Riyaz Ahmad Naikoo, the 35-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen who was killed in an encounter with security forces in South Kashmir’s Awantipora, was relatively unknown until three years ago.
The Pakistan-backed militant outfit turned to Naikoo, naming him chief of its operations in the Valley with the additional task of regrouping its ranks.
Under Naikoo, who now went by the name of Mohammad bin Qasim, the Hizb soon returned to the centrestage of militancy in the Valley and he showed up on the radar of every security agency.
According to police, Naikoo was the man behind a string of attacks on police, security forces and civilians including the killing of six migrant labourers in Kulgam, fruit traders and a trucker in Shopian following the abrogation of J&K’s special status last year and the killing of a sarpanch and two civilians.
Police say Naikoo ordered the abduction of policemen and the looting of nine weapons from the Srinagar residence of a former PDP MLA.
In 2018, he had ordered the abduction of family members of J&K police personnel in retaliation for the detention of his father, Assadullah Naikoo (70), by police. Over a dozen family members of policemen were kidnapped by militants from across South Kashmir. After his father was released, the kin of policemen returned home.
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Naikoo became one of the most wanted militants and the government announced a cash reward of Rs 12 lakh for any information leading to him.
From Beighpora village in Awantipora in south Kashmir, Naikoo acquired a degree in mathematics and taught the subject at a local school.
But on June 1, 2012, he disappeared – his family alleged he was harassed and beaten by police. And when he resurfaced, he was carrying a gun. In the next five years, he rose up the Hizb ranks.
Naikoo’s elevation was also nudged by a churning within the militant outfit. When Hizb commander Zakir Rashid Bhat alias Zakir Musa swore allegiance to the al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and announced that he wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate, he pitted himself against the separatist leadership.
The Hizb fielded Naikoo as its face with the instruction that he keep its ranks intact because a split seemed inevitable after Zakir Musa’s decision to part ways.
Naikoo began uploading photographs of militant recruits on social media and began the practice of offering gun salutes to militants killed in gunbattles.