A Guide to Militant Groups in Kashmir

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 5

The scene outside of the Punjab Hotel, Srinagar

After a few years of relative calm, militancy is slowly but surely resurfacing in the Indian administered state of Jammu and Kashmir. In a smaller-scale repeat of Mumbai, two terrorists occupied the Punjab Hotel in downtown Srinagar on January 6. They remained held up there for nearly 24 hours before police commandos killed them. However, the terrorists succeeded in setting the hotel on fire before the holdup came to an end. As in Mumbai, the terrorists took orders from handlers in Pakistan who used five different cell-phone numbers. Their handlers had already used two of these numbers to guide the attackers in Mumbai (The Hindu, January 10). Police later said that one terrorist was from Kashmir and the other from Pakistan and pointed an accusing finger at the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the same group responsible for Mumbai. However, a little-known group, Jamiat ul-Mujahideen, later claimed responsibility for the holdup (AFP, January 8).

Over 150 Islamist groups

In the early days of jihad in Kashmir, between 1988 and 1990, more than 150 groups surfaced on the jihadist scene. Some of these groups united to form bigger groups such as Hizb ul-Mujahideen, but most of them simply disappeared. Some of those which still exist are mere shadows of their past and have very few followers. None except the Hizb ul-Mujahideen have the capability of carrying out militant operations inside Indian-administered Kashmir on their own. Some of these groups collaborate occasionally with Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba to justify their existence.

Hizbul Mujahideen

From its start in October 1989, Hizb ul-Mujahideen started gaining strength as it became the armed wing of not only the Jamaat-i-Islami of Jammu and Kashmir but also of the Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir (“Free Kashmir,” i.e. Pakistani controlled Kashmir). The Jamaat-i-Islami of Jammu and Kashmir elevated minor politician Mohammed Yusuf Shah, (a.k.a. Salahuddin, after the mediaeval Muslim general Salah al-Din) to the rank of supreme commander of the Hizb ul-Mujahideen. [1] Yusuf Shah cleansed the movement of everybody who did not agree with the ideology of the Jamaat-i-Islami or posed a threat to his personal leadership. In its early years, Hizb ul-Mujahideen boasted as many as 10,000 jihadist fighters, but currently the number of its members is barely in the hundreds. In the last 20 years, the Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir had tens of thousands of young men trained in jihad in Kashmir. They are mostly waiting in the wings as sleeper cells. [2]

Ansar ul-Islam and Jamiat ul-Mujahideen

Jamiat ul-Mujahideen traces its roots back to the now forgotten Ansar ul-Islam (Helpers of Islam), a small group of Islamists active in Kashmir since the mid-1980s. Ansar ul-Islam was the first important Islamist group to emerge in Kashmir and helped turn the secular liberation struggle by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front into an Islamist jihad. Ansarul Islam was founded by Hilal Ahmed Mir (a.k.a. Nasir ul-Islam). Hilal Ahmed Mir dreamed of unifying the Islamists in Kashmir under one umbrella as Islam ka fouji bazu (the armed wing of Islam). [3] He was opposed to the intention of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to turn the group into the armed wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami, the Islamist political party founded by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi. In 1989, a dozen jihadist groups united to form Hizb ul-Mujahideen, but the struggle continued between the group led by Hilal Ahmed Mir and the faction led by Master Ahsan Dar, a veteran jihadi from North Kashmir who wanted to turn the new group into the armed wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami. The ISI supported the latter and Hilal Ahmed Mir left Hizb ul-Mujahideen to form Jamiat ul-Mujahideen in June 1991. After the death of Hilal Ahmed Mir, Ghulam Rasool Shah (a.k.a. General Abdullah) became the amir of the Jamiat ul-Mujahideen. Today, the group does not have more than a few dozen followers.

Sectarian Jihadist Groups

The foremost goal of most of the Kashmiri youth who took up arms was to oppose what they called “Indian occupation.”  However, there were two important sectarian groups: the Shi’a Hizbul Momineen and the Salafist Tehrik ul-Mujahideen. Apart from the Hizb ul-Mujahideen, the ISI allowed only the Tehrik ul-Mujahideen from Indian-administered Kashmir (led by Maulana Jamilur Rehman) to set up its own training camps. The most important of these, Ma’askar (camp) Abdullah bin Mubarak, was set up outside of Mansehra district. Although the Tehrik ul-Mujahideen attracted very few Kashmiris, it trained thousands of young Pakistani recruits from the Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith (an Islamist political party) at its training camp. The Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith (Assembly of the Way of the Followers) adopted Tehrik ul-Mujahideen as its armed wing in the late 1990s.

In the early days of the Kashmir jihad, Maulana Abbass Ansari, who heads the Shi’a political party Ittehad ul-Muslimeen, set up a Shi’a militant group under the command of Mir Tahir. [4] Under the influence of Saudi Arabia, the ISI discouraged Shi’a Muslims from joining the jihad in both Afghanistan and Kashmir. Maulana Abbass Ansari has a vast following among the Shi’a of Kashmir and was deemed particularly unacceptable by the ISI. Consequently, the Shi’a militants had to wind up their jihadi infrastructure and join the political field in the early 1990s. At the same time, the ISI encouraged a rival Shi’a group, Hizb ul-Momineen. Hizbul Momineen accepted only Shi’a recruits. The first commander of the Hizb ul-Momineen, Shuja Abbas, developed differences with the ISI in the late 1990s and had to quit.  Now led by Syed Ijaz, Hizb ul-Momineen has engaged in little militant activity in recent years. The most important role of the Hizb ul-Momineen has been to save the Kashmir jihad from drifting into Shi’a-Sunni sectarian conflict when the ISI asked the movement to claim responsibility for the assassination of pro-Indian Shiites who were actually being killed by Sunni jihadis. This was done to prevent India from stirring sectarian tensions by claiming that Sunnis were killing Shi’a in Kashmir.

Harakat ul-Jihad al-Islami and its Deobandi Offshoots

The Harakat ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), a Deobandi group of Afghan jihad veterans led by Qari “Saifullah” Akhtar, was the first external group to join the jihad in Kashmir, though its role was initially limited. By 1993, the Kashmiri groups, including Hizb ul-Mujahideen, started showing weakness. The Indian army’s strategy of crushing the militancy by punishing militants’ families worked to a great extent and neutralized a large number of the Kashmiri militants. This is when the ISI started pushing Pakistani militants into the Kashmir theatre of jihad. A group calling itself Harakat ul-Mujahideen under the leadership of Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil split from HuJI in 1991. As Kashmir opened up for the Pakistani and international mujahideen, the HuJI groups reunited under the name of Harkat ul-Ansar, under the leadership of Maulana Saadatullah. Harakat ul-Ansar pushed as many mujahideen as possible from Pakistan and other Muslim countries to Kashmir and became the principal player on the jihadi scene. It raised its profile by launching several high-profile operations such as Operation Charar Sharif, Operation al-Hadid and Operation al-Faran. The latter two targeted Western nationals and brought Harakat ul-Ansar onto the center stage of international jihad in 1994. It split once more into its former groups under Western pressure.


Harakat ul-Mujahideen, itself a splinter group of HuJI, split again in 2000 when Maulana Masood Azhar formed the Jaish-i-Mohammad (Army of Mohammad). Some of the Harakat ul-Mujahideen militants hijacked an Indian aircraft on the eve of Christmas and took it to Qandahar in Afghanistan. They released the passengers only when India released three top militants from Indian jails. One of them was Maulana Masood Azhar, an ideologue of Harakat ul-Mujahideen. Instead of rejoining his parent group, Maulana Masood Azhar formed his own group, Jaish-i-Mohammad, in February 2000. Jaish-i-Mohammad drew cadres from all the Deobandi groups, particularly from the Harakat ul-Mujahideen and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan. It was a great victory for Maulana Masood Azhar to win over Maulana Abdul Jabbar, who was sent to Afghanistan to run the Jaish-i-Mohammad training camp near Kabul. He was also the bridge between the Jaish-i-Mohammad and al-Qaeda.

9/11 and the Deobandi Jihadist Groups

The U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban in 2001 jolted the Deobandi groups. Consequently, the Deobandi jihadist groups scaled down their operations in Kashmir and focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although the level of Deobandi terrorism is likely to rise in the coming months and years in Pakistan, they are not likely to take power. The fate of Afghanistan is more likely to determine the fate of the Deobandis in Pakistan. If the U.S.-led coalition withdraws from Afghanistan without completely weakening the Taliban, the Deobandi groups are likely to come back to power in Kabul. The fall of Kabul would immensely strengthen the Deobandi groups in Pakistan.

Markaz Dawat wal Irshad and Lashkar-e-Taiba

The role that Pakistani Salafists played in the Afghan jihad was very marginal. They worked under Markaz Dawat wa’l-Irshad, an educational and jihadi religious movement headed by Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. Their other important leader was Zafar Iqbal (Indian Express, April 27, 2000). [5] Both men taught Islamic studies at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore. When the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad came to an end in 1989, the group boasted less than a hundred members. However, the group received a lot of money from Saudi Arabia (including official sources) and grew rapidly. The Markaz set up Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as its armed wing in 1990 to fight in Kashmir. LeT set up six training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir where it has trained more than 200,000 jihadists making it the largest jihadist group in the world. [6]

The LeT introduced suicide attacks in Kashmir in 1999 for the first time as a result of encouragement from General Pervez Musharraf, who became Chief of the Army Staff in 1998. Other groups copied the tactic, not only in Kashmir but also in Pakistan. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has perfected the practice in recent years.

When the LeT and Jaish-i-Mohammad carried out a joint attack against India’s parliament in December 2001, India brought its forces up to the international border.  To avoid another war with India and to pacify international public opinion, General Musharraf banned several Islamist and jihadist groups, including the Markaz Dawat wa’l-Irshad and Lashkar-e-Taiba in January 2002. However, Markaz Dawat wa’l-Irshad was allowed to change its name in December 2001 before the ban was imposed and continued to function with impunity. Hafiz Saeed announced that Markaz Dawat wa’l-Irshad had been dissolved, with its members divided between Jamaat ul-Dawah and the LeT. Jamaat ul-Dawah was to henceforth focus on dawaat (preaching) while the LeT focused on jihad in Kashmir. Hafiz Saeed claimed that the two groups were independent of each other, with Jamaat ul-Dawah to be headed by Hafiz Saeed and the LeT by one of his top lieutenants, Maulana Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi. [7] However, the links between the two were never broken and they kept working together. Both groups provided relief in the aftermath of the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 in full public view (as witnessed by the author).

The Mumbai Attacks and Future Prospects

LeT attracted a lot of international attention in November 2008 when it carried out terrorist attacks in Mumbai which targeted Jews and American and European nationals. However, the LeT sent hundreds of its trained recruits into Indian-administered Kashmir during 2009. Heavy infiltration of Indian-administered Kashmir by the LeT has created a lot of tension between the two nuclear neighbors, who occasionally exchange fire along the border.

The Kashmiri jihad has remained a war of liberation for all practical purposes, even for the most extreme groups operating in Indian-administered Kashmir, such as Hizb ul-Mujahideen. There have been few, if any, militants from Indian-administered Kashmir who took part in the global jihad. However, most Pakistani jihadi groups, including those from Pakistani-administered Kashmir, have a global agenda and Kashmir is only their first stop. With the militants from Indian-administered Kashmir retreating and the Pakistani jihadists taking over the center stage, the Kashmir jihad has drifted into global jihad. Kashmir’s two jihads are converging fast.

Arif Jamal is a visiting fellow at the New York University and author of “Shadow War – The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir.”

1. Author’s interview with Master Ahsan Dar, Muzaffarabad, September 10, 2001.
2. Author’s interviews with recruits at the training camps, 1998-2006.
3. Author’s interview with Ghulam Rasool Shah, Islamabad, March 9, 2002.
4. Author’s interview with Mir Tahir Masood, Islamabad, August 25, 2001
5. Author’s interview with Zafar Iqbal, November 27, 1997.
6. Author’s interviews with recruits at the training camps, 1998-2006.
7. Press Conference by Markaz Dawat wa’l-Irshad leaders in Lahore on December 24, 2001 – Attended by the author.