How Al-Qaeda Came to Kashmir

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How Al-Qaeda Came to Kashmir

How a debate over Islamic martyrdom opened the door for al-Qaeda in Kashmir.

How Al-Qaeda Came to Kashmir

Kashmiri villagers shout pro-freedom slogans from a roof during the funeral procession for killed militant Waseem Ahmad in Drubgam, Indian controlled Kashmir (Nov. 7, 2017).

Credit: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

On July 27, 2017, al-Qaeda formally announced it was establishing an affiliate in Jammu and Kashmir — India’s troubled northern state, claimed also by Pakistan. For three decades of the ongoing armed separatist campaign in the state, pan-Islamist religious ideologies struggled to find a toehold. But this year Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, an al-Qaeda affiliate, set up a unit in Kashmir headed by the 23-year-old former Kashmir commander of the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen, Zakir Musa.

In a press release issued both in English and Urdu, titled “Statement No 1,” al-Qaeda said that “the jihad in Kashmir has entered a stage of awakening.” It continued [all sic]:

The Muslim nation of Kashmir has committed to carry flag of jihad to repel the aggression of tyrant Indian invaders and through jihad with the aid of Allah (swt) only, we will liberate our homeland Kashmir… For this goal, a new movement of jihad has been founded by the companions of martyr Burhan Wani (rh) under the leadership of Mujahid “Zakir Musa (May Allah Almighty protect him).

Al-Qaeda’s announcement was promptly rejected by the longstanding militant outfits in the state, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Hizbul Mujahideen. Though these outfits also espouse an Islamist outlook, it is not necessarily global in its import. In their case it is more complicated.

These three groups were founded primarily to take on India in Kashmir – to liberate the state from India and merge it with Pakistan. It is true that they have been involved to a limited extent in Afghanistan, where they have been on good terms with the Afghan Taliban. It is also true that they have not been averse to al-Qaeda. But Kashmir gets at the heart of the raison d’être of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Hizbul Mujahideen. They have continued to exist and even thrive in large part because of the struggle between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. And in Kashmir, they have taken a position against al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, accusing them of being takfiris, or of unjustly declaring fellow Muslims to be apostates in order to justify their slaughter.

In a statement in July, LeT’s Valley chief Mehmood Shah laid out these charges against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He said, “All they have done has just greatly affected the Muslims and brought upon them the injustice, brutality and oppression.”

For its part, Hizbul Mujahideen took an even harder line, saying al-Qaeda’s entry into Kashmir was “an Indian intelligence operation.”

Musa and the Idea that Opened the Door

Musa, the Kashmiri Ghazwat-ul-Hind leader, issues regular audio statements exhorting jihad for the glory of Islam and the establishment of a Caliphate. He models himself after the image of a young flamboyant rebel, sporting long disheveled hair and a short beard. Sometimes he channels Osama bin Laden, donning a long cloak and a cap like the slain al-Qaeda leader. This lends his persona a gravitas that far exceeds his youthful age.

He makes a case for a larger pan-Islamist struggle spanning India and Pakistan with Kashmir as its subsidiary cause and a base camp. The ultimate purpose of the jihad, he says, is to unite Kashmir, Afghanistan Pakistan, and India under the flag of Tawheed.

Making Ghazwat-ul-Hind’s entry possible was not some logistical facilitation from al-Qaeda global, now reduced to more or less an abstract ideological presence in the region, nor was it the result of an existing mass sentiment for pan-Islamism on the ground. What paved the way for its entry into the long troubled and the bitterly contested Valley was a profound theological difference of opinion among the militants over the larger rationale of their willingness to die for a cause. A group of militants was suddenly seized with a desire for a transcendental meaning for their deaths, or so it seemed.

Why are we laying down our lives? What do we seek to get out of the sacrifice that makes it worth it? Questions like these rang through the militant ranks when Musa first raised them as a Hizbul commander early this year.

“If we are fighting for Azadi [freedom] to establish a secular state, then in my opinion we are not martyrs. And if the secular state is our goal, then my blood will not be spilled for it,” Musa said in a video message, complete with slideshow of al-Qaeda ideologues like Anwar Awlaki and Abu Bakar Bashir. He also threatened to chop off the heads of the leading separatist politicians and hang them in the city square should they continue to call Kashmir a political struggle.

“I will not fight for Azadi for a secular state. I will fight for Azadi for Islam, for the establishment of an Islamic state. Not only in Kashmir but India and Pakistan too,” Musa said, seeking to link the struggle in Kashmir to the larger ongoing jihad in the Muslim world.

True, the desire for martyrdom moves the militants associated with the LeT, JeM, and HuM too. But they take it for granted and don’t engage much with its theological correctness. But Musa did, arguing that since these groups were fighting for a political goal — Kashmir’s liberation from India and merger with the nation state of Pakistan — their struggle didn’t fit into the definition of jihad and hence granted no martyrdom.

It was a carefully deployed polemic: Militants are persuaded to fight and lay down their lives to achieve martyrdom, which in turn is believed to entitle them to a highest place in heaven. And the struggle that leads to martyrdom is called jihad.

The polemic worked, splitting the militant ranks and creating a space for al-Qaeda. And when Syed Salahuddin, the Hizbul Mujahideen supreme commander based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, took serious exception to the new pan-Islamist characterization of the Kashmir movement and threatened disciplinary action, Musa quit as the outfit’s Kashmir commander. Two months later, he emerged as the al-Qaeda affiliate leader.

Martyrdom in Islam

In theological terms, martyrdom is not up for grabs for dying in the fight for any random cause. Martyrdom and how it can be achieved is a source of contentious debate among Islamic preachers. Certain conditions need to be satisfied for it to be granted by God. For an influential section of preachers, the fight has to be in the way of God, for the establishment of an Islamic system of governance and Shariah, Islamic canonical law based on the teachings of the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet. On the contrary, death in the struggle for the establishment of a secular nation-state is believed to earn you no martyrdom, hence no heaven.

So, here is the rub: The other militant outfits, like Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-i-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad, want Kashmir to join Pakistan, an Islamic republic not necessarily governed by strict Islamic law or Shariah – albeit inhabited predominantly by Muslims. They are Islamist in outlook but the autonomy of their ideologies is somehow undermined by their deemed association with the Pakistani state.

True, these groups offer other religious justifications for their jihad in Kashmir. For example, they argue that they are fighting to liberate Kashmir because it is an occupied Muslim land. But their goal is still political, winning Kashmir to unite it with Pakistan. They also justify their struggle on the basis of the United Nations resolutions on the state, whereby Kashmiris are to decide their destiny by choosing between India and Pakistan through a plebiscite to be held under the aegis of the world body. These resolutions, which have yet to be implemented, were adopted through 1948 after India approached the United Nations for arbitration following the conflict with Pakistan over the ownership of Kashmir, shortly after the two countries got their independence from British rule in August 1947.

Kashmir became a bone of contention after the British split the undivided India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan and left it to the princely states under its suzerainty to negotiate their relationship with either of the two countries.  Kashmir was one such princely state with a majority Muslim population but its Hindu king, Maharaja Hari Singh, chose to accede to India over Pakistan. Islamabad rejected that decision, resulting in the hostilities between the two nations.

Short of violently seceding Kashmir from India, one of the three Pakistan backed outfits, Hizbul Mujahideen, is willing to settle for the implementation of these resolutions, hoping that the Muslim-majority state would choose Pakistan in case a referendum is held.

So, in Musa’s literalist interpretation of the Islamic teachings on the subject, there is no scope for martyrdom in dying in pursuit of their cause. That is why, he claims, he has joined with al-Qaeda.

Similarly, establishing an independent nation state of Kashmir, which the erstwhile militant outfit and now political organization Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front stands for, is no different. Jihad for this cause similarly is believed to grant no martyrdom.

Other Reasons for al-Qaeda’s Entry

Some see al-Qaeda’s advent in Kashmir as a rebellion against Pakistan’s control of the organizational structure of the Kashmir movement, from militancy to its political representation. And others see “an Indian intelligence operation” through the strategic deployment of a disruptive idea.

In the former case, a group of militants in Kashmir are believed to be unhappy about the requirement to follow orders from militant leadership safely ensconced in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. More so, when the funding and the supply of weapons from across the border have remarkably declined  following the Indian fencing of the line of the control that separates the Indian-controlled part of the state from that of Pakistan. The local militants thus have to arrange for their own weapons and finances. Over the past year, militants have intermittently resorted to snatching weapons from the local police personnel standing guard on the roads. But this has hardly satisfied their needs. There is a disproportion between the number of militants and the weapons needed. In some encounters with the Indian forces, several killed militants were found to be in possession of just one rifle. Similarly, a militant killed on the outskirts of Srinagar early this year possessed just one Chinese pistol.

An al-Qaeda affiliate may not supply militants with more weapons and funds but it operates independently of foreign control, letting local militants to take their own decisions rather than playing subservient to the leadership in Pakistan.

In later case, as already stated, the argument goes that no militant outfit that takes on both India and Pakistan and also the rival militant outfits can survive in Kashmir. It will struggle for both funding and weaponry. But then such a group can operate in an ideological space, pandering to a radicalized section of the society. And this is what Musa is doing: dishing out audio messages reiterating his goal to establish Shariah and an Islamic state.

But as Kashmir Police would privately affirm, Ghazwat-ul-Hind has so far not engaged in any militant activity in the state. None of the militant attacks carried out in the state following the affiliate’s establishment in July have been traced to the group.

Al-Qaeda’s Challenge

Does Ghazwat-ul-Hind pose a major challenge to India or threaten to morph into one? Unlikely. Its advent is still shrouded in some mystery: it hasn’t emerged organically from an existing friendly political ecosystem unlike Hizbul Mujahideen, an indigenous outfit, or Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. The latter operate in a public environment that has been deeply alienated from India and hence is supportive of the militants and their cause of seceding Kashmir from India.  They also enjoy the support of Pakistan – although Islamabad’s public position is that its support is only “moral and diplomatic” in nature.

But not so for Ghazwat-ul-Hind. True, parts of the society radicalized by the lingering conflict have been receptive to Musa’s contention about Shariah and Islamic rule. But they are not necessarily pan-Islamist. Nor has the separatist discourse in Kashmir ever espoused a global agenda. But al-Qaeda has still managed to find a rationale for its existence. And this rationale as of now derives largely from its claim to subscribe to the most authentic theological route to martyrdom and jannah (heaven). This, however, will not be enough, for the al-Qaeda affiliate has stayed short of melding its strict theological outlook and the global agenda with the localized political moorings of Kashmir dispute, which Kashmiris hold on to as an ethical basis for their struggle.

A Rocky Road Ahead

Is Kashmir poised to become the latest theater of the pan-Islamist struggle – say, its organic extension from Afghanistan and Pakistan? Again, unlikely. Beyond the logistical and structural hurdles, there is its ideological and political incompatibility with the nature of the movement in Kashmir. Besides, there is little fascination in the state with the vast and abstract political project espoused by Gazwat-ul- Hind.

It, however, remains to be seen whether the seeming ideological lurch among a section of the militants toward pan-Islamism will hold or turn out to be an aberration. In the existing state of affairs, there is little operational space for an independent political or militant ideology in Kashmir away from the ones sanctioned and supported by India and Pakistan. Kashmir’s political map is strictly divided along a pro-India and pro-Pakistan binary. Even those who support independence for the state look toward Pakistan for support.

But the fact that Ghazwat-ul-Hind has managed to sneak in shows it can be accommodated.  And if nothing is done to address Kashmir issue, this creates fraught possibilities for future: the Valley could play host to globally-focused groups competing for space with pro-independence and pro-Pakistan groups.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how Ghazwat-ul-Hind pans out, and whether it will be able to withstand the gigantic structural odds stacked against it. So far, little is known about the group, apart from its charismatic leader, who seems to enjoy some conspicuous support among sections of the youth. His name has already caught on as one of the most yelled alliterative slogans: “Musa, Musa, Zakir Musa.”

Riyaz Wani is an award-winning  journalist with more than two decades of reporting experience. He has earlier worked for The Indian Express and Tehelka and now freelances for various Indian and international publications.