New Delhi: Last week’s agreement between the United States and the Taliban, as well as the communal violence in Delhi, have energised jihadists in Kashmir, al-Qaeda wing has said, hailing “these glorious times when the crusaders army in Khorasan have signed the final document of their defeat and in such a hopeful season when Indian Muslims have decided not to bear the atrocity and oppression of Hindu polytheist groups”.
The statement from Ansar Ghazwa’tul Hind, the Kashmir-based wing of al-Qaeda, was its first since the Government of India ended Kashmir’s special constitutional status in August.
The statement hailed the killing of ethnic-Kashmiri jihadists Jehangir Rafiq Wani Raja Umar Maqbool, Saadat Thokar, last month on the outskirts of Tral in southern Kashmir. “We give glad tidings to the ummah [Muslim nation] of the martyrdom of its sincere and loyal sons”.
In its statement, the jihadist group vows that it will “free the land of Kashmir from the Hindu polytheists, and will implement the shari’a law”. It also said it would continue fighting until the Masjid-e-Aqsa [in Jerusalem] and Babri Masjid are not free from kuffar [the unbelievers]”.
The statement comes amid mounting concerns that the Taliban could offer safe havens to Kashmiri jihadist groups as the United States withdraws from the region. The Taliban has long worked alongside al-Qaeda’s South Asian wing, led until last year by Indian-born jihadist Sana-ul-Haq, and the terms of its recent peace agreement with the United States do not require it to severe the relationship.
Even though al-Qaeda remains marginal in Kashmir’s jihadist landscape, there have been signs that its influence is growing among a section of young people, amid a cutback in Islamabad’s support for organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad. In turn, organisations like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen have claimed al-Qaeda is a front for India’s intelligence services, and a tool to divide the jihadist movement.
An estimated 2,500 people in Tral’s Drumbal village, local government sources said, attended three separate funeral prayers for slain jihadist Wani, led by local clerics Umar Lone and Ghulam Qadir. Wani is believed to have joined the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in the summer of 2018, serving under the recently-slain commander Hammad Khan, before joining al-Qaeda some months ago.
Local residents also turned out in crowds of over 2,000, the sources said, for the burials of Umar Maqbool Bhat and Sadat Ahmad Thoker, both of whom also had two rounds of funeral rites, led by local clerics and their families.
“These crowds aren’t huge compared to the tens of thousands who have come out on some occasions in the past”, an intelligence official observed, “but they do reflect an undercurrent of sympathy for jihadists, which is a cause for concern”.
In September, Shi’a residents of Budgam, who were allowed to march to commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, shouted slogans hailing the memory of the Ansar Ghazwa’tul Hind jihadist Zakir Ahmed Bhat, also known as Zakir Musa.
Even though Bhat was part of al-Qaeda—which, as an affiliate of the al-Qaeda, views Shi'as as heretics, and had been responsible for a series of genocidal attacks on them — he was valourised as a hero who fought Hindu hegemony.
Zakir Rashid Bhat, an engineering college dropout, had founded al-Qaeda’s Kashmir unit in the summer of 2017. In one video, Bhat appeared under the al-Qaeda banner, accusing Indian Muslims of cowardice, and calling on them to engage in jihad against the government.
Then in July, 2017, al-Qaeda had announced the formation of the Ansar Ghazwa’tul Hind, saying, “The jihad in Kashmir has reached a stage of awakening as the Muslim nation of Kashmir has committed to carry the flag of jihad to repel the aggression of tyrant Indian invaders”.
From its outset, al-Qaeda’s Kashmir wing sought to distinguish itself from other jihadist groups, saying it would focus on high-value targets across India. In December 2017, South Asia-region al-Qaeda chief Usama Mehmood argued that the key to victory in Kashmir lay in attacking Indian cities.
“India is already using 6,00,000 troops just to hold on to Kashmir,” Mehmood said in a statement. “If it is attacked in Kolkata, Bengaluru and New Delhi, it will come to its senses and release its grip on Kashmir”.
Then in February 2018, Zakir Bhat called for targeting “companies which are associated with the Government of India, or those foreign companies which have invested or wish to invest in India".
However, last month’s encounter, intelligence sources said, indicated that Ansar Ghazwat’ul Hind’s ambitions and capacities. Notably, an official pointed out, Ansar Ghazwa’tul Hind faced problems acquiring weapons, since the three men between them possessed only two Kalashnikov assault rifles, a pistol, and some 50 rounds of ammunition.