went on to express support for ‘liberating the jihad in Kashmir from the clutches of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies’.’Describing the latter as ‘America’s primary tool in Pakistan’, he pointed out that ‘the Pakistan Army and government are interested in exploiting the mujahideen for specific political objectives, only to dump or persecute them later’. Al-Zawahiri also stressed the need for greater coordination between militant groups in Kashmir and global terror outfits.
Outfits such as AGH and particularly ISJK may have fired the imagination of Kashmiri youth with their radical rhetoric, which is so easily available online. However, these groups may not survive an all-out war with HM, LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed, should such a war break out. They cannot compete with the latter’s access to Pakistan’s largesse. Taking on the ISI could therefore prove disastrous for them, and their survival in Kashmir in the long-run is doubtful.