Zakir Rashid Bhat, a.k.a. Zakir Musa, the emir of the al-Qaeda-linked group Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), was killed in an encounter with Indian security forces on May 23 in the Tral area of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir (India Today, May 10). Arguably the most wanted Islamist terrorist in India, Musa’s killing is a boost for the recently re-elected government led by the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). His killing coincided with the election victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Zakir Musa came into public eye after he parted ways with Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM) and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri and roundly denounced Pakistani, Indian, and local Kashmiri leaders. He represented a new generation of Islamist Kashmiri militants who opted to embrace the global jihadist movement rather than restricting their goal to independence from India.
Zakir Musa remained part of HuM and served as its deputy emir but moved on to establish his own militant group, AGH, and establish links with al-Qaeda. He decided to leave HuM after the killing of Burhan Wani, the group’s notorious and ruthless commander, in 2016. Musa was the foremost choice to replace Wani. Instead he left HuM to found AGH and declared the ambition to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Kashmir. He denounced both the Pakistani government and the Huraiyat Conference (political wing of Indian pro-independence parties) in Indian Kashmir.
The death of Zakir Musa is definitely a setback for al-Qaeda. With the emergence of AGH, al-Qaeda Central made an opening into Indian Kashmir’s Islamist militancy. This follows the recent expansion of al-Qaeda into other parts of South Asia. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is currently working alongside the Afghan Taliban, and Jamaat ul Ansar al-Sharia Pakistan is operating in the country for which it is named. The advent of AGH in India was an opportunity for al-Qaeda Central; however, the killing of Zakir Musa is a severe blow to al-Qaeda’s ambitions in Indian Kashmir. AQIS’s official spokesperson Usama Mehmood has also released an obituary for Zakir Musa by eulogizing his efforts to promote al-Qaeda’s vision. Mahmood termed Musa a bright star of jihad in Kashmir and compared his legacy to other fallen Islamist terrorists such as Burhan Wani, Mullah Muhammad Omar, Osama bin Laden, and others (The Hindu, June 7).
But all is not lost for al-Qaeda. AGH’s spokesperson Abu Ubaida announced Abdul Hameed Lelhari, a.k.a. Haroon Abbas, as Musa’s successor as AGH emir and Ghazi Ibrahim as deputy emir. The new head of AGH is a seasoned jihadist operating in Indian Kashmir and one of the ten founding members of AGH. Of those ten, eight have been killed by Indian security forces during last two years (Times Now, May 28). He, alongside Musa, parted ways with HuM and joined AGH in July 2017 (India TV News, June 6). Lelhari hails from the Pulwama district of Indian Kashmir (New Delhi Times, June 7). Not much is known about Lelhari except that he previously served as deputy emir of AGH under Zakir Musa (Rising Kashmir, June 7). In his maiden audio message released by AGH’s al-Hurr Media on July 6, titled The Solid Structure, Lelhari vowed to continue the movement, accusing Pakistan of interfering in Kashmir, and calling for an independent Shura council of mujahedeen groups. He further elucidated his main objectives such as establishing Sharia law and allowing military operations in Indian Kashmir to be decided by local commanders. He repeated the oft-used slogan of AGH, i.e. Sharia or martyrdom.(Economic Times, June 7; Eye on Extremism, July 9). With plans like “Solid Structure” and “independent Shura council,” the new emir appears to be resurrecting AGH and perhaps has the advantage of capitalizing on the fertile jihadist landscape in Indian Kashmir.
Indian Kashmir is currently under direct President’s rule, under which the central government in New Delhi takes direct control of a state during a period of instability, after six months of Governor’s rule (Economic Times, December 20, 2018). An aggrieved and disgruntled Kashmiri populace living under a perpetually hazardous security situation is vulnerable and easy prey for recruitment by Islamist terrorist organizations. The killing of AGH Emir Zakir Musa may have bolstered the morale of Indian security forces, but growing Islamist radicalization and dissatisfaction among Kashmiri youth is indicative of the fact that the al-Qaeda-linked group may manage to restart its terrorist activities under its new emir. The display of Islamic State and al-Qaeda flags during demonstrations in Indian Kashmir showcased the current Islamist trends. The terrorist group has the advantage of being affiliated with and receiving support from al-Qaeda, a global Islamist terrorist group. The Indian government now needs to reinvigorate counter-violent extremist measures in view of the radical jihadist narratives being disseminated in the region.