descended on the Kashmir Valley on August 4, 2019, a deluge of messages flooded
into a newly formed Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) chat room.
previous year-old official chat room had been abandoned a couple of months
earlier. Handles were put on delete mode. Operation time was closing in and
protocol demanded a fresh new channel to weed out double agents and informers.
messages included last-minute instructions, updates about Indian troop and
materiel movements, circulation of sat-link files and manuals of offline
communication; heartfelt goodbyes to comrades, and reminders to take the time
to read the ebooks being shared; and of course, some caustic jokes about
mainstream Kashmiri politicians who’d been jailed by the Indian government.
them sat the aforementioned quote from the group’s founder, Zakir Rashid Bhat
a.k.a. Zakir Musa.
embodies everything that’s changed in the jihadist tendencies of the Indian
subcontinent. And it foretells how the bloodletting will remain unaffected in
the Indian theater, despite the killings of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr-al
Baghdadi and his spokesperson Al-Muhajir by the United States late last month.
South Asia is witnessing the emergence of a new brand of terrorism.
Unencumbered by the strings of foreign state influence, or the weight of
partisan politics and regional status quos, the new jihadists of the Islamic
State era are driven by a unifying dream that transcends individual leaders.
they are in the immediate issues of local politics, building as they may be on
the fertile soil of long-festering discontent and systematic persecution,
they’re actively connecting local issues to global ones and building a platform
that goes beyond the old demarcations of territorial fiefdoms followed by older
life as a professional Jihadi and in death as a rebel martyr, Musa played by
the rules of this new game: fluid allegiances and stubborn refusal to let any
nation-state dictate the agenda of building the grandest state of them all —
the global Islamic State — the Caliphate.
“home-grown” Indian Islamist, he was born Zakir Rashid Bhat in Noorpora in
South Kashmir. He lived and studied in the state through high school. Then, like
innumerable young Indian men from middle-class families, he gained admission to
a private engineering college in 2011-12 — the Ram Dev Jindal College in
straitjackets didn’t suit him well. Dropping out barely a year from admission,
he returned home to Kashmir and “disappeared.”
resurfaced though — dressed in fatigues and as a member of the
Pakistan-sponsored Hizbul Mujahideen group led by veteran Kashmiri
jihadi Syed Mohammed Yusuf Shah, aka Sayeed Salahuddeen.
bravado, eloquence, and dashing looks, plus the killing of his predecessor
Burhan Wani, led him to become commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen in
2016 — less than three years after joining the outfit full time.
being part of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Wani, Musa, and a bulk of the
Kashmiri jihadists who made up the post-2010 generation had serious differences
with the older generation. They refused to let the quest for an independent
Islamist Kashmir be bogged down by quotidian Indo-Pak politics.
younger generation of jihadis, Kashmir and its struggle for independence would
be led by sharia and not Kashmiri nationalism which, for them, was a failed
summer of 2017, Musa released a video calling for the beheading of the leaders
of the Hurriyat Conference. Blaming them and their status quo politics for
stalling the implementation of sharia in Kashmir, he said: “I warn them
(Hurriyat leaders). Do not play politics. If you become thorns in our path,
we’ll kill you before the infidels. We will behead you and hang you in Lal
even the slightest strains of separation of religion and statecraft, he asked
of the Hurriyat: “Why do you use our mosques for politics? Why use the holy
pulpit to talk about your political struggles? Why come to the funeral of Mujahids?
We are done with your hypocrisy.”
hours of the video’s release, Saleem Hashmi, Hizbul Mujahideen’s
spokesman, distanced the organization from Musa.
Musa hit back, saying: “If [the] Hizbul Mujahideen does not represent
me, I also do not represent the Hizbul Mujahideen.”
turned to the Taliban and praised them for putting sharia before nationalism.
[Kashmiris] fight — whether with guns or rocks, the fight should be for Islam
and not nationalism,” he said in another video.
distanced himself from the Pakistani State, too, and declared the Pakistani
flag un-Islamic (for staining the green Islamic flag with a white patch).
Sharia in Kashmir. Neither do we fight for Pakistan nor do we fight for any
organization. We fight for Islam. And I ask you to chant slogans of the Taliban
because like us, the Taliban too want sharia in Pakistan. We should love the
Taliban,” he said.
separation from Pakistan and Pakistan-based groups made clear, Musa and his
close-knit team announced to the world on December 7, 2017, that they were now
the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) and part of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent
their struggles for survival in Afghanistan and North Pakistan, the Taliban
were in no position to lend any real help. In fact, despite the famous November
2018 speech by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri titled “Don’t Forget Kashmir,”
AQIS hadn’t been able to independently set a foothold in the region. The
Pakistan-based groups continued to hold a monopoly.
news emerged that, threatened with destruction at the hands of the Islamic
State, the Taliban had opened back-channel talks with Americans, Russians, and
Indians — a fact corroborated publicly by Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat
himself in January 2019 during the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi.
weeks after announcing the formation of the AGH and calling it a part of AQIS,
Musa released what was to be one of his last videos.
AGH one with the cause of the Islamic State. He said that in Kashmir they dream
of building the Wilayat Kashmir — contiguous with Wilayat Khurasan in
Ya Shahadat,” the members of AGH shouted in unison — Sharia or death.
evening of May 23, 2019, a small team picked from three Indian state forces
zeroed in on the house of a chemist in a small village called Dadsara. The
Indian forces intended to capture Musa alive, but negotiations mediated by the
chemist failed and Musa refused to surrender.
fell, gunfire echoed in the darkness and through the night.
forces ended the stalemate early next morning, by firing several rounds of
under-barrel grenades from their retrofitted, standard-issue INSAS and AK-47s,
reducing the small house to a pile of rubble, and burying the founder of the
Death Is Inconsequential
U.S. President Donald Trump would months later gloat about the successful
killing of al-Baghdadi, the Modi regime hailed its May killing of Musa as a
death blow to terrorists in Kashmir.
by pro-Modi Indian news outlets and fanatical online followers, Musa’s death
was being claimed as a victory on the other side too — a moral one.
hours of the news of his killing spreading, Zakir Musa was named a Sheikh and
resurrected as a prophetic warrior who now shone like a lodestar for those
walking the path of jihad.
channels were flooded with his photos and quotes. Vows to fight and die for
Islam as Musa had done came from young men, and pledges of ribaat (support for Mujahideen
fighters) from the older ones.
grandstanding by mainstream political leaders seeking to reap electoral
benefits aside, just like the killing of the Islamic State’s founder Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi in 2006 and Osama bin Laden’s in 2011, Musa’s killing in 2019 did
little to halt the operation of his organization.
al-Baghdadi’s killing won’t dent the Islamic State’s work or influence —
especially not in the Indian subcontinent, where Islamist polarization is at an
Kashmiri outfits in the 1990s — Pakistan-trained and sponsored groups like
Lashkar-e-Taiba — contemporary terrorist networks in the Maldives, Sri Lanka,
Bangladesh, and India don’t depend on foreign funds or training. Individuals in
these networks buy into the dream of a global Islamic State-run by Sharia — a
utopia of universal Muslim brotherhood peddled by the Zarqawis and the
al-Baghdadis of the world. Funds, materiel, and men are all sourced locally.
Islamic State is not an organization — it’s a network,” explained Jayant
Umranikar. Umranikar served as an overseas agent for India’s foreign
intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) for 22 years,
including a long stint in Pakistan during the heyday of Pakistan-sponsored
Kashmiri jihad and the Khalistani separatist movement.
crush an organization by killing off key members,” he said about the Islamic
State. “But how do you kill a network? You don’t destroy such a flat and
distributed setup by killing individual leaders here and there. Not even the
progress of Musa’s AGH is a case in point. Despite burning their bridges with Pakistan,
the Hurriyat Conference, and other power players in Jammu and Kashmir, and
despite the killing of their founder in May, AGH is today Kashmir’s best
organized militant group. With the Pakistani state under financial duress and
increased pressure from the West, state-supported groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba
and Jaish-e-Mohammad have all but been wiped out in Kashmir and groups like AGH
are filling the vacuum.
“We are not
what we used to be,” explained Aslam Majid*.
former officer of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), began his
career as a deputy in the Karachi range and was in charge of keeping tabs on
local politics. Now living in retirement in the United States, he rose through
the ranks of the organization and was assigned the role of liaising with
Kashmir-focused outfits — chief among them the Hizbul Mujahideen.
perfect — no intel agency is,” Majid continued. “[The] Indians had moles in our
outfit, and they often did preempt cross-border movements. But we had the budget,
and Kashmiris in Indian-occupied territory had real grievances. So we always
had more than enough supply of young men willing to martyr themselves for the
Kashmiri cause. But they needed training and some funds. And all we had to do
was provide those. It worked well. And hordes of Kashmiris from the Pakistan
side crossed into the Indian side — more than what the Indians could handle.
partly because of the economic slowdown, and mainly because of a crop of
corrupt officers who are busy lining their own pockets, there just isn’t enough
money to train irregulars. Why irregulars? There isn’t even enough money for
the welfare of regular officers, I’d say!”
changed and so has militancy — whether in Kashmir or elsewhere,” said
celebrated military scientist Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, one of the foremost experts
on the Pakistani military establishment, speaking to The Diplomat in an
interview from London.
state actors and non-state actors. And there are those who are in the middle.
Ones with semi-legitimate existence,” she said, speaking of outfits like the
Lashkar-e-Taiba. “Their work is in many ways circumscribed by establishment
agenda. But the young lot is restive. And also pragmatic hence the emergence of
these new groups that would rather align with the Islamic State than with the
Not only is
AGH the largest and most active group in the Kashmir Valley today, but it has
also evolved to truly flourish in a changing environment. The absence of
leaders who hog all the limelight all the time and centralize all decision
making makes the cadres more autonomous. Members work in constantly changing
cells and groups. And the line between a member and a sympathizer is a blurred
one. This helps people work from where they are and chip in with whatever skill
or access they have. Moreover, this loose nature of association helps
individuals stay anonymous and thereby conduct better intelligence gathering.
the “surprise” disconnection of the internet and abrogation of Article 370 and
35A was announced by India, AGH agents and informers responsible for different
beats began compiling intelligence into the common group chat.
strongest proof of their preparedness came at six minutes past nine on the
night of August 4.
configuration file for the satellite links they would use to dodge the
impending internet blockage was shared. Immediately after, instructions were
sent out to install FireChat — a messaging service that uses near-field
communication and not the internet.
follow infographics about hardening Android phones, making and installing bots,
and surveillance self-defence “how-tos” were already abundant within the group.
Just before logging off, reminders were sent to review such manuals.
of activity in advance of the internet blockage on August 5 demonstrates two
key points: First, the AGH was not only prepared but had managed to infiltrate
some key parts of the Indian state machinery beyond Kashmir; second, the AGH is
capable of fighting a new kind of war in this era of new technology without
explicit support from the Pakistani military — and with little more than
smartphones and open source tools.
South Asia, the stories of the rise of the broader Islamic State network aren’t
all that different.
aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo, the Sri Lankan government
claimed there was a clear foreign hand at play. They haven’t presented evidence
to back that claim. Independent investigations by this reporter showed that the
C4 charges, communication systems, training, logistics, funding, and everything
else was essentially home-grown.
in Bangladesh, except Tamim Chowdhary who was little more than an organizer,
none of those who carried out the massacre at Holey Artisan or built suicide
squads had ever received any direct training or financial aid from the Islamic
State in Iraq and Syria.
Maldives — the South Asian country with the highest number of Mujahideen
volunteers who travelled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq —
sympathizers built their Islamic State network with no direct intervention from
the Shura council in Mosul.
these groups had from the central Islamic State was an ideological framework
and a dream — one shared by the new jihadists of South Asia — of a utopian
Islamic Caliphate that transcends boundaries drawn by secular, Western
creations like nation-states.
Even in the
United States and Europe, the overwhelming majority of people alleged to be
members of the Islamic State, or having travelled or attempted to travel to
Syria, were all “inspired.”
“inspiration” model has far outlived the Islamic State’s founder Zarqawi. And
it will outlive al-Baghdadi and his successors.
the United States released unflattering videos that depicted Zarqawi as far
from a tough guy, fumbling with an AK-47, little changed. Even after his
spectacular assassination, hordes of foreign fighters joined the war in Syria
modern jihadist, the dream of the Islamic State and its promised land is larger
than its supremo.
Islamic State proffers is not just a promised land like innumerable prophets
and cults have in history. There is also a more immediate gratification on
offer — visibility, adulation, and acceptance.
the longest time, the Pakistanis and Arabs looked at the Bengalis with mistrust
and contempt,” explained Probir Bagchi*.
adviser with the National Security Advisory Board of India, Bagchi worked as a
liaison between the Indian and Bangladeshi governments and was a keeper of back
channels with Bengali Mujahideen fighters.
Mujahids, for example, may have volunteered to fight in the Afghan war against
the Soviets. They may have tied up with Pak-based or ISI-sponsored outfits.
Some have even worked under bin Laden’s al-Qaeda regime. But the Organization
of Islamic States never forgave the Bengalis for breaking up an Islamic
nation-state in 1971.
historical stigma has made them the lower caste among the global jihadist
movement. Claiming to be part of the Islamic State is like graduating to being
Brahmins in the world of global jihad.”
the allegory may be, the truth is coarser still and not even allegorical.
State’s founder, Zarqawi, had to overcome two major social handicaps. He did
not have a pedigree with major value and he was Jordanian — a country which has
long been seen as a bastard nation by jihadists, created to drive a wedge in
the Islamic world.
the nobody, had to earn his recognition through bloody excess when the world’s
attention was focused on Osama bin Laden, the multi-billionaire Saudi.
worldwide unity and brotherhood notwithstanding, next to no Bangladeshi,
Maldivian, or southern Indian Muslim has ever come close to leadership
positions through the decades of jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The
relegation of darker-skinned Muslims to menial jobs, while the sheikhs rolled
in wealth and power, remained unbroken in both mainstream civilian-political life,
even though Islam doesn’t formally recognize castes, Muslims in South Asia are
not far removed from the caste hierarchies that afflict Hinduism and other
faiths in the region. Through the 1980s and ’90s, as petrodollar capitalism burgeoned
and remittances grew, feudal hierarchies consolidated into new wealth,
privilege, and positions of power.
As a result
in South Asia, both in mainstream political parties or in jihadist and
extremist groups, caste, class, and lineage still determine whether or not a
member rises to the top.
longest time, it’s been an unwritten policy in the ISI that no one of Bengali
or Indian origin is to rise to the top,” explained Bagchi. “Even Kashmiris —
whether from the Indian side or the other — are kept to militant groups and
used as cannon fodder. Positions of power are exclusively for the purer Punjabi
and Sindhi bloodlines.”
international level, acting as the chief liaison between the rich Arab world
and poor South Asians, Pakistan’s elite became the gatekeeper of jihad in South
Asia. And they had the monopoly to decide who got how much funding and who rose
to jihadi stardom and who history forgot.
Islamic State Ruined That Monopoly.
Chowdhary was a Bengali-Canadian. He went to Syria, pledged allegiance to
al-Baghdadi, and then took charge of operations in Dhaka. He needed no
Pakistani, Saudi or any other nation-state’s approval to be called the Emir of
forged his teams by both recruiting fresh young men who, like Zarqawi and Musa,
were nobodies and aspired to jihadi stardom. He poached freely from the ranks
of older Pakistan and al-Qaeda aligned groups that had been left to wilt.
noteworthy at a time when the elites of the world — from the United States to
Europe to India — are pumping xenophobia into everyday political rhetoric, a
time when establishment politicians are devising new ways of keeping migrants
out — from walls on the U.S.-Mexico border to sprawling detention centers in
India, on to zero refugee policies in the rich Islamic sultanates of the Middle
East. The Islamic State under al-Baghdadi made Abu Hassan al-Muhajir — meaning
Abu Hassan “the migrant” — their spokesperson and named him an honorary sheikh.
of the apparent egalitarianism of the Islamic State, which has opened its doors
to Muslims everywhere, is all the more attractive set next to a bevvy of closed
At the time
of this article going to press, the Islamic State’s official channels named
both a new Caliph and a new spokesperson — Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi
and Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi respectively.
rousing inaugural speech, the new spokesperson says: “There is no reason for
the apostates and infidels to celebrate…the Mujahideen from East and
West are rising against the tyrants of both the Arab and the non-Arab world…”
hours of the speech and the text coming out, it’s been translated to Urdu,
Hindi, Bangla, and Tamil and broadcast to language-specific group chats.
Headline: Islamic State Is Alive and Well in South Asia
Source: The Diplomat