From Trendy Teenager to Militant Commander: The Beginning and End of Zakir Musa
Tral (Kashmir): It was July 2013. Someone just dropped a polythene-wrapped parcel at Abdul Rasheed Bhat’s home, placing it in his hands without revealing what was inside or who sent it. An engineer in his mid-50s, Bhat was surprised, but impatient to open it.
Inside was an iPhone, iPod and three debit cards, all belonging to his son Zakir Rasheed Bhat, who had disappeared a few days ago. Any hope the father had on getting his son back was dashed by a small note in the parcel. “I have returned everything you gave me, except what I am wearing. I don’t have money at this point, otherwise I would have returned the T-shirt and the trousers as well. Please don’t search for me, I have found my way, the real one,” read the note.
Zakir was in the third semester of civil engineering at a Punjab college when he suddenly disappeared from his home in Noorpora village of Tral area in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
Before joining militancy, Zakir was a fashionable young boy and an award-winning carom player. He would be seen riding his yellow Yamaha R15 sports bike, puffing cigarettes with friends and listening to his favourite rap music. His mobile phone would be filled with videos of his motorcycle stunts.
“Trendy clothes and shoes, expensive deodorants, new hair gels and his regular cigarettes were all Zakir seemed to be concerned about,” recalled a friend, wishing not to be named. “When a girl at the higher secondary school complained that a teacher misbehaved with her, Zakir went and punched him in the face.”
“Zakir would tell us that we all should travel beyond Kashmir. He would say ‘there is a life outside and we are stuck in this small place, go around and enjoy’,” said his friend.
“He was a fun-loving boy. He would go around shopping, partying at times and talking about how life in Kashmir has turned miserable because of the conflict,” another friend of Zakir from Punjab, who was studying with him, told News18, wishing to be anonymous.
“He always wanted Kashmir to be a place where people can enjoy life. But largely he seemed careless about the things happening around and was concerned about his life only,” he said, adding that he couldn’t sleep properly for a week and was in disbelief when Zakir became a militant.
When Zakir picked up the gun, his family, friends and batch mates were surprised. This was the time when dozens of boys from Tral and surrounding areas of south Kashmir were joining the ‘new wave of militancy’. Most of them were educated, from well-to-do families and well-versed with the internet and the world changing around it.
Zakir joined Hizbul Mujahideen, the dominant militant group in Kashmir. At the time, another young militant was rising in the ranks. Burhan Wani was of Zakir’s age, but had joined militancy three years before him.
Burhan and his group began posting videos and photos on social media to attract more and more people. Earlier, militants would not reveal their faces, they would confide in code names. Burhan shed that mask and it soon became a trend, hailed as the new militancy in Kashmir.
Burhan’s father Muzaffar Ahmad Wani later said that his son had joined militancy after a run-in with some police personnel who thrashed him and his brother. The incident completely changed Burhan.
“After that incident, Burhan told me he will fight back. I took it as a comment from an angry teenager and pacified him,” Wani, a government school teacher, had told News18 in 2018.
Burhan was 15-years-old, a student of Class 10 when he left his home and joined militancy, exactly 10 days before his annual examination was scheduled.
When Zakir left, his father began to ponder why his son picked up the gun. He concluded that it must have been “police harassment”.
“In 2010, when Zakir was a minor, he was falsely charged in a stone-pelting case,” Abdul Rasheed Bhat had told News18 during an interview in 2017. “I had sent him to study in Jammu, away from the turmoil in Kashmir, but police compelled me to bring him back because of the case,” he said.
“I still remember a sub-inspector slapping Zakir in front of me. My blood boiled. I had never ever raised my hand on him,” recalled Bhat. “I think that might have affected him.”
In 2010, unrest swept through Kashmir after the army claimed to have killed three Pakistani infiltrators in Machhil area of north Kashmir’s Kupwara, but the deceased later turned out to be civilians. More than a 100 people were killed and thousands injured in the four-month-long agitation.
The incident with the police cited by Burhan Wani’s father may not have been the actual trigger, for his son had tried to join militancy earlier as well.
In 2008, when Burhan was a student of Class 8, he and five other boys from his school disappeared one fine day. The next day, their parents got a call from a police station in Chanderkoot area of Jammu.
Burhan and the boys were caught by the police when they were travelling in a truck. Upon questioning, they revealed they wanted to cross the Line of Control and “become militants”.
“I couldn’t go to the police station but fathers of two boys had to give a written assurance to the police that the boys will be counselled so they don’t repeat it. Only then were they released,” Burhan’s father told News18.
But perhaps Wani overlooked or couldn’t comprehend what was going through his son’s mind.
Similarly, Zakir, too, must have hit a turning point in his life.
“Hundreds of boys were arrested in stone-pelting cases. Some must have been arrested and beaten mistakenly, but they didn’t join militancy,” said a police official who has over two decades of experience in handling militancy-related cases in Kashmir.
“I believe there were efforts from multiple sides to revive militancy in Kashmir and with the social media, the local boys became easy prey,” he said.
NEW WAVE OF MILITANCY
In the years after joining militancy, Burhan Wani became an internet sensation in Kashmir. Wearing combat fatigues, he would propagate militancy; sometimes the video would show his group playing cricket in the woods. He was made commander of the Hizb. The magnitude of his popularity became violently evident after July 8, 2016, the day he was killed in Bamdoora village of south Kashmir’s Anantnag.
Within hours, bloody protests broke out across Kashmir. Within 24 hours, around a dozen civilians were killed. Within days and weeks, more than 100 civilians, mostly teenagers, were killed and thousands more injured. For months, the Valley remained under a crippling curfew. Burhan Wani was accorded a massive funeral, the biggest the Valley had witnessed in a long time.
After Burhan, the Hizb announced Mahmood Gaznavi as its next commander, but as per sources, the senior militant, who had faked his death once, refused to come to the frontline. Born Yaseen Yatoo, Gaznavi wanted a face like Burhan — young and charismatic, appealing to the new generation — as the new commander.
The next choice after Gaznavi was Sabzar Bhat, another close aide of Burhan Wani. But Bhat also turned down the offer and instead recommended Zakir who now went by the name Zakir Musa.
“Sabzar Bhat was not willing because he had dropped out of school at a very early stage and didn’t know much about the internet. On the other hand, Zakir was well-versed with technology, perhaps the most savvy of the lot,” said a police officer working in counter-militancy operations Jammu and Kashmir.
Zakir was in Class 4 when he got his first laptop. “I had got the laptop for myself, but he insisted on having it and took it. So I had to get a new one for me,” said Zakir’s father.
THE MAKING OF ZAKIR MUSA
Eight months after Burhan Wani's killing, Zakir Musa came up with a message. "Islam doesn’t permit nationalism and democracy. When we fight by picking up stones or guns, our intention should not be that we are fighting for Kashmir. The only aim should be the sovereignty of Islam, which will lead to entailment of Shariah (Islamic law) here," he purportedly said in a video which was widely shared on social media.
Musa didn’t stop there. A few months later, he surprised everyone when in an audio message he purportedly spoke out against separatist leaders and called for a global Islamist setup in Kashmir. He even threatened to behead Hurriyat leaders, who call for a political solution to the Kashmir problem, in Lal Chowk, the centre of Srinagar city, “if they come in the way of establishing Islamic rule in Kashmir”.
Hizb immediately distanced itself from the statement, terming it his “personal opinion” which was “unacceptable”. Hitting back, Musa parted ways the Hizib.
BREAK-UP WITH HIZB
In July 2017, Zakir Musa hit headlines again when Al Qaeda’s official propaganda channel, the Global Islamic Media Front, released a “statement of establishment”. It claimed that Musa was heading an affiliated group in Kashmir called the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), which means ‘Helpers of People in the Battle for India’. Musa called for ‘Shariat ya Shahadat’ (Islamic law or martyrdom) and was trying to redefine nearly three-decade-old insurgency against India. He wanted to create an “Islamic state”.
Musa was criticised for this move. In a statement, Hizb said he was trying to “divide the Kashmiri nation”. But Musa’s popularity was on the rise with his graffiti donning the walls in Kashmir and students chanting ‘Musa Musa’.
FROM HIZB TO AL QAEDA
Following the killing of Burhan Wani, security forces had to halt anti-militancy operations for more than four months because of the unrest in the Valley. During this time, militants made public appearances at a number of places.
“Militants were able to rest for months together and there was no threat to them. Forces were busy in managing the law and order situation, particularly in south Kashmir,” said a police officer.
“During this time, Musa, who was now the new commander, started meeting new people. Some of them suggested him to read Islamic literature and probably even shared with him literature by Islamic extremists who were known internationally,” said a police officer, who is dealing with counter-militancy operations and has interrogated a number of militants and their close aides.
It is believed that Musa started watching videos of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American preacher who is also allegedly a part of Al Qaeda.
“It is in 2016, after the killing of Burhan Wani, that Musa changed and started questioning the role of separatists and their politics,” a police official said.
A number of police and intelligence officials believe that Musa had already developed contact with some Al-Qaeda commanders by the time his ties started souring with the Hizb.
“There are some Kashmiris who crossed the LoC in the 1990s for arms training, but they travelled to Afghanistan and joined the armed ranks there,” an official said. “We believe some of them were in contact with Zakir Musa and were guiding him.”
Some police officials also believe that few separatists were also guiding Musa.
Musa’s switch from Hizb to Al Qaeda didn’t surprise Kashmiri academician Dr Sheikh Showkat. He believes Musa was ideologically on the same page as Hizb and other groups, but differed on the methodology.
“Among the ideological formation, such things happen. There are idealists, there are those who tend to work within space and time,” said Dr Showkat, who is a professor at the Central University of Kashmir. “There are moderate Communist groups who fight elections and then there are Naxals, who are inspired by the same ideology, but they fight with arms. In a globalised world, it has become more important in the sense that far off place turn to be a source of inspiration and make people go in a particular way.”
The new strategy, however, failed to attract supporters.
Between 2016 and 2018, around a dozen people, both new militant recruits or affiliated with other outfits, joined Musa’s group, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind. But gradually, they began to leave and some of them created the Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK), which claims allegiance to the ISIS, a police official said.
Globally, the ISIS and Al Qaeda are at odds with the former calling the latter “apostates”. Both outfits are even fighting each other in Yemen.
Musa was able to attract a lot of youth attention and became popular, but failed to create a structure, said a top police official. “No militant group in Kashmir can survive without the support of Pakistan. The groups active right now have a proper structure. Zakir Musa lacked that,” he said.
The rift between the Hizb and Musa intensified. “Some of Musa’s supporters were beaten by Hizb militants and in one incident he was also injured,” said another police official. “Perhaps this led Musa to remain indoors mostly, and lead from there to attract more and more people.”
He did attract a lot of youth, who would be seen chanting slogans in his favour, but his outfit didn’t change much.
Dr Showkat believes that whosoever picks up the gun against oppression gets huge sympathy, irrespective of who he is and what conviction he has. But displaying sympathy and joining him are two different things, he adds.
The professor cites another reason why Musa’s group didn’t swell in numbers.
“It is not that all those who supported Zakir Musa were subscribers of his ideology or his methodology. But it included those who were not ready to digest the domination of Hizb over the insurgency movement,” said Dr Showkat. “Because he was speaking against Hizb, they rallied for him. They wanted him to become a rival force, which he was not.”
Some police officers, too, believe that Musa was getting support from people whose ideology is “independent Kashmir” and who are “believers of Sufi Islam”.
Former Intelligence Bureau special director and former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, AS Dulat, also believes Musa failed to establish Al Qaeda’s group in Kashmir.
“Firstly, we have to understand that there is just a slight difference in what Zakir Musa was saying and what other terrorist groups in Kashmir are propagating,” he said. “Well, he was trying to be different, but I don’t believe he has been successful.”
Another police officer told News18 that the ultimate conviction of all militants is religion. “We have to understand that what Zakir Musa was saying has roots in Salafi thought while most of the population in the Valley is of the Hanafi thought,” he said, adding that “militant groups, like Lashker-e-Taiba, which also actually believes in Salafi thought, is able to recruit locals because it doesn’t bring belief in operational activities. Most of their local recruits are of the Hanafi thought, which is why it was able to create a network in Kashmir.”
In an interview to News18 in 2017, even Zakir Musa’s father had said that there is no real support for the Al Qaeda and ISIS in the Valley, “but it is being done to irritate India”.
THE END OF ZAKIR MUSA
Zakir Musa, the man who was now everyone’s rival in Kashmir, was tracked down almost a week before he was killed on May 23, sources said.
“We were tracking him and looking for an appropriate time to eliminate him,” said a police source. “We were expecting a law and order situation, so we decided to let counting for parliamentary polls to end on May 23,” the souece said.
Zakir Musa was killed hours after counting ended in the state.
Police officials said Musa was hiding in a residential house in Dadsara area of Tral. “It has been a militant hideout for long and was on our watch list for quite some time.”
He fired in retaliation initially but was killed in the lawn of the house, police officials said.
“The operation was handled very tactfully. We were apprehensive of some violence, but we maintained the situation by taking proper measures,” Swayam Prakash Pani, Inspector General of J&K Police, told News18.
Agencies believe that six active militants are affiliated with the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) group.
“There is no formal structure and we believe the AGH is gone with Musa,” said a top police officer. “However, there are supporters of such ideology who are trying to create a problem.”
Police officials believe that the issue in handling Musa was that he was famous.
“Because he was the former commander of Hizb, he was already known among people and by creating AGH he became more controversial and famous,” said the officer. “Now, if someone comes to head the AGH, he won’t be as well-known as Musa was. We killed militants affiliated with his group and the ISJK, but didn’t face a law and order problem,” he said.
Apart from the killing of two civilians and a bank robbery, Musa was not known to be a part of any major attack in the last six years, police said.
The Hurriyat leaders Musa threatened paid tributes to him on his death and called for a one-day shutdown. Thousands of people participated in his funeral, some walking miles on foot despite restrictions. Parts of south Kashmir parts remained shut for four days. Two video clips, purportedly showing Musa minutes before he was killed, were widely shared on social media. He looked older for his age, sporting a long black beard, skull cap and a gun firmly by his side.
In the video, Musa asked for prayers and left one final message – that shutdowns in Kashmir are meaningless.