Islamic State Is Alive and Well in South Asia

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Islamic State Is Alive and Well in South Asia

South Asia is witnessing the emergence of a new brand of terrorism, one that can outlive any single leader.

Islamic State Is Alive and Well in South Asia

A Kashmiri protester taunts Indian paramilitary soldiers during a protest against the killing of of Zakir Musa, a top militant commander linked to al-Qaida, on the outskirts of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Saturday, May 25, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Dar Yasin

“We must rise above the hero-worshipping, groups, and tandheems and states, and unite for the supremacy of Islam.” — Shahid Zakir Musa RH

As evening descended on the Kashmir Valley on August 4, 2019, a deluge of messages flooded into a newly formed Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) chat room.

The previous year-old official chat room had been abandoned a couple of months earlier. Handles were put on delete mode. Operation time was closing in and protocol demanded a fresh new channel to weed out double agents and informers.

The messages included last-minute instructions, updates about Indian troop and materiel movements, circulation of sat-link files and manuals of offline communication; heartfelt goodbyes to comrades, and reminders to take the time to read the ebooks being shared; and of course, some caustic jokes about mainstream Kashmiri politicians who’d been jailed by the Indian government.

And among them sat the aforementioned quote from the group’s founder, Zakir Rashid Bhat a.k.a. Zakir Musa.

The quote embodies everything that’s changed in the jihadist tendencies of the Indian subcontinent. And it foretells how the bloodletting will remain unaffected in the Indian theater, despite the killings of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi and his spokesperson Al-Muhajir by the United States late last month.

Essentially, South Asia is witnessing the emergence of a new brand of terrorism. Unencumbered by the strings of foreign state influence, or the weight of partisan politics and regional status quos, the new jihadists of the Islamic State era are driven by a unifying dream that transcends individual leaders.

Rooted as they are in the immediate issues of local politics, building as they may be on the fertile soil of long-festering discontent and systematic persecution, they’re actively connecting local issues to global ones and building a platform that goes beyond the old demarcations of territorial fiefdoms followed by older jihadist groups.

Sharia or Death

Both in life as a professional jihadi, and in death as a rebel martyr, Musa played by the rules of this new game: fluid allegiances and stubborn refusal to let any nation-state dictate the agenda of building the grandest state of them all — the global Islamic State — the Caliphate.

A “homegrown” Indian Islamist, he was born Zakir Rashid Bhat in Noorpora in South Kashmir. He lived and studied in the state through high school. Then, like innumerable young Indian men from middle-class families, he gained admission to a private engineering college in 2011-12 — the Ram Dev Jindal College in Chandigarh.

Academic straitjackets didn’t suit him well. Dropping out barely a year from admission, he returned home to Kashmir and “disappeared.”

He soon resurfaced though — dressed in fatigues and as a member of the Pakistan-sponsored Hizbul Mujahideen group led by veteran Kashmiri jihadi Syed Mohammed Yusuf Shah, aka Sayeed Salahudeen.

Musa’s bravado, eloquence, and dashing looks, plus the killing of his predecessor Burhan Wani, led him to become commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2016 — less than three years after joining the outfit full time.

Despite being part of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Wani, Musa, and a bulk of the Kashmiri jihadists who made up the post-2010 generation had serious differences with the older generation. They refused to let the quest for an independent Islamist Kashmir be bogged down by quotidian Indo-Pak politics.

For the younger generation of jihadis, Kashmir and its struggle for independence would be led by sharia and not Kashmiri nationalism which, for them, was a failed cause.

In the summer of 2017, Musa released a video calling for the beheading of the leaders of the Hurriyat Conference. Blaming them and their status quo politics for stalling the implementation of sharia in Kashmir, he said: “I warn them (Hurriyat leaders). Do not play politics. If you become thorns in our path, we’ll kill you before the infidels. We will behead you and hang you in Lal Chowk.”

Averse to even the slightest strains of separation of religion and statecraft, he asked of the Hurriyat: “Why do you use our mosques for politics? Why use the holy pulpit to talk about your political struggles? Why come to the funeral of mujahids? We are done with your hypocrisy.”

Within hours of the video’s release, Saleem Hashmi, Hizbul Mujahideen’s spokesman, distanced the organization from Musa.

Unfazed, Musa hit back, saying: “If [the] Hizbul Mujahideen does not represent me, I also do not represent the Hizbul Mujahideen.”

Soon he turned to the Taliban and praised them for putting sharia before nationalism.

“When we [Kashmiris] fight — whether with guns or rocks, the fight should be for Islam and not nationalism,” he said in another video. 

Musa distanced himself from the Pakistani State, too, and declared the Pakistani flag un-Islamic (for staining the green Islamic flag with a white patch).

“We want sharia in Kashmir. Neither do we fight for Pakistan nor do we fight for any organization. We fight for Islam. And I ask you to chant slogans of the Taliban because like us, the Taliban too want sharia in Pakistan. We should love the Taliban,” he said.

His separation from Pakistan and Pakistan-based groups made clear, Musa and his close-knit team announced to the world on December 7, 2017, that they were now the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH) and part of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS).

Caught in their struggles for survival in Afghanistan and North Pakistan, the Taliban were in no position to lend any real help. In fact, despite the famous November 2018 speech by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri titled “Don’t Forget Kashmir,” AQIS hadn’t been able to independently set a foothold in the region. The Pakistan-based groups continued to hold a monopoly.

Moreover, news emerged that, threatened with destruction at the hands of the Islamic State, the Taliban had opened back-channel talks with Americans, Russians, and Indians — a fact corroborated publicly by Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat himself in January 2019 during the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi.

Barely two weeks after announcing the formation of the AGH and calling it a part of AQIS, Musa released what was to be one of his last videos.

He declared AGH one with the cause of the Islamic State. He said that in Kashmir they dream of building the Wilayat Kashmir — contiguous with Wilayat Khurasan in Afghanistan.

“Shariyat Ya Shahadat,” the members of AGH shouted in unison — sharia or death.

On the evening of May 23, 2019, a small team picked from three Indian state forces zeroed in on the house of a chemist in a small village called Dadsara. The Indian forces intended to capture Musa alive, but negotiations mediated by the chemist failed and Musa refused to surrender.

As night fell, gunfire echoed in the darkness and through the night.

The Indian forces ended the stalemate early next morning, by firing several rounds of under-barrel grenades from their retrofitted, standard-issue INSAS and AK-47s, reducing the small house to a pile of rubble, and burying the founder of the AGH.

When Death Is Inconsequential

Just as U.S. President Donald Trump would months later gloat about the successful killing of al-Baghdadi, the Modi regime hailed its May killing of Musa as a death blow to terrorists in Kashmir.

But unseen by pro-Modi Indian news outlets and fanatical online followers, Musa’s death was being claimed as a victory on the other side too — a moral one.

Within hours of the news of his killing spreading, Zakir Musa was named a Sheikh and resurrected as a prophetic warrior who now shone like a lodestar for those walking the path of jihad.

Online channels were flooded with his photos and quotes. Vows to fight and die for Islam as Musa had done came from young men, and pledges of ribaat (support for mujahideen fighters) from the older ones.

Political grandstanding by mainstream political leaders seeking to reap electoral benefits aside, just like the killing of the Islamic State’s founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 and Osama bin Laden’s in 2011, Musa’s killing in 2019 did little to halt the operation of his organization.

Likewise, al-Baghdadi’s killing won’t dent the Islamic State’s work or influence — especially not in the Indian subcontinent, where Islamist polarization is at an all-time high.

Unlike Kashmiri outfits in the 1990s — Pakistan-trained and sponsored groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba — contemporary terrorist networks in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and India don’t depend on foreign funds or training. Individuals in these networks buy into the dream of a global Islamic State-run by sharia — a utopia of universal Muslim brotherhood peddled by the Zarqawis and the al-Baghdadis of the world. Funds, materiel, and men are all sourced locally.

“The Islamic State is not an organization — it’s a network,” explained Jayant Umranikar. Umranikar served as an overseas agent for India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) for 22 years, including a long stint in Pakistan during the heyday of Pakistan-sponsored Kashmiri jihad and the Khalistani separatist movement.

“You can crush an organization by killing off key members,” he said about the Islamic State. “But how do you kill a network? You don’t destroy such a flat and distributed setup by killing individual leaders here and there. Not even the chief!”

The progress of Musa’s AGH is a case in point.Despite burning their bridges with Pakistan, the Hurriyat Conference, and other power players in Jammu and Kashmir, and despite the killing of their founder in May, AGH is today Kashmir’s best organized militant group. With the Pakistani state under financial duress and increased pressure from the West, state-supported groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad have all but been wiped out in Kashmir and groups like AGH are filling the vacuum.

“We are not what we used to be,” explained Aslam Majid*.

Majid, a former officer of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), began his career as a deputy in the Karachi range and was in charge of keeping tabs on local politics. Now living in retirement in the United States, he rose through the ranks of the organization and was assigned the role of liaising with Kashmir-focused outfits — chief among them the Hizbul Mujahideen.

“We weren’t perfect — no intel agency is,” Majid continued. “[The] Indians had moles in our outfit, and they often did preempt cross-border movements. But we had the budget, and Kashmiris in Indian-occupied territory had real grievances. So we always had more than enough supply of young men willing to martyr themselves for the Kashmiri cause. But they needed training and some funds. And all we had to do was provide those. It worked well. And hordes of Kashmiris from the Pakistan side crossed into the Indian side — more than what the Indians could handle.

But now, partly because of the economic slowdown, and mainly because of a crop of corrupt officers who are busy lining their own pockets, there just isn’t enough money to train irregulars. Why irregulars? There isn’t even enough money for the welfare of regular officers, I’d say!”

“Times have changed and so has militancy — whether in Kashmir or elsewhere,” said celebrated military scientist Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, one of the foremost experts on the Pakistani military establishment, speaking to The Diplomat in an interview from London.

“There are state actors and nonstate actors. And there are those who are in the middle. Ones with semi-legitimate existence,” she said, speaking of outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. “Their work is in many ways circumscribed by establishment agenda. But the young lot is restive. And also pragmatic. Hence the emergence of these new groups that would rather align with the Islamic State than with the traditional organizations.”

Not only is AGH the largest and most active group in the Kashmir Valley today, but it has also evolved to truly flourish in a changing environment. The absence of leaders who hog all the limelight all the time and centralize all decision making makes the cadres more autonomous. Members work in constantly changing cells and groups. And the line between a member and a sympathizer is a blurred one. This helps people work from where they are and chip in with whatever skill or access they have. Moreover, this loose nature of association helps individuals stay anonymous and thereby conduct better intelligence gathering.

Long before the “surprise” disconnection of the internet and abrogation of Article 370 and 35A was announced by India, AGH agents and informers responsible for different beats began compiling intelligence into the common group chat.

“…there is a lot of movement of Indian planes going on…mostly the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III…India is either planning to do something or just preparing for the storm that is about to come…”

“Yasin Malik is fine in Tihar…don’t pay attention to rumors”

“Net slowed down in South Kashmir…”

“Know your weapons…spread the knowledge” [This was shared with instruction manuals on how to identify and use different makes and models of guns]

The strongest proof of their preparedness came at six minutes past nine on the night of August 4.

A configuration file for the satellite links they would use to dodge the impending internet blockage was shared. Immediately after, instructions were sent out to install FireChat — a messaging service that uses near-field communication and not the internet.

Easy to follow infographics about hardening Android phones, making and installing bots, and surveillance self-defense “how-tos” were already abundant within the group. Just before logging off, reminders were sent to review such manuals.

This flurry of activity in advance of the internet blockage on August 5 demonstrates two key points: First, the AGH was not only prepared but had managed to infiltrate some key parts of the Indian state machinery beyond Kashmir; second, the AGH is capable of fighting a new kind of war in this era of new technology without explicit support from the Pakistani military — and with little more than smartphones and open source tools.

Across South Asia, the stories of the rise of the broader Islamic State network aren’t all that different.

In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo, the Sri Lankan government claimed there was a clear foreign hand at play. They haven’t presented evidence to back that claim. Independent investigations by this reporter showed that the C4 charges, communication systems, training, logistics, funding, and everything else was essentially homegrown.

Similarly in Bangladesh, except Tamim Chowdhary who was little more than an organizer, none of those who carried out the massacre at Holey Artisan or built suicide squads had ever received any direct training or financial aid from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In the Maldives — the South Asian country with the highest number of mujahideen volunteers who traveled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq — sympathizers built their Islamic State network with no direct intervention from the shura council in Mosul.

All that these groups had from the central Islamic State was an ideological framework and a dream — one shared by the new jihadists of South Asia — of a utopian Islamic Caliphate that transcends boundaries drawn by secular, Western creations like nation-states.

Even in the United States and Europe, the overwhelming majority of people alleged to be members of the Islamic State, or having traveled or attempted to travel to Syria, were all “inspired.”

This “inspiration” model has far outlived the Islamic State’s founder Zarqawi. And it will outlive al-Baghdadi and his successors.

Even after the United States released unflattering videos that depicted Zarqawi as far from a tough guy, fumbling with an AK-47, little changed. Even after his spectacular assassination, hordes of foreign fighters joined the war in Syria and Iraq.

For the modern jihadist, the dream of the Islamic State and its promised land is larger than its supremo.

The Promised Status

What the Islamic State proffers is not just a promised land like innumerable prophets and cults have in history. There is also a more immediate gratification on offer — visibility, adulation, and acceptance.

“See, for the longest time, the Pakistanis and Arabs looked at the Bengalis with mistrust and contempt,” explained Probir Bagchi*.

A private adviser with the National Security Advisory Board of India, Bagchi worked as a liaison between the Indian and Bangladeshi governments and was a keeper of back channels with Bengali mujahideen fighters.

“Bangladeshi mujahids, for example, may have volunteered to fight in the Afghan war against the Soviets. They may have tied up with Pak-based or ISI-sponsored outfits. Some have even worked under bin Laden’s al-Qaeda regime. But the Organization of Islamic States never forgave the Bengalis for breaking up an Islamic nation-state in 1971.

And that historical stigma has made them the lower caste among the global jihadist movement. Claiming to be part of the Islamic State is like graduating to being Brahmins in the world of global jihad.”

Coarse as the allegory may be, the truth is coarser still and not even allegorical.

The Islamic State’s founder, Zarqawi, had to overcome two major social handicaps. He did not have a pedigree with major value and he was Jordanian — a country which has long been seen as a bastard nation by jihadists, created to drive a wedge in the Islamic world.

Zarqawi, the nobody, had to earn his recognition through bloody excess when the world’s attention was focused on Osama bin Laden, the multi-billionaire Saudi.

Claims of worldwide unity and brotherhood notwithstanding, next to no Bangladeshi, Maldivian, or southern Indian Muslim has ever come close to leadership positions through the decades of jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The relegation of darker-skinned Muslims to menial jobs, while the sheikhs rolled in wealth and power, remained unbroken in both mainstream civilian-political life, and jihad. 

Moreover, even though Islam doesn’t formally recognize castes, Muslims in South Asia are not far removed from the caste hierarchies that afflict Hinduism and other faiths in the region. Through the 1980s and ’90s, as petrodollar capitalism burgeoned and remittances grew, feudal hierarchies consolidated into new wealth, privilege, and positions of power.

As a result in South Asia, both in mainstream political parties or in jihadist and extremist groups, caste, class, and lineage still determine whether or not a member rises to the top.

“For the longest time, it’s been an unwritten policy in the ISI that no one of Bengali or Indian origin is to rise to the top,” explained Bagchi. “Even Kashmiris — whether from the Indian side or the other — are kept to militant groups and used as cannon fodder. Positions of power are exclusively for the purer Punjabi and Sindhi bloodlines.”

At the international level, acting as the chief liaison between the rich Arab world and poor South Asians, Pakistan’s elite became the gatekeeper of jihad in South Asia. And they had the monopoly to decide who got how much funding and who rose to jihadi stardom and who history forgot.

The Islamic State ruined that monopoly.

Tamim Chowdhary was a Bengali-Canadian. He went to Syria, pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, and then took charge of operations in Dhaka. He needed no Pakistani, Saudi or any other nation-state’s approval to be called the Emir of Bengal.

Chowdhary forged his teams by both recruiting fresh young men who, like Zarqawi and Musa, were nobodies and aspired to jihadi stardom. He poached freely from the ranks of older Pakistan and al-Qaeda aligned groups that had been left to wilt.

This is noteworthy at a time when the elites of the world — from the United States to Europe to India — are pumping xenophobia into everyday political rhetoric, a time when establishment politicians are devising new ways of keeping migrants out — from walls on the U.S.-Mexico border to sprawling detention centers in India, on to zero refugee policies in the rich Islamic sultanates of the Middle East. The Islamic State under al-Baghdadi made Abu Hassan al-Muhajir — meaning Abu Hassan “the migrant” — their spokesperson and named him an honorary sheikh.

The appeal of the apparent egalitarianism of the Islamic State, which has opened its doors to Muslims everywhere, is all the more attractive set next to a bevvy of closed doors elsewhere.


At the time of this article going to press, the Islamic State’s official channels named both a new Caliph and a new spokesperson — Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi and Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi respectively.

In his rousing inaugural speech, the new spokesperson says: “There is no reason for the apostates and infidels to celebrate…the mujahideen from East and West are rising against the tyrants of both the Arab and the non-Arab world…”

And within hours of the speech and the text coming out, it’s been translated to Urdu, Hindi, Bangla, and Tamil and broadcast to language-specific group chats.

*Names of some agents have been changed to protect identities.