Mohammad Bin Qasim is new Hizbul commander: Army says he may be alias for 'moderate' Riaz Naikoo

Reeling under the severe crackdown by Indian Army on its top commanders, Hizbul Mujahideen has named previously unknown militant Mohammad Bin Qasim as its new Kashmir commander.

The announcement comes a day after the killing of top Hizbul commander Yasin Yatoo, who held the distinction of being the longest serving militant in Valley.

Pakistan-based Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin in a statement named Qasim as the new operational commander of the largest militant group active in the state.

The Hizbul chief said, “With the support of pro-freedom people and Mujahideen, the struggle in Kashmir will continue with full vigour." He also warned that “traitors who are playing a big role in killing of militants of a bitter end,” Greater Kashmir reported.

However, police sources said they had not heard of anyone in Hizbul by that name.

"As per intelligence records, there is no active Hizbul militant in Kashmir with that code name," a PTI report quotes sources as saying.

File image of Reyaz Naikoo (alias Zubair). Indian Army

File image of Reyaz Naikoo (alias Zubair). Indian Army

Aliases: An old strategy

Running terror operations under aliases has been a time-tested strategy adopted by militant groups in the Valley. With an operational area stretching well within 10 districts and a population of little over four million Kashmiris, hiding under the civilian garb has become increasingly difficult in heavily militarised Valley despite limited local support.

In such a scenario, pseudonyms have succeeded in keeping the real identity of militants discharging key organisational responsibilities hidden, including maintaining a steady stream of recruitment.

Yatoo, too was operating under the nom de guerre Mehmood Ghaznavi, when he was neutralised.

Media reports suggest that police suspect Qasim could well be an alias for Riyaz Naikoo or Altaf Kachroo, the last well-known faces in the terror organisation. "Both are category A ++ militants and figure in the list of top 12 militants released by the Indian Army after Bhat’s killing," Hindustan Times reported.

However, Firstpost learnt from sources that security forces are more inclined to think Naikoo is taking up the charge in the guise of Qasim.

Interestingly, both aliases picked by the militant group, Mehmood Ghaznavi and Mohammad Bin Qasim bear an eerie resemblance to names of West Asian conquerers who successfully invaded the Indian subcontinent and whose conquests facilitated subsequent Muslim invasions.

Riyaz Naikoo, a liberal amid extremists?

Naikoo, 29, is a resident of Awantipora town in Pulwama district, who has been active as Hizbul's divisional commander in south Kashmir. He joined militancy in 2012 and has since been involved in a number of attacks and militancy related activities in south Kashmir, according to police. And security forces have enough reasons to suspect that he could have been chosen to lead the terror organisation.

Yatoo's loss has dealt a big blow to the Hizbul Mujahideen at a time when its former leader Zakir Musa has announced a breakaway group, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Kashmir. At such a time, Naikoo, one of the last surviving popular faces in Hizbul, can lend fresh vigour to the terror group reeling under the loss of its prominent leaders.

Naikoo has been operating under the alias, Zubair and he is also more literate than Kachroo, a school drop-out.

Besides, Naikoo is a tech-savvy modern face in the ranks of Hizbul and may help attract "impressionable minds towards terrorism through social network," The Times of India reported. Naikoo has also been close to the top leadership and talks of him taking over as the new chief have been around for a long time. Earlier too, when the army neutralised Sabzar Ahmed Bhat, speculation was rife that Naikoo could be the new operational commander.

Besides, Naikoo has worked tremendously on increasing the visibility and popularity of the banned terror organisation. A popular face on social media, Naikoo has been using platforms like Whatsapp and Facebook to galvanise support for the new age militancy in the Valley.

He is also the one who revived  the early tradition of militants paying tributes to their fallen comrades. "In January last year, Naikoo appeared at the funeral of Shariq Ahmad Bhat — a Lashkar-e-Taiba militant who was killed in an encounter with two of his associates — and fired several shots in the air. The video of the gun salute went viral on social networking sites and has almost become a routine now," as reported in this Firstpost article.

He is also said to be an expert on devising ways to give armed forces the slip. He has reportedly escaped from several traps laid for him by security forces in the past three years.

Most importantly, Naikoo is gauged as a more "moderate" voice among his peers, according to intelligence sources.

Musa, with his pan-Islamist assertions has been taking the centre stage of militancy in the Valley and even threatened to kill those who refer to the Kashmir separatist campaign as a nationalistic movement.

But Naikoo, unlike Musa, prefers secular society to the Islamic caliphate and imposition of Shariat. He has been asserting in his social media messages that the separatist campaign in Kashmir is political in nature and has nothing to do with the global Islamist movement.

Besides, Hizbul's Pakistan-based leadership has been under a lot of pressure from Pakistani intelligence agency ISI, after Musa's rants about establishing a caliphate in Kashmir. A more moderate and literate voice like Naikoo's could lend much needed credibility to the terror group in the eyes of disillusioned but educated Kashmiri youth.

Naikoo had, like former Hizb-Ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, invited Kashmiri Pandits to return to the Valley in his first video message after Wani was killed by the Indian security forces.

"We will welcome them (Kashmiri Pandits) warmly and there is always a place for them in our hearts. They are part of our nation. We are their protectors and not their enemies," he said in the video.

Updated Date: Aug 16, 2017 13:40 PM

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