Around 4 pm on May 23, security forces closed in on Batpora village in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, closing all entry points. They then narrowed their search to three houses on the edge of the village. The village is part of Dadsara area in Tral sub-district, home to large number of local militants. The forces were looking for the most famous militant currently active in Kashmir, Zakir Rashid Bhat, also known as Zakir Musa.

Nearly two and a half hours after the search operation started, the first shots rang out, triggering a gunfight. As dawn broke on May 24, Musa lay dead outside the house where he was holed up, after a gunfight that had lasted hours.

“According to the police records, Zakir had a long history of terror crime records since 2013. He was initially associated with proscribed terror outfit HM [Hizbul Mujahideen] then he floated new terror outfit Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind,” a statement issued by Jammu and Kashmir police on Friday, said.

‘The second most popular militant’

Over the last couple of years, Musa’s name has been sprayed on walls and shutters across the Kashmir Valley. Young men chant “Musa, Musa” during protests and India-Pakistan cricket matches. His face and voice are familiar from videos and audio clips circulated on social media, and from news reports.

It was a kind of celebrity not seen since Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who had popularised militancy through social media, was killed in July 2016. Both were from Tral, and Musa had once been Wani’s close aide. Indeed, according to many at Musa’s funeral, he was the second most popular militant commander after Burhan Wani.

Scenes of Zakir Miss's funeral on Friday. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

On Friday, thousands of mourners, including women, rushed through the rain to catch a glimpse of Musa at his funeral in Tral’s Noorpora village. Curfew had been announced across the Valley and mobile internet services blocked on Thursday night. But the crowds made their way to Tral on foot.

“I left home at Sehri [the pre-dawn meal eaten by fasting Muslims during Ramzan] to reach here,” said Sair Ahmad, a resident of south Kashmir’s Shopian district. “People liked him because he was on Allah’s path.”

For Musa, it had been a long journey from engineering student to Hizbul Mujahideen commander (appointed as Wani’s successor) to founder of the first Kashmiri group affiliated with al Qaeda.

From engineering to militancy

His first brush with law enforcement agencies came during the summer protests of 2010. According to his family, he was “falsely” booked by police in various stone-pelting cases and was constantly summoned by the police, including the special operations group, the Jammu and Kashmir Police’s counter-insurgency wing.

“He was a very considerate child. Whenever he had to go for court hearings, they used to make him wait the whole day along with his father. Zakir couldn’t tolerate his father’s humiliation he went through by waiting endlessly at the court,” said Shahzada Bano, Musa’s mother, as she sat amid mourners in their three-storeyed house in Noorpora.

Still, Zakir managed to finish school and join an engineering college in Chandigarh. The family said he had chosen engineering so that he could start his own construction company. Then something changed.

“He was in his third semester and was home on vacation,” said Shahzada Bano. “On July 17, 2013, he left a letter for his father describing oppression in Kashmir and the killings of innocents. We knew he was joining militancy. He was just 19 then.”

Few had expected the clean-shaven teenager, who liked to wear trendy clothes and ride his sports bike, would end up among militants hiding in forests.

“He had every luxury in life. What didn’t he have? Yet he chose Allah’s mission. I think Allah gave him to me only to serve his mission,” said his mother.

On Friday morning, when thousands of mourners brought Musa’s body home, she was unable to see him. “He was kept here for just a few minutes and there was a sea of people. I couldn’t see his face for one last time. But I am proud of him,” she said.

The last time she had seen her son, she said, was during the mass protests that followed Wani’s killing in 2016.

The house where Zakir Musa was holed up during the gunfight. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

‘Azadi for Islam’

Wani, who joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2010, had used social media to garner support for a new phase of local militancy in South Kashmir, posting videos and photographs of swaggering young men who posed with guns and wore no masks.

Though Musa did feature in a few viral pictures, he mostly lurked in the shadows during these years.

But then in May 2017, nearly a year after Wani’s killing, Musa released an audio message that caused a stir in the Valley. Separatist leaders of the Hurriyat who called Kashmir’s war a political struggle instead of a religious one would be beheaded, he warned in the message. “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 message went viral, the Global Islamic Media Front, al Qaeda’s official propaganda channel, released a “statement of establishment”. They now had an affiliated group in Kashmir called the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, it claimed. It was headed by Zakir Musa.

The group seemed to signal the entry of a new ideological strand in Kashmiri militancy. In the early years, it had been dominated by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which claimed to fight for an independent secular state. Then came formation of the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen. In the mid-1990s, the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba entered the Valley, speaking of an Islamic state spanning South Asia. The formation of the Ansar Ghazwat-Ul-Hind suggested Kashmir’s militancy was now hitched to the narrative of global jihad.

Battle in the virtual world

Initially, Musa’s group was labelled by the Hizb as “an Indian intelligence operation” to “divide the Kashmiri nation”. Rumour spread that state forces were trying to discredit Kashmir’s fight for self-determination by linking it to global jihad. The militant commander finally turned to social media to spread his message.

By then, a security crackdown had meant that the Hizbul Mujahideen had receded from open forums like Facebook and WhatsApp. As the Hizb receded, the Ansar established a media wing called Al Hurr. Its content was largely restricted to the encrypted instant messaging service, Telegram. It consisted mostly of infographics and text messages, usually invoking clerics who spoke of global jihad or international issues. Occasionally, pictures of Musa, styled rather like Osama bin Laden, would be circulated.

“It helped him to push his ideology in front of people and make them understand his perspective. At the same time, he avoided speaking against other armed groups fighting in Kashmir, which effectively means he acknowledged that not all Kashmiris supported his world view,” explained an academic at a college from South Kashmir, who did not wish to be identified.

As the time passed, the criticism of Musa’s group grew muted. After a gunfight in December 2018 killed six members of the Ansar, an old audio message released by Hizb commander Riyaz Naikoo went viral on social media. It clarified that his group was not opposed to the Ansar, that they were “all fighting for Islam”.

According to Musa’s family, he had finally put to rest all suspicion about his motive. “Even a king is badmouthed by people. Now, he’s has answered all those people with his martyrdom,” said a cousin who did not want to be identified.

The spot where Zakir Musa fell after being hit by bullets during the encounter. Photo credit: Safwat Zargar

‘Not the last Zakir Musa’

But while Musa’s presence on social media proliferated, the group did not appear to worry security forces much.

Police officials point to the group’s failure to carry out any “high-profile attack”. That was because it lacked an “organised structure of over ground workers” and “support from Pakistan”, said a senior police in south Kashmir. The group’s membership since its inception, they say, has hardly been above a dozen men. With Musa’s death, police officials say, the group is left with just two or three members.

Wani’s killing had triggered spontaneous protests across the Valley. It locked the Valley into months of shutdowns, protests and deaths. Musa’s death was met with a more muted response. While a few localised protests broke out, they were not widespread.

Sair Ahmad, who was attending the funeral, offered an explanation why. “Burhan died at a time when encounters and civilian killings at gunfight spots were not so frequent,” he said. “Nobody had anticipated what his killing would lead to. But Zakir’s killing came at a time when the death of militants is a daily occurrence. Hardly a day passes without a death. Also, the government was quick to impose curfew and prevent people from reaching Tral. They were able to manage it. Things could have worsened if there had been civilian casualties.”

But the Valley has not seen the last of militants who capture the popular imagination, he feels “Now after his death, Allah will give his traits to some other boy. He’s not the last Zakir Musa,” Ahmad said.