Al Qaida Affiliate AGuH Leader Zakir Musa Killed in J&K - What Lies Ahead?
Anurag Sharma, Research Associate, VIF

On 23 May 2019, while all the prime time news channels in India were intensely pre-occupied with news and analysis of the Parliamentary Election 2019, a few of them found time and space to flash a piece of a very significant security related news from the Kashmir Valley- the killing of Zakir Musa aka Zakir Rashid Bhat, chief of Al-Qaida’s Kashmir unit Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind (AGuH), in the course of a joint counter-terror Cordon-and-Search Operation (CASO) carried out by Indian Army’s 42 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) Battalion, Special Operation Group (SOG) of the J&K Police and personnel belonging to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

The encounter took place in Dadsara village in Tral area in Pulwama district.1 At the end of the operation, security officials confirmed that Zakir Musa was one of the militants killed during the operation in which the forces also recovered an AK-47 rifle and a rocket launcher from the operation site.1 This article attempts to trace Zakir Musa’s transition from a college student to a commander of Hizb ul-Mujahideen (HM) and then his move as chief of Al-Qaeda Kashmir unit, AGuH. The article also attempts to evaluate the possible impact of this development on the course of radical Islamic militancy in the Kashmir Valley and beyond.

Musa’s Journey from College Student to HM Commander

Zakir Musa was a former commander of Pakistan-backed militant group HM, who replaced Burhan Wani, killed during a counter-terrorism operation in 2016. In 2010, Zakir Musa participated in civilian protest which was triggered by the death of a 17 years-old student named Tufail Ahmad Matoo during a protest in South Kashmir.3 Like Burhan Wani, Zakir Musa was also an academic dropout. It was in 2013 when Zakir Musa dropped out of Ram Dev Jindal College in Chandigarh after he failed in his B. Tech exams. He then joined Pakistan-backed outfit HM.4 Within two years of joining HM, in 2015, Musa’s status and reputation rose as a notable terrorist within the group which was then led by Burhan Wani. During the period between 2015 and 2016, Musa was actively involved in carrying out grenade attacks and other loot activities in the Valley.


Image 1. Screenshot of Zakir Musa’s 08-minute video posted on YouTube in August 2016.5

On 08 July 2016, HM’s “tech-savvy and most influential commander” Burhan Wani was killed during exchange of fire with security forces in Bumdoora village in Kokernag area in Anantnag district. After four days, on 12 July 2016, HM released a statement to the local media announcing the name of Burhan Wani’s successor as the new Kashmir commander under the nom de guerre of Mehmood Ghaznavi.6 India’s security agencies believed that Mehmood Ghaznavi7 was none other than Zakir Rashid Bhat or Zakir Musa. Just over a month later, on 16 August 2016, Zakir Musa posted a 08-minute video message over the YouTube in which he urged the people of Kashmir valley to actively indulge in the protests and to make the ongoing stir successful.8. In the video, Musa also called upon them to continue their movement till “azaadi” or freedom was attained. Significantly, despite being the new head of Pakistan sponsored HM, Musa did not mention Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan as part of his agenda.9 The video was shared widely via different social-media platforms.

Musa’s Transition from HM to AGuH

The first indication of a change in the propaganda narrative of HM under the new leadership of Musa came when Zakir Musa, in an audio message on 12 May 2017, said, “We will slit the throats of resistance leaders—leaders of Hurriyat Conference—before the Kafirs (infidels) in Lal Chowk, main hub of Srinagar, if they don’t refrain from turning the Kashmir issue into a political one from a struggle for Islam. If you don’t [to Hurriyat leaders] believe that the struggle in Kashmir was for Islam, then you shall stop using the Mosques for propagating the cause of freedom.”10

For Kashmir watchers, the threat to “slit the throats” of Hurriyat leaders for calling the Kashmir struggle a “political” issue and not an “Islamic cause”, came as a truly stunning development. It was the first time when a terrorist of commander of any tanzeem in J&K had publicly threatened to cause physical harm to the separatist leaders. It was equally significant that as HM commander in the Valley, Musa preferred to describe Kashmir as an ‘Islamic issue’ and not a ‘political dispute’ which has been the Pakistani approach. Even though the Hurriyat leadership has often, in recent times, been criticised by the Kashmiri youth for not meeting the expectations of the Kashmiris, no one had publicly gone this far. Not only the separatist leaders, the statement must have shaken up the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that supports and sustains both, the separatists and terrorist groups. The threat must have been taken seriously as at two instances in the past, separatist leaders—Mirwaiz Muhammad Farooq and Abdul Gani Lone were killed on 21 May 1990 and 21 May 2002 respectively.11

So, very quickly, the very next day, on 13 May 2017, HM’s Spokesperson Saleem Hashmi, in an e-mail statement to a local news agency in Kashmir, rejected Musa’s statement as ‘unacceptable’ to the HM, and that it reflected the personal opinion of Zakir Musa. Hashmi’s statement created a rift between HM and the group led by Zakir Musa. The war of words continued with Zakir Musa releasing another audio message on social media stating, “HM has said that we have nothing to do with the statement of Zakir Musa. So, if HM doesn't represent me then I don't represent them, either. From today onwards, I have no association with HM.”12

Zakir Musa’s split from HM presented an opportunity for transnational groups - Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) - to step-in to establish their respective branches in the J&K by trying to lure Musa to join their respective organisations. On 27 July 2017, Al-Qaeda’s affiliated media network - the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) - released a statement announcing the formation of its new affiliate terrorist outfit in J&K, the Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind (AGuH), and appointed Zakir Musa as its chief.13

On 04 August 2017, a video message was released by the newly appointed AGuH’s chief Zakir Musa, claiming that commanders Abu Dujana and Arif Lehari, who were killed in a brief encounter with security forces on 01 August 2017, had left Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and joined Al-Qaeda, and had helped in establishing Al-Qaeda cell in India. 14 Featuring the images of Dujana, Lehari, and himself [Musa] in the video, Zakir Musa revealed the existance of differences between Dujana and Pakistan-based LeT’s handlers. Both, Lehari and Dujana decided to join when they heard about the objective of espousing the cause of Islam which led to the formation of AGuH, claimed Zakir Musa in the video. 15


Image 2: Official AGuH poster 16

Statements and counters flew fast and furious. On 31 August 2017, Zakir Musa released another audio message criticising Pakistan for its “betrayal” of jihad in Kashmir. He stated that jihad in Kashmir did not require support from any country [referring to Pakistan]. “Many terrorists who had been killed in Kashmir, they were not killed for democracy or secularism but for establishment of Islamic Shariat in the State of J&K,” claimed Musa in the audio clip.17

This was the first time when al-Qaeda affiliated AGuH warned India and PM Narendra Modi stating that the mission of AGuH in Kashmir was to ‘clear’ jihad from Pakistan government, army and their sponsored agents and also to liberate India from Gau Pujaris (cow worshippers). The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could gather as much force but he would not be able to stop their mission, which is to establish Islamic State [not to confuse with the IS terrorist organisation].18 Subsequently, in September 2017, Musa’s previous organisation HM countered the rift expressed by Zakir Musa by pasting posters in the streets of Shopian district of Kashmir, blaming him for assisting “Indian Armed Forces” to kill Kashmiris. The posters called upon the people of Kashmir to chase him [Zakir Musa] to death.19

Fate of AGuH after Zakir Musa’s death

After the killing of Zakir Musa, protests broke out on the night of 23 May 2019 in Shopian, Pulwama, Awantipora, and Srinagar. In these protests people raised pro-Musa slogans that prompted the authorities to impose curfew in parts of the Valley as a precautionary measure.20 Obviously, they did not want a repeat of post-Burhan Wani disturbances in the Valley. Reportedly, on 28 May 2019, the J&K Director-General of Police (DGP) Dilbag Singh said that with the killing of the AGuH’s chief Zakir Musa, the ‘new idea of militancy’ had ended in Kashmir.21 However, the Kashmir Valley continued to witness sporadic protests by students at various locations. In the afternoon of 28 May 2019, a clash between the security forces and students erupted at Islamia College in Hawal area in Srinagar.22 At another location, hundreds of students of Government Degree College in Sopore came out on the street shouting pro-Musa and pro-Azaadi, slogans. Demonstrators tried to block traffic movement which triggered a clash between them.23

Although, there has been no official statement from AGuH’s official media network, Al-Hurr, according to media reports, Hameed Lelhari, former deputy chief of AGuH, has been appointed as the new chief of AGuH after the death of Zakir Musa. Hameed Lelhari is one of the 10 initial terrorists to have joined Musa’s AGuH team. Of the group of 10, eight have already been nailed down by the security forces, with only Lelhari and another terrorist remaining.24 Considering the success rate of counter-terrorism (CT) operations of the security forces in the Kashmir Valley, it may not be long before they home on the newly appointed chief Hameed Lelhari.

What Lies Ahead?

The question being currently debated by strategic experts is the likely fate of AGuH in the months ahead. Hamid Lelhari does not have the charisma of Zakir Musa or Burhan Wani. He cannot be expected to build a cadre of dedicated fighters to sustain a pro-Islam movement in the Valley. Even in the best of times, Musa was not known to have a large group of volunteers in the AGuH. His personal following, particularly amongst the Kashmiri youth was sizeable but apparently he did not command ground level presence due to paucity of funds and weapons, both being controlled by the ISI network. And his pro-Islam agenda did not ever find favour with the controllers across the borders. ISI would not like the prominence of terrorist organisations like HM, LeT and JeM to be challenged in the Valley. It is therefore, quite likely that dissenters like Musa would eventually get eliminated, putting an end to the pro-Islamic narrative in the Valley, be it pro-Al Qaeda or pro-Islamic State, even though the latter has recently claimed having ‘established’ itself in the State.

The activities of AQ and IS, nonetheless, would need very close monitoring by the intelligence and security agencies operating in the State since these entities are known to not give up very easily nor too soon. What needs to be emphasised here is that the ground is fertile for them to cash in on the growing degree of Islamic radicalisation among the disaffected youth. The continuing emphasis on dealing with militancy and terrorism in the State through kinetic approach has helped contain the level of violence. Yet, it had had minimal impact on the spread of Islamic radicalisation. Perhaps, time is now ripe for taking a fresh look at this aspect of Kashmir and devise a comprehensive policy to neutralise and reverse the trend - sooner the better.

References:
  1. Ganai, Naseer. “Chief of Al-Qaeda Kashmir Unit Zakir Musa trapped after encounter in South Kashmir”, The Outlook, 23 May 2019, Available from: https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-chief-of-al-qaeda-kashmir-unit-zakir-musa-trapped-after-encounter-in-south-kashmir/330866
  2. Malik, Bismah. “Who was Zakir Musa? Kashmir’s most wanted militant and Burhan Wani’s successor killed in Tral”, International Business Times, 24 May 2019, Available from: https://www.ibtimes.co.in/who-was-zakir-musa-kashmirs-most-wanted-militant-burhan-wanis-successor-killed-tral-798204
  3. Javaid, Azaan. “Hizbul Mujahideen names its new Kashmir commander”, DNA, 13 July 2016, Available from: https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-hizbul-mujahideen-names-its-new-kashmir-commander-2233952
  4. Singh, Aarti Tikoo. “From engineering dropout to militant: Story of Hizbul terrorist who quit outfit”, Times of India, 14 May 2017, Available from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/from-engineering-dropout-to-militant-story-of-hizbul-terrorist-who-quit-outfit/articleshow/58664876.cms
  5. “After Burhan, Zakir Mussa sends a video message,” YouTube video, 08:23, posted by “Hindustan Times”, 17 August 2016, Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDb_OiXDvtY
  6. Javaid, Azaan. “Hizbul Mujahideen names its new Kashmir commander”. 13 July 2016.
  7. Mehmood Ghaznavi was a name taken after Ghaznavid Empire ruler Mehmood Ghazni who was infamous in India for his invasions.
  8. “Hizbul Mujahideen projects Zakir Rashid Bhat as Wani’s successor”, Deccan Chronicle, 18 August 2016, Available from: https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/180816/jk-22-year-old-frontline-militant-bhat-studied-civil-engineering.html
  9. Javaid, Azaan. “How different is Hizbul Mujahideen’s Zakir Rashid than his predecessor Burhan Wani?”, DNA, 18 August 2016, Available from: https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-how-different-is-hizul-mujahideen-s-zakir-rashid-than-his-predecessor-burhan-wani-2246291
  10. Islah, Mufti. “Hizbul commander threatens to kill Hurriyat leaders for calling Kashmir struggle ‘political’”, News 18, 13 May 2017, Available from: https://www.news18.com/news/india/hizbul-commander-threatens-to-kill-hurriyat-leaders-for-calling-kashmir-struggle-political-1400067.html
  11. Ibid.
  12. “Zakir Musa Quits Hizbul Mujahideen day after threatening to kill hurriyat leaders”, News 18, 13 May 2017, Available from: https://www.news18.com/news/india/after-his-beheading-warning-to-hurriyat-leaders-zakir-musa-quits-hizbul-1400563.html
  13. “Al-Qaida linked cell Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind announces Zakir Musa as its chief in Kashmir”, The Times of India, 27 July 2017, Available from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/al-qaida-linked-cell-ansar-ghazwat-ul-hind-announces-zakir-musa-as-its-chief-in-kashmir/articleshow/59792567.cms
  14. Rashid, Toufiq. “Abu Dujana helped set up al Qaeda in India: Zakir Musa in purported statement”, Hindustan Times, 05 August 2017, Available from: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/abu-dujana-first-martyr-in-war-for-islamic-kashmir-joined-al-qaeda-zakir-musa/story-ySsuQl70Kp6zvbswW2AjKL.html
  15. Ibid.
  16. Safi, Michael (@safimichael). 2017. “Here’s statement issued……….Global Islamic Media Front”, Twitter, 27 July 2017, 03:24 PM, Available from: https://twitter.com/safimichael/status/890510746244726784
  17. “Al Qaeda Kashmir head slams Pakistan for betraying Kashmir ‘jehad’, warns India”, The New Indian Express, 01 September 2017, Available from:
    http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2017/sep/01/al-qaeda-kashmir-head-slams-pakistan-for-betraying-kashmir-jehad-warns-india-1651189--2.html
  18. Ibid.
  19. Pandit, Saleem M. “Hizbul blames Zakir Musa for ‘helping forces kill Kashmiris”, The Times of India, 18 September 2017, Available from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/hizbul-blames-zakir-musa-for-helping-forces-kill-kashmiris/articleshow/60725318.cms
  20. PTI. “Zakir Musa killed in South Kashmir encounter: Officials”, The Economic Times¸ 24 May 2019, Available from: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/zakir-musa-jks-most-wanted-militant-killed-in-kashmir/articleshow/69469571.cms?from=mdr
  21. IANS Tweets (@ians_india). 2019. “J&K Director General of Police……….had ended in Kashmir”, Twitter, 28 May 2019, 03:44 PM, Available from: https://twitter.com/ians_india/status/1133315528506765312
  22. Kashmir Reader (@Kashmir_Reader). 2019. “clashes erupted……Zakir Musa”, Twitter, 28 May 2019, 04:41 PM, Available from: https://twitter.com/Kashmir_Reader/status/1133330015175602176
  23. GMK News Desk, “Zakir Musa aftermath: Massive clashes erupted in various colleges across Kashmir, Classwork suspended in GDC Sopore”, Good Morning Kashmir, 28 May 2019, Available from: https://goodmorningkashmir.in/2019/05/28/zakir-musa-aftermath-massive-clashes-erupted-in-various-colleges-across-kashmir-classwork-suspended-in-gdc-sopore/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+GoodMorningKashmir+%28Good+Morning+Kashmir%29
  24. “Hameed Lelhari steps into terrorist Zakir Musa’s shoes, becomes head of Al-Qaeda affiliated group”, TimesNow News, 28 May 2019, Available from: https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/hameed-lelhari-steps-into-terrorist-zakir-musas-shoes-becomes-head-of-al-qaeda-affiliated-group/426419

Image Source: https://www.organiser.org/Encyc/2019/2/25/Trend-of-Talibanisation.amp.html

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
1 + 3 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us