By Syed Zafar Mehdi

ISIL/Al-Qaeda flags cause jitters in Kashmir

April 3, 2018 - 10:22

NEW DELHI - The black flags of ISIL and Al-Qaeda at the funeral of 25-year-old slain Kashmiri militant Eesa Fazili in Srinagar last week have again raised eyebrows in Kashmir’s intelligentsia circles and reignited the debate over the presence of these global terrorist organisations in India’s troubled northern state.

While some see it as a worrying sign of extremism and radicalization among youth, some others dismiss it as a desperate attempt by a motley group of disenchanted youth to provoke India.

However, in power corridors, in policy circles, in civil society, in legal chambers, in newsrooms, in coffee shops, the debate has revived again: Has the ISIL, also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, gained foothold in Kashmir, the world’s largest militarized zone? How deep has Al-Qaeda infiltrated in the valley and what it means to the Kashmir’s indigenous freedom movement?

Speaking to media a day after his son, an engineering graduate, was killed in an encounter with government forces in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, Noor-un-Naeem Fazili, a school teacher, said his son never spoke to him about ISIL and he was not influenced by the group’s ideology. He termed the appearance of ISIL flag at his son’s funeral “a sign of desperation” among youth.

Easa, associated with Tehreek ul Mujahideen, a homegrown militant outfit, was one of the three militants killed in an encounter with police early on Monday. Thousands of people took part in his funeral, pictures and videos of which were circulated widely over social media.

The other militant killed in the encounter was Easa’s college friend Sayed Owais. The identity of the third slain militant was established three days after the shootout. Police identified him as Mohammad Taufeeq from southern Indian city of Hyderabad, who had joined Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind (AGH), an affiliate of Al-Qaeda.

AGH was formed on July 27, 2017 as the Kashmir arm of Al-Qaeda, spearheaded by the popular Kashmiri rebel fighter Zakir Musa. Musa, who previously fought under the banner of Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest militant outfit in Kashmir, joined as Al-Qaeda head in Kashmir three years after the group first released video calling on “brothers in Kashmir” to “wage jihad against India”.

Top resistance leaders and the chief of Hizbul Mujahideen were quick to distance themselves from AGH, vehemently denying any link between Kashmir’s freedom movement and global terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIL. In a statement issued on July 28, 2017, top resistance leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik said terrorism and freedom movement were poles apart. “Our movement is local in nature and indigenous in character… there is no role for these groups (Al-Qaeda and ISIL) within our movement,” read the statement.

Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin also issued a statement denouncing these outfits as “terrorists” and claiming they had no role in Kashmir. “The freedom movement of Jammu and Kashmir has no worldwide agenda, and no links with organisations like ISIL or Al-Qaeda. Such organisations have no role in Kashmir,” he asserted in a five-minute video clip. Lashkar e Toiba chief in Kashmir Mehmood Shah said these global terrorist organisations have “greatly affected the Muslims and brought upon them injustice, brutality and oppression.”

So, the lines were clearly drawn between local militant organisations like Hizbul Mujahideen, Jaish e Mohammad, Lashkar e Toiba and the global militant outfits like ISIL and Al-Qaeda.

While green flags, symbolizing the indigenous freedom movement of Kashmir, have traditionally dominated the landscape of Kashmir, the black ISIL/Al-Qaeda flags have appeared a few times at funerals of slain militants in last few years, leaving political pundits and intelligence sleuths befuddled. The popular sentiment in Kashmir, believe political observers, remains fiercely opposed to the hate-driven ideology of ISIL, Al-Qaeda and their affiliates.

Unlike in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, Kashmir’s freedom movement, which gained momentum in late 1980s, has remained largely indigenous, according to observers. However, in recent times, global terrorist outfits like Al-Qaeda and ISIL have made desperate attempts to gain foothold in Kashmir, much to the consternation of local pro-freedom leaders, peace activists and common people.

When the body of armed rebel Mugees Ahmad Mir, killed on November 19, 2017, was draped in Al-Qaeda and ISIL flags instead of the traditional green flag, the talk of the town was that the global terrorist organizations have finally set off operations in the disputed region. The killing of militant commanders Abu Dujana and Arif Nabi, who according to Musa had played a key role in establishing AGH in Kashmir, further corroborated the reports about Al-Qaeda and ISIL presence in the valley.

While Zakir Musa’s association with the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Kashmir lends some credence to reports about the group’s presence in the troubled valley, the presence of ISIL has not been fully established yet. The group has claimed responsibility for many recent terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, but the security agencies remain clueless.

In November 2017, the ISIL claimed to have carried out an attack on a police party in Srinagar, in which a policeman was killed. Security authorities that time dismissed it as the propaganda of A’maq, the publicity wing of the ISIL. “I don’t think ISIL has any footprints here,” said Kashmir’s police chief S P Vaid. A senior Home Ministry official also sought to downplay the reports. “There is no authoritative information about the presence of ISIL in Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.

In January 2018, speaking in the parliament, Home Minister (MoS) Hansraj Ahir also categorically stated that nothing has been found on the ground that suggests presence of the ISIL in any part of the valley. However, he hastened to add that Zakir Musa, head of Al-Qaeda affiliate, had support of around 10 militants.

After consistently rubbishing reports about the presence of the ISIL in Kashmir, the admission finally came in February this year. A day after the militant group claimed responsibility for killing a police constable in Srinagar, SP Vaid admitted that the group has a presence in the valley. He said the presence, albeit “not substantial” was “indeed a worrying sign”. In a statement released after the attack, ISIL said “a war has just begun”.

While the debate continues to simmer, political and strategic affairs observers maintain that the groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda will find it difficult to gain foothold in Kashmir, “because their agenda and ideology clash with Kashmir’s indigenous azadi movement”. “There is a small section of people sympathetic towards groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda, and there are people driven by their ideology,” says Sajjad Ahmad, a political commentator. “But Kashmir will not become another Syria or Iraq because people of Kashmir will never accept groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda.”

Social media has also been abuzz lately with posts denouncing the ISIL and waving of ISIS/Al-Qaeda flags in funerals. “There is no place for radical militant outfits in Kashmir, it is a matter of grave concern that flags of ISIL and Al-Qaeda have started to appear in militant funerals,” wrote a Facebook user Muzaffar Bhat. “Kashmir’s freedom movement needs to be saved from groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda and their affiliate Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind. They should not be allowed to have footprint in Kashmir,” wrote Ubaid Zargar on Twitter.

The latest to join the chorus against the ISIL flags in Kashmir is Ashraf Sehrai, the newly-elected chief of Tehreek e Hurriyat Kashmir and close aide of the octagenerian separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. In a statement issued two days after his election as Geelani's successor, Sehrai expressed grave concern over it and said those waving ISIL flags in Kashmir are helping India's cause. He also urged Al Qaeda Kashmir unit head Zakr Musa to shun the path of extremism and join the indigenous freedom struggle.

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