Al-Qaeda Joins the Kashmir Conflict; Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 22

Militancy in Kashmir took on another complicating dimension on July 26, when al-Qaeda announced its entry into the strife-torn Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. In a statement issued by the Global Islamic Media Front, al-Qaeda’s propaganda wing, Zakir Rashid Bhat (a.k.a. Zakir Musa) was announced as head of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), the group’s affiliate in Kashmir (Kashmir Monitor, July 27).

India’s security establishment is concerned, ranking Musa at the top of its list of the five most-wanted terrorists in the Kashmir Valley (NDTV, October 5). However, whether AGH has real long-term prospects is an open question. Emerging as a result of a split in the Hizbul Mujahideen, a predominantly Kashmiri militant group active in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990, AGH has been strongly critical of the Pakistani government, which fuels much of the militancy in Kashmir. Without Pakistani support, the group may find that it struggles within the already crowded landscape of Kashmiri militancy.

Ideological Differences

Musa joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2013. A dropout engineering student, he rose through the ranks of the group. In July last year, he succeeded Burhan Wani as the group’s commander in South Kashmir after Wani was shot dead by Indian security forces (Militant Leadership Monitor, July 2). However, Musa’s views are more aligned with pan-Islamist jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) than with the Kashmir-centric and pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen, an official in India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) said. [1] Over the past year, his statements have laid bare the extent of his differences with the traditional ideological positions of Kashmiri political separatists and militants.

In a video released in March, rather than calling for Kashmiris to fight for freedom from India, he exhorted them to fight for the “supremacy of Islam so that sharia is enforced [there].” According to Musa, nationalism and democracy are forbidden by Islam (Kashmir Monitor, March 15).

When the Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella grouping of pro-Pakistan Kashmiri separatist organizations, issued a statement describing the Kashmiri movement as a political movement and an indigenous struggle that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda and IS, Musa responded by describing “Kashmir’s war” as “an Islamic struggle” that was “only to enforce sharia.” He went on to warn Hurriyat leaders that they risked being beheaded if they continued to be a “thorn” and obstruct the formation of an Islamic state in Kashmir (Hindustan Times, May 9; Greater Kashmir, May 12).

The response from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, where the Hizbul Mujahideen leadership is based, was swift. The United Jihad Council, a conglomerate of pro-Pakistan militant organizations, dissociated itself from Musa’s statement and dismissed it as “unacceptable,” labeling it as his “personal opinion” rather than official policy.

On May 13, an angry Musa quit Hizbul Mujahideen (The Hindu, May 13). Two days later, he released a video announcing his new group. It was not initially affiliated with al-Qaeda, although Musa said he was thankful to al-Qaeda for its efforts to promote sharia law. In July, however, Musa’s ties with al-Qaeda were confirmed when the jihadist group announced that he would head its new Kashmir unit (FirstPost, May 15).

While ideological differences may have prompted Musa to part ways with Hizbul Mujahideen, the group’s quarrel with him was “not just about his attempts to Islamize the Kashmiri struggle,” according to an Indian intelligence source. [2] Kashmir’s moderate separatists and militants are not after all averse to the Islamization of their struggle. Slogans calling for Islamic rule were often raised at anti-India demonstrations in the early 1990s, even by the supposedly secular Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).

The JKLF severely undermined Kashmir’s secular social fabric by unleashing terror and driving out the Pandits (Kashmiri Hindus) from the Kashmir Valley. Hizbul Mujahideen took this further by playing on communal differences and “Muslimizing the Valley,” as characterized by political analyst Navnita Chadha Behera. Indeed, the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Jamaat-i-Islami, a constituent of the Hurriyat Conference, altered the political discourse. As Behera writes: “The Muslim Valley, they intoned, was waging an Islamic movement against the Hindu Indian state in order to accede to Islamic Pakistan. Islam, not Kashmiri nationalism, and accession to Pakistan, not an independent Kashmir, were now presented as solutions to the Kashmir question” (emphasis in original text). [3]

Criticism of Pakistan

Musa’s characterization of the Kashmiri struggle in Islamic terms is not new, nor are his calls for a pan-Islamic movement — prior to their joining the anti-India militancy in Kashmir and other parts of India, fighters of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, for instance, participated in jihadist struggles in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Bosnia and elsewhere (The Hindu, December 12, 2009).

Kashmiri militant groups have also shown themselves willing to join hands with al-Qaeda. In 2014, Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin announced that he was willing to take the help of “al-Qaeda, [the] Taliban or any other organization or country” (India Today, July 15, 2014). Wani had also embraced the rhetoric of jihad and khilafat (caliphate) to mobilize Kashmiri youth (Hindustan Times, August 26, 2015). But the Hizbul Mujahideen never reacted as strongly to Wani’s rhetoric as it has to Musa.

This may be because, unlike Wani, Musa has made no secret of his contempt for Pakistan. He has accused the Pakistani government of betraying the jihad in Kashmir, and he described its army as a “slave of America” (YouTube, August 31).  He has also forbidden Kashmiris from raising pro-Pakistan slogans or draping the bodies of slain militants with the Pakistani flag (Times of India, July 13). This has drawn the ire of the Hizbul Mujahideen’s handlers in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which see the move as an attempt to steer the Kashmir struggle away from Pakistan’s control. [4]

Some in India’s security establishment have interpreted Musa’s rise and the emergence of the AGH as a major security challenge with a hard-line Islamist outlook that may appeal to Kashmiris and draw more youth to take up arms against the Indian state (Live Mint, May 31 and FirstPost, July 29).

Evidence suggests, however, that many Kashmiris view AGH as harmful to the Kashmiri cause (FirstPost, May 13). Since he split from the Hizbul Mujahideen and became chief of AGH, Musa’s relations with his former militant colleagues have worsened. The Hizbul Mujahideen accused him of being an Indian agent and of “helping Indian forces kill Kashmiris” (Times of India, September 18). Indeed, one Hizbul Mujahideen cadre reportedly believed that it was due to a tip-off from Musa that police cornered and killed its commander, Sabzar Bhat (India Today, May 30). Clashes between the two groups could increase in the coming months.

Musa’s split with the Hizbul Mujahideen comes at a time when the organization is under pressure. It has lost scores of leaders and fighters over the past year in encounters with the Indian security forces (Rising Kashmir, June 3). Added to this is the U.S. listing of Salahuddin as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) in June and the Hizbul Mujahideen as a foreign terrorist organization in August (Terrorism Monitor, July 28). The split following Musa’s exit from the Hizbul Mujahideen has further undermined the group.

Likely a Short-Lived Threat

AGH’s real impact on Kashmiri militancy is unclear. Counter-terrorism expert Ajai Sahni believes AGH will have “very little significance within the broader trajectory of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.” Additionally, some doubt Musa’s leadership abilities and his ideological commitment. He appears to be “ideologically confused” and has vacillated between commitments to al-Qaeda and IS. [5] Further, his links with global jihadist groups may be of little benefit to AGH, analysts say. Al-Qaeda “has been struggling to get a toehold in India for decades but has failed abysmally, and IS is in its death throes,” according to Sahni. [6]

Al-Qaeda does not have a logistical chain in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir that can feed AGH units operating in the Kashmir Valley. Without direct support from the Pakistani state and safe havens in Pakistan, the survival of any terrorist formation in Kashmir is unlikely (Indian Express, July 28).

Musa’s espousal of a pan-Islamic ideology and his ties to al-Qaeda have rattled Kashmiris, the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Pakistani establishment.  While AGH’s emergence is a reason for concern given its hard-line Islamist outlook, the chances of the outfit’s long-term survival are slim. The al-Qaeda brand name alone will not be enough to help it survive, and the group will find it difficult to compete without Pakistan’s logistical support.



[1] Author Interview with senior IB official (November 7).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Navnita Chadha Behera, “The Kashmir Conflict: Multiple Fault Lines,” Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016, p. 44.

[4] IB official, n. 1.

[5] Author Interview with Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management (November 7).