Thirty-five-year-old Riyaz Naikoo was Hizbul Mujahideen’s operations commander in Kashmir and carried a bounty of Rs 12 lakh on his head. He was killed on Wednesday in an encounter with security forces in the Beighpora area of Pulwama district. Officials told that mobile internet services have been suspended across Kashmir after the gunfight as a precautionary measure. Phone services are likely to be temporarily disabled.

One of the longest surviving militants, Naikoo had joined Hizbul Mujahideen in May 2012 at the age of 27. Until then, Naikoo, a graduate from Beighpora village of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, worked as a teacher at a private school and also ran a private tuition centre.

The police said that Naikoo was involved in least 10 incidents of violence, from killings to kidnappings. “Naikoo executed a series of attacks on policemen, security forces and civilians,” the police said in a press release. “He resorted to brutal killings of civilians, branding them as police/SF [security forces] informers.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera in November 2018, Naikoo had explained how the killing of his mother’s cousin in 2003 had touched him personally at a young age. Following the 2010 summer uprising, Naikoo was arrested by security agencies for participating in pro-freedom protests. He was released in 2012.

Unlike previous commanders of the Hizbul Mujahideen, such as Burhan Wani and Zakir Rashid Bhat, alias Zakir Musa, Naikoo kept a low profile. Well into his 20s when he took up arms, Naikoo was also older than the average militant in recent years. He went by the code name Mohammad Bin Qasim.

A tenure full of challenges

Naikoo’s stint as operational commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir’s oldest local militant group, is believed to have begun in August 2017, shortly after Musa had distanced himself from the group.

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.

Soon afterwards, Musa broke away from the Hizb, which had called his statement “unacceptable”. About two months after the audio message went viral, the Global Islamic Media Front, Al Qaeda’s official propaganda channel, released a “statement of establishment” for a new group, the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind. It was to be headed by Musa.

The next couple of years would see a power struggle between Musa and Naikoo, with many predicting the Hizbul Mujahideen would be split down the middle by Musa and Naikoo. But while Naikoo tried to keep Kashmir’s militancy away from the discourse of global jihad, he was careful to be measured in his public criticism of Musa.

Many attribute the failure of Musa’s group to recruit large numbers of youth to the lack of support from Pakistan. The Hizbul Mujahideen, in contrast, has traditionally been a pro-Pakistan outfit.

Musa was killed in a gunfight with security forces on May 23, 2019.

Abduction of policemen’s families

In September 2018, Kashmir was rattled by a series of abductions, mostly of relatives of Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel from South Kashmir. The abductions had taken place at a time when Naikoo’s father was detained by the police for questioning.

Many within the police believed they were carried out at Naikoo’s behest, to pressure the police not to round up or question the families of militants. All the abducted family members were released unharmed. But just a week later, then Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police Shesh Paul Vaid was transferred in an overnight order with “immediate effect.”

Audio messages

Naikoo’s signature method of communicating with the public was through audio messages. In some, he explained the nature of the Kashmir militancy. In others, he issued threats against those who proposed to take part in elections.

Naikoo’s last audio message, which surfaced on social media in April, advised people to heed all the guidelines prescribed by health experts to prevent the spread of Covid-19.