In 2015, a photograph of 11 Kashmiri militants appeared on social media. It signalled the emergence of a new brand of militancy in the Valley, spearheaded by Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. These militants dropped their masks and revealed their identities. More than actual armed attacks, this group of militants unleashed a volley of selfies and videos online. Through social media, they became well-known figures, immensely popular across the Valley.

Security officials credit the unrest of 2016, triggered by Wani’s death in an encounter on July 8 last year, to the use of social media. They suspect that “directions for such videos to be made and circulated have come from higher organisational levels”.

After an encounter in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district on October 14, only two of the 11 militants in that photograph remain. Two militants were killed in that encounter and a civilian was shot dead later that morning in clashes between security forces and stone pelters. One of the militants killed was 23-year-old Waseem Shah, Shopian district commander for the Lashkar-e-Taiba and one of the militants in the photograph. Shah had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in March 2014, before switching to the Lashkar.

Social media once gave militancy a boost. It is now being blamed for setbacks. Sometime in August, Riyaz Naikoo, the “field operational commander” of the Hizbul Mujahideen, reportedly issued a diktat to its militants to give up the use of smartphones. With the men in the photograph being killed one by one, a certain phase of social media-fuelled militancy seems to be receding.

Nine of the 11 militants in this 2015 photograph are dead. Burhan Wani (centre, circled) was killed in July last year. Wasim Shah (top row, centre) was killed on October 14.

Out of the shadows

When Shah joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2014, it gave the people of his native village, Heff in Shopian district, a sense of intimacy with militancy that they had not felt before. Here was a local face whose deeds they knew and admired.

Just as social media revealed militants to the public, it also brought their supporters out of the shadows.

“Earlier sympathisers would also try to remain anonymous,” said a young post graduate from Shah’s village. “But when we saw them revealing their identities on social media, we also came out in the open. We came to know who our heroes were.” Social media had served its purpose and was no longer needed, he added.

“Today every Kashmiri is a militant, whether he has a gun or not,” said another young man in Heff. “Our hearts are black and turned to stone looking at what India does to us.”

Here in South Kashmir, the epicentre of 2016’s unrest and the crucible of the new local militancy, residents welcome the Hizbul’s move to give up social media. Farooq Ahmad Shah, a Hurriyat activist in Kulgam, said that the move to abandon social media had its drawbacks but was the “need of the hour” as the Army had set up camps in areas from where videos are believed to have emerged.

“It will cut their contact with people but we will return to what we used to do before social media,” he said. “We will use the way of sermons and personal contact. When Burhan used it, there definitely was a strategy and a need for it. He has created a base which will go on for years now even if social media is gone.”

A 16-year-old from Kulgam illustrated the point. He admitted that he never missed an opportunity to pelt stones at security forces, sometimes travelling from Kulgam to Srinagar’s stonepelting hotspot, the Jamia Masjid in Nowhatta.

Afzal* said that militant videos inspired him. “Seeing that boys like Zakir Musa come from rich families and still give up their lives…If I had another brother, I would have joined [militancy],” he said. The “boys are in touch” with militant sympathisers, he added.

“…[A]ll upper ground workers [also known as overground workers, or non-combatant members of militant groups] know the boys in their area”, he said, adding that the impetus for stone pelting did not depend on social media any more.

But the relative of a Kulgam militant who was killed last year called the retreat from social media a “double-edged sword”. He said it would protect militants but also cause confusion among people. “There were militants even a decade ago but there was an alienation,” he said. “The concept of heroism was revived and people began to love militants. Now the intimacy will be gone. The excitement among youth has already gone down. People are now not so active in stone pelting as before.”

Damage control

This year, the state’s crackdown on militants saw a string of encounters. Of the 160 militants being killed so far, 142 were killed till August. Of these, 12 were prominent militant commanders. For now Naikoo is the sole face of the Hizbul, the largest of at least five armed groups operating in the Valley.

After the diktat to Hizbul fighters to stay away from smartphones, Naikoo released another audio statement in October, announcing this time that militants had curtailed their movements, making it difficult for security forces to trace them.

The circulation of militancy propaganda has gone down and various militant groups have now narrowed the focus of their propaganda videos largely to issuing statements and videos targeted at potential militants, laying out the do’s and don’ts of handling weapons. One such self-help video has been viewed more than 90,000 times on Facebook.

Groups outside the Hizbul Mujahideen have also become more active recently. Some videos have been released in the name of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, reportedly recorded in training camps across the border.

Another presence that has emerged over the last few months is a new group launched by Zakir Musa, who left the Hizbul Mujahideen to form the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, believed to be affiliated to Al Qaeda. As the Hizbul Mujahideen retreats from social media, the Ansar has become more active.

But the Ansar’s social media presence is different from that of local militant groups, both in style and content. Typical Hizbul Mujahideen videos would be centred on the charismatic Wani, clad in fatigues and a T-shirt, delivering speeches, or feature footage of militants playing cricket or eating. These captivated audiences in a region where internet usage is above the national average, with rural users outnumbering the urban.

Social media groups believed to be run by the Ansar’s media arm, Al-Hurr, release infographics and textual messages intermittently. These respond to events in the Valley, but they invoke clerics who speak of global jihad and issues that transcend the boundaries of the Valley or even India.

The content is still largely restricted to the encrypted instant messaging app, Telegram. In photographs released after the launch of Ansar, Musa can be seen holding a staff, wearing a turban and staring into the distance, imagery reminiscent of posters featuring Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

An infographic circulated on social messaging application Telegram by Al-Hurr, the media arm of the militant group Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind.

Sparring between militants

In his lifetime, Wani had been the centre of gravity for the new militancy in the Valley, and kept a firm grip on the Hizbul’s public relations. Under Wani, the social media presence of militants pointed to a unity between the two main groups, the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. After Wani’s death, militancy in the Valley has not found another unifying figure, and different areas of the Valley have now shifted their loyalties to more local militants. With the emergence of other groups, social media has often been the site of public sparring between militant organisations.

Perhaps the first sign of friction came a month after Wani’s killing in July 2016. Zakir Musa, then a commander in the Hizbul Mujahideen, released a video in mid-August. He spoke of the separatist movement as “Tehreek-i-Islami”, an Islamic movement, skipping words like azadi or freedom and any mention of Pakistan though the Hizbul has traditionally been pro-Pakistan. This year, the differences intensified.

Musa, once Wani’s companion, threatened to behead separatist leaders who spoke of a secular freedom movement. He ultimately broke away from the Hizbul. His group, the Ansar, distanced itself from Pakistan and its flag and asked Kashmiris to only wave black flags.

At a slain militant’s funeral in July, Naikoo openly targeted Musa. “Pakistan’s flag is our flag,” he said. “Linking our struggle with Al Qaeda and ISIS [the Islamic State] is a ploy to defame it.”

Naikoo also railed against those “who oppose Pakistani flag and our freedom struggle from India”. Later in August, the Hizbul issued a statement declaring that Musa’s group had been created to divide Kashmiris. “We will issue a detailed statement in this regard and will also expose the elements behind this conspiracy,” it said.

In September, Naikoo struck a more conciliatory note. He issued an audio statement calling Musa his brother, saying that anti-Musa posters plastered in Shopian in mid-September was the work of Indian informers. Their mission was the same, Naikoo said.

Musa’s group refrained from attacking members of other militant outfits but has targeted the “so-called godfathers of Jihad” based in Pakistan. In a statement released on Telegram for Bakri Eid, which fell on September 1, Musa eulogised Hizbul militants, including its recently slain commander, Yasin Yatoo, who, according to supporters and security officials, was opposed to Musa’s ideology.

Then on October 19, as the Hurriyat met in Srinagar, the United Jihad Council issued a statement asking Kashmiris to be cautious of Musa. In a statement to the news agency, CNS, Syed Sadakat Hussain, the council’s spokesperson, alleged that a “new Ikhwan” was being created “using the façade of Zakir Musa” and Al-Qaeda. “Indian paid agents are being recruited for this brigade. They are being hailed by Indian media and impression given is these paid agents are the real hero of Kashmiri struggle,” Sadakat said.

Another passing phase?

On the ground, the response to Musa has been varied. In parts of South Kashmir dominated by the socio-political organisation, Jama’at-e-Islami, local residents frequently say Musa’s presence is “fitna” or mischief, an attempt to deliberately cause a split in separatist ranks. Yet, videos of protests and militants’ funerals almost always show young men and women shouting Musa’s name in unison, sometimes waving black flags.

The residents of Heff said they supported Musa and the Hizbul alike as “both were against India”. But in Kulgam, residents fear the fallout of this ideological rift. “The Jamaat is against him [Musa], here it is said that he should be killed,” a shopkeeper in Kulgam’s Bugam village said. “If we support one group, the other will be after us. Whichever side we take, sooner or later we will still be at the receiving end. Then there are the forces, too.”

Meanwhile, the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad is said to be gaining ground in the area. Residents living in the boundaries of Shopian and Kulgam districts said a large number of Jaish gunmen had been showing up in their villages.

Another Hurriyat activist in Kulgam said that the present confusion would not have a lasting impact. “There is a state crackdown right now and militants are restricted,” he said. “But when the elections are to be done and the state can’t afford a full crackdown because people have to come out to vote, that is when the real trouble will begin.”