Hizbul Mujahideen is marching to its grave: Kashmir's once-feared terror group is roiled by infighting, low on resources and lacking local leadership

In the past two weeks alone, a record number of Hizbul cadre — many young recruits who have joined in recent months — have been slain in police-led operations.

Praveen Swami June 13, 2020 10:41:15 IST
Hizbul Mujahideen is marching to its grave: Kashmir's once-feared terror group is roiled by infighting, low on resources and lacking local leadership

From his home in the little mountain village of Liver, Naseer Ahmad Khan has begun gathering an army: Porters, carpenters, masons, mule-drivers, who will later this month march into the great mountains above Pahalgam to the ring of remote military outposts set up to guard the pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine.

The work is hard — and dangerous. Labour contractors like Naseer Ahmad are seen by jihadists as collaborators; some have been tortured, even executed.

But Naseer Ahmad is different: his father is Ghulam Nabi Khan, the military chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen, once Kashmir’s largest jihadist group. From his home in Rawalpindi, in Pakistan, Khan has presided over the Hizb’s war against India since 2008,  the last man standing, almost, of a generation of jihadists who once came close to seizing Kashmir.

The strange story of father and son helps us understand why, even as a new generation of Kashmiris is joining the jihad, the Hizb is marching towards its grave.

Hizbul Mujahideen is marching to its grave Kashmirs oncefeared terror group is roiled by infighting low on resources and lacking local leadership

File image of former Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo, who was killed in an encounter with security forces last month. News18

In the past two weeks alone, a record number of Hizbul cadre — many young recruits who have joined in recent months — have been killed in police-led operations.

New Delhi is cheering, but this might not prove to be good news for India.

Born around 1950 the village of Liver, near Pahalgam, to orchard-owning farmers, Khan was part of the first generation of Kashmiri Muslims to be empowered by State-provided public education.

Following an education at a government-run high school in Sirigufwara, not far from Liver, Khan went on to earn a Bachelor's degree in the Arts from the Government Degree College in Khanabal, near Anantnag.

To most local people, he seemed destined for a job as a petty bureaucrat, a coveted position. Then, the course of his life changed.

Islamism had, in the 1970s, begun to emerge as a language of protest against India and the increasingly kleptocratic political system it sustained in Kashmir.

Kashmir’s Jamaat-e-Islami, scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded, used networks of schools and mosques to propagate the idea India was determined “to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris, through Hinduising the school syllabus and spreading immorality and vice among the youth.”

In the Summer of 1973, the discovery of a dusty colonial-era encyclopedia in Anantnag’s public library, bearing an archangel Gabriel dictating the text of the Quran to the Prophet, sparked off widespread rioting. Local clerics demanded its its author be hanged, a demand hard to meet, scholar Katherine Frank wryly observed “since Arthur Mee had died in England in 1943.”

For Khan, the riots marked the beginning of a lifelong involvement in Islamist politics. Though he does not appear to have joined in Jamaat-e-Islami organisational politics, he became active in Islamist opposition circles in southern Kashmir.

Then, in 1987, the National Conference — with then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s blessings — rigged state elections to ensure the defeat of the new Islamist-led Opposition coalition, the Muslim United Front (MUF). Khan was among many MUF activists — alongside his boss in the Hizb, Muhammad Yusuf Shah — who ended up in prison.

Emerging from jail in 1989, Khan crossed the Line of Control (LoC) to train at the many Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate-administered camps which had sprung up in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK). His brother, Nisar Ahmad Khan — slain in 1999 — also travelled to the camps for training.

Khan returned in 1990, now using the alias “Saifullah Khalid.” Ten years later, he was commanding the Hizbul Mujahideen’s operations across Kashmir.

The ground beneath Khan’s feet, though, had begun to shift. In 1997, the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Ghulam Muhammad Bhat, called for an end to “gun culture”, using language that spoke for the growing frustration of Islamists with a war that had reached a grim, pointless cul-de-sac.

Fair elections and democratic politics had resumed in Kashmir in 1996. Large numbers of yesterday’s jihadists — once politicians themselves — wanted a deal with India.

In the autumn of 2000, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government ordered the Research and Analysis Wing to begin secret peace negotiations with senior Hizb commander Abdul Majid Dar. Politicians like secessionist leader Abdul Gani Lone — legislator Sajad Lone’s father — quietly helped the process along.

Khan had very personal reasons to resist the peace process: in 1999, his son Abdul Hamid Khan, the fourth of five, had been tortured and killed, in what the family alleges was an extra-judicial execution by Indian forces.

The following year, as the dialogue process unfolded, Khan fled back across the LoC to Pakistan, fearing for his own life. He played a key role, though, in the ISI’s campaign to stamp out the peace process, organising the assassination of key pro-dialogue commanders like Abdul Hamid Tantray. Lone was assassinated in 2002; the Hizb’s Dar was himself executed by a jihadist hit-squad in 2003.

Killing off the dialogue process, though, proved tougher than expected. General Pervez Musharraf’s regime, under pressure from the United States after 9/11 and eager to avoid crisis with India, threw its weight behind a new peace process from 2003.

Former chief minister Mufti Muhammad Saeed’s People’s Democratic Party government, moreover, provided the Jamaat rank-and-file with patronage and reached out to ground-level Hizb commanders, hoping to win them back to democratic politics.

In the mid-2000s, demoralised cadre at the Hizb’s camps began returning home, often with families in tow, travelling home through Kathmandu with the tacit backing of India’s intelligence services.

Inside Kashmir, the senior Hizb leadership’s families set about making their own peace. Hizb chief Shah’s youngest son Syed Abdul Wahid landed a medical degree — and then a job at a prestigious government medical hospital — with a little help from the Intelligence Bureau, according to former Research and Analysis Wing chief AS Dulat. Two of Wahid’s siblings, Syed Shahid Yousuf and Syed Shakeel Yusuf, also landed government jobs.

Like Khan’s labour-contractor son, the children and grandchildren of jihad commanders and secessionist politicians chose Indian capitalism over their parents’ Islamism. Barring Junaid Sehrai, son to Jamaat leader Muhammad Ashraf Khan, no child of a prominent Islamist joined a terrorist group.

The Hizb seemed headed, inexorably, towards the dustbin of history.

Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, responded to this crisis by bypassing the Jamaat, and reaching out to new youth cohort that had grown up amidst Kashmir’s long jihad. Led by politicians such as Masrat Alam Bhat, Asiya Andrabi and Ashiq Husain Faktoo, the New Islamists successfully repackaged Jamaat ideology for an online generation.

Prostitution, drug and alcohol use, migrant workers, women’s freedoms: these were India’s weapons, to destroy Islam and Kashmiris, the New Islamists claimed.

“I caution my nation,” Geelani warned in 2006, “that if we don't wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced.”

Geelani and his lieutenants received none-too-tacit support from chief minister Saeed, who hoped to use them to destabilise his arch rival and successor, Congress politician Ghulam Nabi Azad.

Feuds between the PDP and National Conference fuelled the crisis. “We politicians set about pulling each other down”, recalled former Kashmir minister Imran Ansari, “and ended up bringing the roof down on our heads.”

In the summer of 2008, the New Islamist movement exploded into murderous street battles with police. The Hizb found itself on the sidelines, lacking the kinds of charismatic leadership needed to reach out to young people. The slogans of young Islamist protesters increasingly invoked the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad—not the Hizb.

Even though he flatly refused to return home, Khan was now given charge of rebuilding the organisation. Funds flowed to local commanders, but the task proved hard, mainly because the considerable daylight that lay between aspirations of young jihadists and the Hizb’s leadership.

From 2010, bitter feuds broke out between Hizb leadership and north Kashmir commander Abdul Qayyum Najjar, culminating in a series of savage killings. Najjar was called back to Pakistan and a truce worked out. The deal didn’t last, though, and both sides were soon trading allegations of treason — and bullets.

Burhan Wani, held out as a poster boy for the Hizb in a social media driven age, further embarrassed the Hizb by decrying its traditional ethnic-religious nationalism and vowing to fight “until a caliphate is established over the entire world.”

Hizb leaders, acutely aware of western pressures on their Pakistani patrons to distance themselves from global jihadist organisations like Al-Qaeda, sought to silence this Islamic State-inspired polemic, but failed.

Wani’s successor Zakir Rashid Bhat went even further, threatening to “chop the heads off” secessionist politicians should they stand in the way of the jihadist struggle for an Islamic State. Inside months, Bhat broke with the Hizb and set up an Al-Qaeda wing in Kashmir.

Finding himself running short of leadership candidates after Bhat’s defection, Khan turned to Sabzar Ahmad Khan, a one-time criminal and drug addict from Tral who had acquired a significant social media profile. Sabzar Khan rein, though, turned out to be ineffective — and short lived.

Late in 2016, Khan finally found a commander who understood the need to keep the Hizb’s language distinct from global jihadism and avoid alienating the bourgeois base of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Through his almost four-year run as the Hizb’s Kashmir chief, one-time school teacher Riyaz Naikoo significantly toned down the organisation’s polemic.

“We have no enmity with people of India, he proclaimed on one occasion. “Our fight is with those who commit cruelty against our people.”

In one 2018 speech that irked many young Islamists in Kashmir, Naikoo even assured migrant workers and Amarnath pilgrims: “You have no threat from us.”

Last year, though, after Article 370 was revoked, Naikoo found himself struggling to rein-in field units which unleashed an assassination campaign targeting the apple industry. Though young jihadists were determined to sabotage the harvest and thus demonstrate the limits of India’s power, the Hizb command understood this would serve only to alienate ordinary Kashmiris.

Following Naikoo’s killing last month, the Hizb is again facing a leadership crisis. His successor Saifullah Mir, an Industrial Training Institute-educated pharmacologist, is believed to rarely leave his home district of Pulwama.

There’s little sign Mir — or his boss in Rawalpindi — will succeeding in addressing the Hizb’s chronic capacity issues. Lacking weapons and ammunition, as well as even rudimentary training, over two dozen recruits who joined the Hizb have been killed in police-led operations since March.

This hemorrhage, unprecedented in the Hizb’s history, makes it probable young Islamists will look elsewhere to pursue their jihadist pulses.

Ethnic Kashmiri jihadists have found growing space in better-resourced and disciplined organisations such as the Lashkar and Jaish. In December 2017, teenager Fardeen Khandey and 21-year-old Manzoor Baba participated in a suicide-squad attack on a Central Reserve Police Force complex in Pulwama, becoming the first known ethnic Kashmiris to have carried out such a strike.

Adil Dar, the 20-year-old who carried out the 2019 Jaish-e-Muhammad suicide-bombing in Pulwama, began in the Hizb — but soon looked elsewhere. “By the time this video reaches you,” he said in a suicide video, “I will be frolicking in paradise.”

Adil Hafiz, another young jihadist who began his journey in the Hizb, is believed by police to have signed up for a similar bombing last month.

Even though anti-Pakistan organisations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have been crippled by the same logistical challenges as the Hizb, they have also continued to attract some numbers of new recruits. Kashmiri jihadists linked to these global organisations have begun to argue that the war of attrition in Kashmir is unwinnable — and advocate, instead, for attacks on cities and business across India

Ghulam Nabi Khan’s jihad was intended to supplant the political order India had built in Kashmir with one led by the Jamaat-e-Islami, backed by Pakistan. The political circumstances, and hopes, it was predicated on no longer exist.

In its place, a new kind of jihadism has risen from the dark soil laid by a decayed political system, a jihadism which, inspired by global projects, is driven by a millenarian impulse hostile to all forms of politics and even the idea of accommodation itself.

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