Last summer, Habibullah Yatoo shut down his small store in the village of Nagam, on the fringes of the central Kashmir town of Chadoora, and joined the hundreds who had come to pray for the soul of his son, supposedly killed while trying to cross the Line of Control. The Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Muhammad Ashraf Sehrai led the prayers, a mark of the respect Habibullah’s son had in Islamist circles.
For intelligence personnel, who watched the funeral, it was an opportunity to close a file grown thick with age. At 45, Muhammad Yasin Yatoo had served almost two decades in the Kashmir jihad, spent six years in prison facing trial for murder before skipping bail, and was alleged to have been involved in more killings than anyone cared to count.
The body of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen jihadist had not been found. All the family knew at the time was that their son had been killed on his way from the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s headquarters in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Except, Yasin Yatoo was alive.
The patriarch of Kashmir’ jihadists was shot dead in Shopian on Sunday in an operation built around intelligence generated by the Jammu and Kashmir Police. His story helps in understanding the journey the Kashmir jihad has taken over the last 10 years and how its leadership now fears being swept aside by a newer, more radical ideology linked to global causes.
Yasin Yatoo’s resurrection became known in July 2016, when he was appointed to take charge of the Hizb by its chief, Muhammad Yusuf Shah. Now operating under pseudonym Mehmood Ghaznavi, Yasin’s first task was to stamp the Hizb’s authority over an uprising that broke out after the killing of jihadist Burhan Wani. Wani, who had vowed in a video to “establish an Islamic Caliphate, not just in Kashmir or India, but all over the world”, was seen by the Hizb as a dangerous loose cannon. Yatoo’s job was to discipline the rebellion that broke out in his name.
In 1996, Yasin had drifted into the Hizb at a time the jihad was at a murderous stalemate, claiming hundreds of lives a year. The son of a small businessman, his police dossier shows he did well enough in school but dropped out of the prestigious Amar Singh College after second year. The winter of 1997 saw Yasin at the Hizb’s main training camp in Pakistan. It was the beginning of a dance in and out of jihad.
In 1998, he returned home, surrendered to the police and started a tuition centre. Four years later, he joined the Hizb again, along with Yaseen Rather. The decision turned out to be bad for both. Yasin Yatoo was arrested and spent over a year in jail. Rather ended up dead, shot by forces.
Following his year in prison, police records show, Yasin emerged, only to be rearrested in 2005, this time for the murder of five civilians. He remained in prison until 2013, but prosecutors failed to secure a conviction. He then joined the hardline anti-India Tehreek-i-Hurriyat party, only to end up back in prison under a preventive detention law.
Following this last stint in prison, he crossed back into Pakistan, police allege, in late 2015. He stayed in Muzaffarabad, police say, until he was despatched back to manage the crisis that broke out with Wani’s killing — successfully faking his own death to throw intelligence services off his trail.
Through the summer of 2016, Yasin became the key figure in organising protests across southern Kashmir. His hold was most intense in Shopian. Key to his success was drawing in new recruits from in and around their own villages, thus allowing for the community to be mobilised to throw stones when forces attempted to enter an area.
However, he battled against a jihadist radically transfigured by changing ideologies and circumstances: Wani’s protégé Zakir Bhat, with the support of dissident Lashkar-e-Toiba commander Abu Dujana, was to challenge his authority. Larger issues also confronted the Hizb leadership, insiders say. Faced with growing economic strain, and apparently endless killing, even supporters of the anti-India movement began questioning the apparent lack of a political strategy beyond stone-throwing.
There was no stone throwing when Yatoo was killed. Hundreds will likely come to his second funeral, too, but the signs are he failed in his mission.