Zakir Rashid Bhat, a breakaway Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander based in south Kashmir, has been appointed head of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent’s new affiliate for the state, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, the terrorist group’s media wing announced on Thursday.
The announcement marks the first time the group has created an affiliate for Kashmir but Indian police and intelligence officials said it would have little impact on ground.
“The jihad in Kashmir has reached a stage of awakening, as the Muslim nation of Kashmir has committed to carry the flag of jihad to repel the aggression of tyrant Indian invaders”, the statement by al-Qaeda’s Global Islamic Media Front read.
Bhat had appeared in a video in May under the al-Qaeda banner, accusing Indian Muslims of cowardice, and calling on them to engage in jihad against the government. Earlier this month, al-Qaeda’s Urdu-language magazine Nawa-i Afghan Jihad, had also carried an article referring to Musa’s group.
Ghazwa-e-Hind, from which the new organisation takes its name, is a prophecy attributed, in some Islamic traditions, to Prophet Muhammad, proclaiming that a victorious army rising from the West shall establish Islam in India before the day of judgment.
It is unclear if Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind will operate under the umbrella of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, led by Uttar Pradesh born Sana-ul-Haq, or report directly to the organisation’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Haq has long been a proponent of linking the jihad in Kashmir with the wider pan-India jihadist cause.
Few in India’s security establishment, though, saw significance in the news. Read: No space for Islamic State, al Qaeda, says Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin. Click here.
“Frankly, this is underwhelming in its significance”, a senior south Kashmir-based police officer said. “Bhat’s breakaway group consists of perhaps half-a-dozen people, with few arms and sources of funding. He’s pretty much a dead man walking”.
Intelligence sources in Delhi concurred with the police assessment. “Al-Qaeda has no logistics chain or facilities across the Line of Control to feed units operating in Kashmir, unlike, say the Lashkar-e-Taiba”, he said. “This is an effort to reach out to young Kashmiris drawn to global jihadism through the internet”.
The group, intelligence sources said, hoped to join with the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s ranking commander for south Kashmir, so far known only by the pseudonym Abu Dujanah, to announce the creation of the new al-Qaeda group on June 8. However, the meeting had to be cancelled after search operations were launched targeting its likely locations, an intelligence official said.
Dujanah, evicted from control in the Lashkar hierarchy amidst charges of his excessively close relationship with police double-agent Muhammad Yusuf Dar, is also rumoured to have been considering setting up an independent organisation. Dar was killed earlier this year after Lashkar commanders discovered he had betrayed a series of fidayeen operations to police, in return for his own safety and that of Dujanah.
The Lashkar commander’s relationship with his organisation, intelligence sources say, also soured after his request for Rs 7 lakh to relocate his wife, a resident of Harkripora village in south Kashmir, was rejected by the organisation.
Loud condemnation from Kashmir’s established jihadist groups emerged in response to the announcement. In a carefully worded video response, which did not name al-Qaeda or Bhat, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen chief Muhammad Yusuf Shah said “some forces are creating confusion among the masses in the name of Islamic law and martyrdom”.
“Indian imperialism”, Shah went on “launching forces like Da’esh (the Islamic State) on the soil of Jammu and Kashmir, want to create devastation, and make the blood of Muslims flow as it has in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine”.
The Lashkar-e-Taiba-whose chief, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, led funeral prayers for Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, blamed National Security Advisor Ajit Doval for attempting to undermine the Kashmir jihad by bringing “terror groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State into the valley”.
Eased out, though not formally expelled, from the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen for threatening leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in a video released in May, Bhat has struggled to draw recruits to his cause, police sources say. Two potential recruits to his small group recently dropped out after their families received threats from the Hizb.
Though described, in several media accounts, as highly educated, the 1994-born Bhat in fact was asked to leave the Ram Dev Jindal College in Chandigarh after failing his first term examinations.
Family sources contacted by The Indian Express described a conflicted young man, who joined the Hizb in 2013, deeply humiliated by his lack of success compared with his older brother, a Srinagar-based doctor.
The article in al-Qaeda magazine Nawa-i Afghan Jihad on Bhat, headlined, “O Indian sister, we are ashamed,” closely mirrors Bhat’s appeal to Indian Muslims in May.
“Indian brothers”, the article reads, “there is still time: rise us against this brutality, and join us in the Ghazwa-e-Hind. Everyone knows that Allah vowed that whoever participates in the Ghazwa-e-Hind will be saved from the hellfire, and shall entire paradise”.
In another article, Saifuddin Rafiabadi — the nom de plume indicating he hails from Rafiabad, in north Kashmir — discusses the murder of Uttar Pradesh resident Junaid Khan on a train at Ballabhgarh last month. “Indian Muslim youth”, he writes, “are praying for the opportunity to carry out ishtihadi (self-sacrificial) attacks on these tyrannical oppressors, and seeking noble, pure mujahideen who can help them do this”.