On December 22, six militants were killed in a gunfight with the security forces in Arampora village of South Kashmir’s Tral. All belonged to Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, which started life in July 2017 and claims to be affiliated to Al Qaeda.

The gunfight turned the focus back on the shadowy group formed by Zakir Rashid Bhat, popularly known as Zakir Musa, after he rebelled against Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest indigenous militant organisation in Kashmir. According to police officials, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind’s strength has hovered around 10 to 12 militants since its inception. The December 22 killings are the biggest blow to its ranks so far. The police estimate that the group is now reduced to just four militants, including Musa. But they are not writing it off just yet. “When Zakir Musa is still alive, how can we say the group has been wiped off?” asked Munir Khan, additional director general of police.

Breaking with the Hizb

Musa, whose name is today often chanted at militant funerals and protests, is one of Kashmir’s best-known militants since Burhan Wani, the Hizb commander killed by the security forces in 2016. Before Wani’s killing, the two were believed to be close associates. In May 2017, Musa caused a stir in the Valley with an audio message in which he threatened to behead separatist leaders of the Hurriyat for calling Kashmir’s war a political struggle instead of a religious one. He had taken up arms, Musa said, not to create a secular state but to implement sharia, or Islamic law, once Kashmir was free of India. “I will not fight for Azadi for a secular state,” he declared. “I will fight for Azadi for Islam, for the establishment of an Islamic state. Not only in Kashmir but in India and Pakistan too.”

Soon afterwards, Musa broke away from the Hizb, which had called his statement “unacceptable”. Nearly two months after the audio message went viral, the Global Islamic Media Front, Al Qaeda’s official propaganda channel, released a “statement of establishment”. It announced: “After the martyrdom of heroic Mujahid Burhan Wani, the jihad in Kashmir has entered 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, and through jihad, and with the aid of Allah only, we will liberate our homeland Kashmir.”

The new group, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, was to be headed by Musa. It caused a flurry of speculation in the Indian media. Was the separatist movement in Kashmir moving away from its old political aspirations?

Since it exploded in 1989, the militancy in Kashmir had developed several ideological strands, from the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which claimed to fight for an independent secular state, to the pro-Pakistan Hizb and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which spoke of an Islamic state spanning South Asia. With the establishment of Musa’s group, intelligence agencies reportedly warned of a “parallel, resurgent narrative of terrorism” that was gaining ground, propelled by Islamism rather than the old demand for self-determination.

After his split with the Hizb in 2017, Musa began to fashion himself differently. Initially, the civil engineering student who had dropped out of his college in Chandigarh to join the Hizb in 2013 appeared in several posters with Wani, wearing military fatigues and and brandishing weapons. Now, pictures on social media show him wearing a long cloak, holding a staff and wearing a pakol cap, inviting comparisons with the slain Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. In recent months, there have been rumours of Musa being spotted in various cities across Punjab. What has upped his profile on the security radar is a series of arrests of Kashmiri students in Punjab for their alleged links to Musa.

The hideout where the six militants took shelter before the gunfight on December 22. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

Base of operations

In Kashmir, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind’s rhetoric does not seem to have translated into practice. Like Wani before him, Musa is from Tral, a region of orchards bordered by the Dachigam forests, giving way to mountains. Musa was born in the sleepy village of Noorpora. Like Wani, Musa’s influence seems to have spread largely through local networks.

All six militants killed on December 22 belonged to Tral, four of them from the village of Dadsara. Among the group’s four surviving militants, two are from Tral. “Most of AGH’s cadre has come from Tral because it’s Zakir’s hometown,” said Mohammad Zahid Malik, superintendent of police, Awantipora. “He has a good hold in this area and earlier he remained a top commander of Hizbul Mujahideen so he has his own contact and his own network intact from that outfit.”

According to police records, the group’s activities have largely been restricted to a few bank robberies in South Kashmir and a grenade blast in Tral. “Their pattern is different,” Malik explained. “They were in the process of setting up bases first. Once they were established, they were planning to go for big attacks. But we have taken out a good number of them before that. I think their capability is greatly reduced now.”

Another senior police official in South Kashmir said the group is still in its “infancy” so far as its operational capacities go. “As compared to other militant groups, AGH is not much organised,” he said. “Till now, it doesn’t have a proper chain of command or supply of logistics. They don’t have weapons or the means to get them like Hizbul Mujahideen or Lashkar-e-Taiba have.” This dearth of weapons showed in the Arampora gunfight as well. The police and local residents said that out of six militants, only three carried weapons, two AK-47 rifles and one pistol.

How substantial is the group’s affiliation with Al Qaeda? “As far as their audios, videos and utterances are concerned, they are like those of Al Qaeda and global jihad,” Malik said. “But we haven’t been able to find any direct link between them.”

‘Fight against India’

Relatives of militants who have joined Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind give out the old reason for youth taking up arms in the Valley: to fight the excesses of the security forces. It is the same reason quoted by families of Hizb and local Lashkar militants as well.

“My son could not tolerate the abuse and harassment meted out to Kashmiri women by Indian forces,” said Jan Mohammad Akhoon, father of Sauliha Akhoon, one of the militants killed on December 22. “Otherwise, he was like any other teenager occupied by his studies.”

Sauliha Akhoon, 21, was the deputy chief of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind. He had joined the Hizb in March 2015 and switched to the new group in 2017. It is easy to find his house in Arampora village: photocopied images showing him wielding a gun, in the company of other militants, and banners of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind hang outside.

“India is fooling the world and its people by claiming that our young generation is picking up arms due to the lack of jobs, infrastructure and development,” said Jan Akhoon, a government employee. “They are fighting for dignity and freedom.”

In Dadsara, the family of Umar Ramzan Mir, 18, blames the state police for pushing their son towards militancy. In November, the Punjab police arrested two Kashmiri students allegedly associated with Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, charging them with involvement in a grenade blast at the Maqsudan police station in Jalandhar two months earlier. The police also named two other Kashmiris, but said they were absconding. They were Umar Ramzan Mir and his childhood friend, Rouf Mir.

“In his life, Umar never went outside Kashmir,” said his father Mohammad Ramzan Mir. “How was it possible for a person like him to go to Punjab and carry out attacks? When we went to our local police station in Awantipora, we were told that they can’t do anything as the case has been taken over by the National Investigation Agency. We feared our son will rot in some jail for his entire life. We had no one to go to save our son.”

After their names appeared in media reports, Umar Mir and Rouf Mir disappeared. Their families thought they had gone into hiding to evade arrest. “Until we saw him during the funeral of a local militant giving a gun salute, we had no idea that he had joined militant ranks,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, Umar Mir’s uncle. “Shouldn’t our police be held responsible for it? This is how you create militancy. First you accuse them of crimes and then you wash your hands of them. What option did Umar really have to save himself?”

Umar Mir and Rouf Mir were both killed in the Arampora gunfight. “Their fates were interlinked since childhood,” Mushtaq Ahmad said. “They left together, and returned as martyrs on the same day.”

Ask about an ideological divide between the militant groups operating in Tral and it elicits stern looks. “The objective is the same: the end of Indian military occupation,” retorted Jan Akhoon. “It’s not right for me to say why my son choose a different group because I am not on the ground. But all of them are fighting against injustice and to implement Islam in Kashmir. They are brothers.”

In Dadsara, the families of the four slain militants speak in the same vein. “Yes, Umar was part of a different militant group, but it does not mean that those in other groups were his enemies,” said his cousin Shahnawaz Ahmad. “As long as the enemy is same, the ideological differences don’t matter.”

Umar Ramzan Mir, left, and Rouf Mir were childhood friends and died in the same gunfight.

A closing divide?

The name Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind is rooted in a Hadith, or saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad, in which he prophesied the Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent before the end of time. This would be instrumental to the creation of a vast caliphate similar to that which existed during Islam’s early period, the prophecy goes. There are multiple interpretations of the Hadith as well as questions about its authenticity. Still, according to some analysts, the prophecy has long been a part of the rhetoric used to incite militant groups to battle. But the Hizb began life in the early 1990s with the primary aim of merging Kashmir with Pakistan rather than fighting a distant religious battle.

In Tral, there are theories galore about why Musa fell out with the Hizb, not all of them ideological. He was to succeed Wani as the Hizb commander but the group’s leadership went to Yaseen Itoo, alias Mehmood Ghaznavi. Musa wanted to end the alleged influence of the Jama’at-e-Islami, a socioreligious organisation preaching political Islam, on militancy in Kashmir. Musa is a red herring introduced by Indian security agencies, bent on portraying the Kashmir conflict as part of the global jihad. Almost all agree on this: Musa is no longer a fan of Pakistan.

But could the divide between the Hizb and Musa’s group be closing? After the new group came into being last year, the Hizb called it “an Indian intelligence operation” to “divide the Kashmiri nation”. A year and a half later, the criticism has grown muted, even turned to sympathy. After the gunfight on December 22, an old audio message from the Hizb commander Riyaz Naikoo clarifying that his group was not opposed to Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind went viral on social media.

“It is an acknowledgement that the sentiment represented by the AGH is somewhere genuine,” said a PhD scholar from Pulwama who asked not to be identified. “Also, it’s a fact that Zakir has kept a distance from hardcore extremist groups like ISIS, which means he is aware of Kashmir’s realities.”

Around the same time that Musa’s outfit was formed, another group calling itself the Islamic State of Jammu and Kashmir and claiming to have ties with the Islamic State in Syria emerged on social media. The police, however, say the group’s presence in the Valley is marginal, confined to urban pockets, and there is little to prove actual ties to the Islamic State.

Changing realities

For political observers, Musa’s popularity with the Valley’s youth reflects Kashmir’s changing realities. “This kind of thinking was latent even before Burhan Wani,” said Altaf Hussain Nadvi, a columnist and religious scholar from Anantnag. “Until now, martyrdom for a militant meant sacrificing his life for Kashmir to become part of Pakistan because of its Muslim character. A considerable chunk of the youth now challenges this assertion. They are asking if Pakistan could not become an Islamic state 70 years after its creation, why should they lay down their lives for it? What they are asking is whether a jihad to free Kashmir and make it a part of Pakistan or an independent state has religious validity or not.”

The older players in the Kashmir conflict may be losing currency, Nadvi suggested, including Pakistan. “If you observe carefully, even Hizbul Mujahideen’s operational chief, Riyaz Naikoo, has been critical of Pakistan in his audio and video messages lately,” he explained. “Even though he is not doing so openly, anyone can gauge it. Similarly, there has been vocal criticism of the Hurriyat and its strategy after the 2016 Burhan Wani uprising.”

In October, a leaked audio message purportedly featuring Naikoo circulated on social media. “Only Pakistan can represent us on the diplomatic front,” he is heard saying. “But unfortunately, the politicians there have limited the Kashmir issue to elections.”

Nadvi contended that geopolitical factors, such as the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan, would also affect the “tone” of Kashmir’s militancy. “Doesn’t America know that after its exit Taliban will implement sharia law? The fact is America has lost in Afghanistan,” he said. “The echoes of a world power’s defeat at the hands of regular militants will not be confined to Afghanistan.”