Apparently, al-Qaeda finds it difficult to lure in fresh Islamist militants amid the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 and the establishment of its self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate. This is not the case in South Asia. Al-Qaeda Central remains strong in the region, and core Islamist terrorist organizations orbiting around it have not moved out of its circle. In Pakistan, Jamaat Ansar al-Sharia pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, while in India, the Zakir Musa-led Ansar Ghazwa tul Hind (AGH) surfaced in Indian Kashmir with openly pro-al-Qaeda stances.
Musa symbolizes a new generation of Islamist terrorists operating in Indian Kashmir. This new generation appears far more radical in their views of violent Islamism and are actively utilizing social media to profess their views. Their members are slightly more educated than their predecessors. Born as Zakir Rashid Musa in the Tral area of Palwama district in 1990, Musa is a son of an Indian government civil servant. Musa studied engineering at Chandigarh College in Punjab province, but dropped out in his third year and joined Hizb ul Mujahedeen (HuM) in 2013 (HuffingtonPost.in, December 16, 2018). With HuM, he conducted terrorist attacks and engaged in other violent activities in the southern districts of Indian Kashmir. After the death of Burhan Wani, the young Emir of Hizb ul Mujahedeen, in an encounter with Indian security forces in 2016, Musa ascended to replace him. He soon left HuM to found AGH and declared his ambition to establish an Islamic Caliphate and state in Kashmir. He denounced both the Pakistani government and Hurriyat Conference (the political wing of the Indian Kashmir pro-independence parties). His anti-Hurriyat views were noticed when he threatened Kashmiri leaders for calling their struggle political, instead of Islamic. He said:
Our struggle is for implementation of Shariah. It is an Islamic struggle… I am warning them (Hurriyat leaders) not to play their politics. If they again try to become thorns in our path, the first thing we will do is behead you and hang you in Lal Chowk. We will leave the infidels and kill you first (Wire India, May 15, 2017).
The Global Islamic Media Front—the official online media wing of al-Qaeda Central—accepted Zakir Musa’s pledge of allegiance and officially announced that he was the leader of its associated group in Indian Kashmir. (Economic Times, July 14, 2018).
Currently he is one of the most-wanted terrorists in Kashmir (Times of India, June 2, 2017). Apart from his connections with his former organization HuM, Musa is believed to be close to Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and his fighters work in tandem with them. Musa’s strategy appears to be attracting many Islamist militants from other Islamic insurgent groups in Indian Kashmir. For example, a number of HuM militants have left their organization to join hands with Musa. The number of AGH members is rising according to Indian security assessments (India Today, July 6, 2017).
After the deaths of Abu Dajana and Arif Lelhar—two important military commanders of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)—Musa claimed that they were the first martyrs in the struggle for an Islamic Kashmir. Musa also stated that both of them had left LeT to join AGH before being killed by the security forces in a gun battle on August 1, 2017. He said:
They decided to join the cause of Islam the moment they heard about it and played a major role in formation of Ansar Ghawzat-Ul-Hind (the Islamic name of the local al-Qaeda group),…those who used to call them traitors are shamelessly paying homage to them (Hindustan Times, August 5, 2017).
In December, 2018, six associates of Musa’s—including his deputy Soliha, a.k.a Rehaan Khan—were killed in an encounter with police in Palwama district after a shootout (NDTV, December 22, 2018). That encounter showcased the growth of Musa’s AGH in Kashmir. Musa himself was spotted in the Indian state of Punjab during the first week of December 2018, which led intelligence agencies to issue security alerts about his presence in the Ferozpur and Bathinda districts (part of Malwa region) in Punjab. He was described as possibly being disguised as a Sikh (Indian Express, December 6, 2018). Musa is well acquainted with the area, as he studied there until 2013. He may have been planning terrorist strikes in Punjab, or developing inroads with Sikh nationalist separatist groups. Indian intelligence and security agencies described Musa’s group as a small cell.
Musa is held in high esteem among Islamist terrorist circles because of his affiliation with and homage to al-Qaeda’s leadership, which considers his organization as accomplishing part of its broader objectives. This indicates that Musa has grand designs of his own, which perhaps would constitute a new brand of Islamist terrorism in the Indian Kashmir insurgency. Many Kashmiri protestors have been seen in the recent past carrying al-Qaeda and IS flags—a new but serious development in this part of the world.