In a surprising move, the United Jihad Council (UJC), a loose confederation of almost 15 militant outfits based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), on Monday claimed responsibility for one of the deadliest terror attacks in Punjab in recent times; one that has already left 14 people dead. Search operations continued on Tuesday, the fourth day of the attack and security forces have their apprehensions that one terrorist is still hiding in the compound.
The UJC's claim has left security establishments in India surprised because the core members of the confederation have never carried out any attack beyond the borders of Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, the UJC has expelled members found to be involved in carrying out attacks outside Kashmir.
In a statement to Srinagar-based news-gathering agency CNS, UJC spokesperson, Syed Sadaqat Hussain, said that the Pathankot air base attack was carried out by "Kashmiri militants" associated with 'Highway Squad'. But strangely enough, the statement provides little information about the actual terrorist group that carried out the attack, alluding cryptically instead to a 'Highway Squad'.
The spokesperson of the UJC said, “(The) Indian government and its media have been suffering from Pakistan-phobia. By accusing Pakistan for every attack, India neither succeeded in the past to malign the Kashmir Freedom Struggle, nor will it get anything in the future through malicious propaganda."
It is these lines that have raised eyebrows, because it seems the UJC is trying to shift the blame from the original perpetrators, believed to be the Maulana Masood Azhar-led group Jaish-e-Mohammed, say security experts.
The United Jihad Council or Muttahida Jihad Council — headquartered in Muzaffarabad, POK — came into being in 1990 to centralise command among dozens of militant groups, and to create a unified command among Pakistan-based groups and Kashmir-based militants outfits. Its first chairman Azam Inqilabi is now a member of the moderate faction of the Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir.
Inqilabi told Firstposton Tuesday that the main reason behind its emergence as the largest militant umbrella group was the aftermath of the killing of Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, the leader of Awami Action Committee on 21 May, 1990 in Srinagar, when the insurgency had just started in Kashmir. “Soon after, there was infighting between different militant groups. In November 1990, during a public gathering in Muzaffarabad, the JKLF and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen even fired at each other. Following which, I assembled them to gather and told them they were fighting for the same cause and should get together,” Inqilabi told Firstpost.
“Eighteen militant outfits came together under the umbrella and I was appointed chairman,” he adds.
But after serving for three months, Inqilabi recalled that some people came to him and told him that if Kashmir becomes independent, it should become part of Pakistan. This was a turning point for the former UJC chairman.
“I didn’t oppose it," admitted Inqilabi, "But I distanced myself from the militancy later, and tried to fight on the diplomatic and political front. Militancy is fine, but should be confined. Politics needs to take over.”
Today's UJC is an umbrella organisations of 15 terrorist groups, comprising the likes of Harkat-ul-Ansar, Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen, Al-Jihad, Al-Barq and Tehrik-ul-Mujahideen. Among these, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (Party of Holy Warriors) is the strongest one. Most of the other outfits are defunct. The council even expelled Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) from its membership because of their involvement in operations outside Kashmir region. However in 2003, both were given observer status in the confederation.
The poster boy of Kashmir’s new militancy, Burhan Wani, belongs to Hizb-ul-Mujhdeen and is widely seen as the man behind a renewed face of insurgency in Kashmir.
However, the council has gone into hibernation following a temporary crackdown after the US began exerting pressure on Pakistan, during General Pervez Musharraf's reign, to close terror camps inside PoK. The coalition now headed by Syed Salahuddin disappeared for some time, removed all signs of the organisation, and asked its leaders to maintain low profiles after the 26 November, 2008 Mumbai attacks and the subsequent tension between India and Pakistan, according to security experts.
“It (UJC) is dysfunctional; most elements are reeling from bans in January 2002 and because of a much more restricted space. Some of the groups are just on survival mode and the policy since June 2014 (read: Operation Zarb-e-Azb) has been one of a gradual deactivation and disengagement from these groups. But you obviously can't throw out those who came from the Indian side of Kashmir,” Imtiaz Gul, a strategic analyst and executive director of Islamabad-based think tank Centre for Research and Security Studies, told Firstpost via email.
“Mast Gul (a Pakistani militant commander who fought in Kashmir) even joined Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Syed (Salahuddin) some times gives interviews but his actions and movements are largely restricted,” he added.
Last year in mid-July when Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, the LeT had asked the UJC to "step up attacks against Indian forces in Jammu and Kashmir rather than holding rallies and conferences in Pakistan."
"(The UJC) should take part in practical jihadi activities in the battlefields of Jammu and Kashmir; there should have been attacks on Indian forces to unnerve New Delhi," LeT commander Iftikhar Rana said in an address at a ceremony organised by the UJC to commemorate 13 July, which is marked as Martyrs' Day in Muzaffarabad.
Mohammad Yousuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin, the head of UJC, was one of the key candidates of the erstwhile political party Muslim United Front (MUF) in Kashmir, which contestedthe 1987 elections. Salahuddin was MUF's candidate from the Amira Kadal Constituency. He was arrested following the results in the polls, which were widely believed to be rigged.
The arrest of Shah — who modelled his nom de guerre on the name of 12th Century Muslim Saracen fighter Salahuddin Ayubbi — is believed to have resulted in the armed insurgency in Kashmir for the next two decades. In an interview in 2012, Salahuddin accepted that Pakistan has been backing Hizb-ul-Mujahideen for its fight in Kashmir. “We are fighting Pakistan’s war in Kashmir and if it withdraws its support, the war would be fought inside Pakistan,” he had said after becoming the chairman of the UJC in 1994.