The Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), a group formed in 1989, is among the oldest militant groups operating in the conflict ridden valley of Kashmir. The HM’s aims in Kashmir range from merging the disputed state of Kashmir with Pakistan to implementing its own version of sharia law in the region. As of August 2017, the United states has labelled the Kashmiri group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) escalating the group’s threat potential.
Over the years, the group has managed to attract close to 2,000 militants, both homegrown and foreign (particularly from Pakistan) who have been planning and carrying out operations in the Kashmir valley. They have also conducted operation in other parts of India, claiming responsibility for the attack on the Pathankot Indian air force station in November 2016. India has long accused Pakistan of providing financial and materials support to the group. Although it was also officially banned by the Pakistani government, Pakistan has never shied away from ideologically supporting any Kashmiri separatist group fighting for autonomy in India.
The group is spearheaded by Mohammed Yusuf Shah also known as Syed Salahuddin, himself a U.S.-designated global terrorist since June 2017. This categorization of Salahuddin elicited criticisms by some in the Pakistani government with Pakistani minister Chaudhry Nisar admonishing the U.S. government for using “Indian language.” He also raised concerns about not allowing the Kashmiri population the right to self-determination, an ongoing issue since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
Despite the Pakistani government banning the group, Salahuddin has been known to move freely in parts of Pakistan, such as Muzaffarabad, giving speeches to rally support against the Indian government. In the wake of the Pakistani government’s crackdown on HM in January 2016, Syed Salahuddin threatened the Pakistani government with war if it were to continue its offensive against HM’s members.
Foreign Terrorist Organizations
With the United States designating the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), Hizbul Mujahideen has now entered a club of about 60 other organizations such as the Islamic State and the Real Irish Republican Army. The ramifications of such a move to the group range from legal to political. Procedurally, U.S. FTO’s are slapped with sanctions in a bid to choke off funding for their activities. This is especially prominent due to suspicions of charity organizations acting as fronts for violent non-state actors abroad as reported by Indian intelligence agencies.
This clampdown on funding may lead to decreased operations against the Indian government by the HM. Significantly, the U.S. government’s steps have also led to a more important weapon for India in its fight against the group by the publicizing of the group. While this labeling of any group does not necessarily lead to similar moves by other countries, such as member states of the European Union or Australia for example, on account of the the United States’ global influence, such groups are generally given a wide berth unofficially, this leading to weakening in the long run.
The designation of the group is significant for India and Pakistan whereby such steps are also treated as political maneuvers. India has long been pushing Pakistan to crack down on the group’ and will welcome this declaration. Considering that the designation occurred after U.S. President Donald Trump’s call to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of India’s Independence Day, the move is also indicative increasing India-U.S. co-operation, with the U.S. hoping to counter China and its growing ambitions in the Asian continent.
China has provided considerable diplomatic support to Pakistan, repeatedly vetoing efforts to implement sanctions on the various terrorists who have taken refuge in Pakistan. These figures include the chief of the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, and the aforementioned Syed Salahuddin, with China even going so far as to defend Pakistan’s role in countering terrorism after he was designated a global terrorist.
This support for Pakistan has come in the face of the growing economic cooperation between the two countries that has culminated in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a trade deal opposed by India due to the two nations’ intentions of building sites in areas disputed by Pakistan and India.
Furthermore, India has also found itself at odds with the Chinese government over border security in the Doklam area with various state-owned newspapers on both sides heralding a coming war between the two countries. Thus, the U.S. move is suggestive of its support for India against China and also carries a message to the two countries regarding their support to what the U.S. and India term as terrorist organizations.
On Ground Realities
While the branding of the HM as an FTO may have strengthened India’s resolve in pressuring Pakistan to stop ideological and financial support of the militant group, and created various new difficulties for the group, its actual impact on the ground remains to be seen.
HM has long entrenched itself in the indigenous Kashmiri population and has garnered substantial support, which was witnessed every time a top leader of the group was killed. Additionally, various other FTOs have survived the strict monitoring of their financial resources and any public relations onslaught faced in the wake of such designations. These include the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) which is involved in the ongoing offensive in Marawi, Philippines and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which has once again raised its profile over the past few years.
Thus, in order to weaken Hizbul Mujahideen, India cannot depend on this step alone. Indian counterterrorism operations in the valley are mainly military in nature with rights groups often accusing the government of committing human rights violations. These military initiatives often result in increased disenfranchisement of the Kashmiri populace, pushing them to support groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen.
Thus, if India were to achieve complete success in countering separatist groups, it would have to tone down its harsher policies and instead use more soft power measures. These soft power measures have successfully managed to thwart the activities of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and the Islamic State in the nation, and may well be what the state needs beyond kinetic means. As the Indian PM remarked in his independence day speech: “The problem will be solved neither by abuse nor bullets – it will be solved by embracing all Kashmiris.”
Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Research Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.