Sanctioning Syed Salahuddin: Too Little, Too Late

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 15

Mohammad Yusuf Shah (a.k.a. Syed Salahuddin) (Source: YouTube).

On June 26, the U.S. State Department announced the designation of Mohammad Yusuf Shah (a.k.a. Syed Salahuddin) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT). The 71-year-old is “supreme commander” of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), the largest Kashmiri militant group operating in the Kashmir Valley, and heads the United Jihad Council, an umbrella organization of anti-India terror outfits based in Pakistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). [1]

Salahuddin figures on India’s “most wanted” list and is sought in connection with more than 50 cases ranging from assassinations and attacks on Indian security forces to money laundering (DNA, June 28). [2] According to a U.S. State Department announcement, he has carried out several attacks in Jammu and Kashmir and, in September 2016, “vowed to block any peaceful resolution to the Kashmir conflict, threatened to train more Kashmiri suicide bombers and vowed to turn the Kashmir valley ‘into a graveyard for Indian forces’.” [3]

Unlike Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), HM has not been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, but it has been listed under “Other Terrorist Groups” in the appendix of the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism report since 2002. Because of its Kashmiri composition and agenda — as opposed to the predominantly Pakistani composition of LeT and JeM — the United States has refrained from imposing sanctions on the group or its leaders (Outlook, May 05, 2003). [4] With Salahuddin’s listing as a SDGT that has changed. The move restricts Salahuddin’s access to the U.S. financial system, freezes any U.S. assets and prevents American nationals from doing business with him. However, it is doubtful that the U.S. designation will impact HM’s operations in the Valley.

Kashmir Conflict

Salahuddin spent his early years in the Kashmir Valley and was an active member of the Jamaat-e-Islami. In 1987, he contested elections to the Jammu and Kashmir State Assembly as a candidate of the opposition Muslim United Front. That election, which was marred by widespread irregularities, triggered Salahuddin’s disillusionment with electoral politics and prompted him to turn to militancy.

Like hundreds of other Kashmiri youth, Salahuddin crossed over to POK for weapons and training to fight the Indian state. He joined HM, which Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) set up to promote its own objectives in the Kashmir conflict, and in 1991, emerged as the group’s “supreme commander” (Hindustan Times, June 27).

The group’s predominantly Kashmiri composition contributed to its popularity in the Valley, and Kashmiri youth joined it in large numbers. Pakistan’s funding and weapons enabled it to wipe out its rivals and carry out innumerable attacks on Indian security forces and civilians in Kashmir, helping it to dominate militancy in the Valley in the 1990s (Swarajya, June 28). However, Pakistan preferred the Pakistani-dominated LeT and JeM to carry out its anti-India agenda, and the group declined in prominence from about 2000 onward.

It was in 2016 that HM made a comeback. Its south Kashmir commander, Burhan Wani, had captured the imagination of Kashmiri youth, and his death in July that year triggered mass protests and provided a fillip for the group’s popularity in the Valley (see Militant Leadership Monitor, December 31, 2015; Rising Kashmir, July 6).

However, the organization has suffered several setbacks over the past year. Indian security forces have eliminated several of its commanders and cadres, including Wani’s successor, Sabzar Bhat (Rising Kashmir, June 3). Additionally, HM suffered a split in May, when its operations commander Zakir Musa broke away to form the Taliban-e-Kashmir. Musa, who espouses a transnational jihadism, as opposed to Salahuddin’s pro-Pakistan agenda, wants to introduce sharia law in Kashmir and could act as a bridgehead for Islamic State (see Militant Leadership Monitor, July 4; India Today, June 9). It is in this evolving situation that Salahuddin has been labeled an SDGT.

Limited Impact

The SDGT tag will cut off Salahuddin’s access to his U.S.-based assets and funding from U.S.-based supporters (Times of India, June 27). But this is unlikely to have much impact on HM’s functioning for at least two reasons.

First, the group’s funding from U.S.-based Kashmiris has declined in recent years as it was hit by the arrest in 2011 of the Kashmir American Council’s Ghulam Nabi Fai, who among other things was channeling ISI funds to the group and its front organizations (The Hindu, July 21, 2011). Second, since the vast majority of Salahuddin’s funding comes from Pakistan’s ISI, the U.S. designation will not substantially weaken his organization’s capacity to operate in the Valley. Only if the ISI funding were shut off would the group’s operations be crippled, and Pakistan is unlikely to withhold its support. In addition, operational decisions are made in the Valley, and Salahuddin’s designation as an SDGT will have little impact there (Indian Express, June 27).

This has been the case with the LeT and JeM. Although their respective leaders, Hafeez Syed and Masood Azhar, were designated terrorists and substantial bounties put on their heads, they continue to operate freely in Pakistan and their group’s operations have not been curtailed (Swarajya, June 28).

Additionally, in the case of HM, Salahuddin’s control over his commanders and fighters in the Valley has diminished significantly over the years. The latter openly criticize his comfortable life in POK while they face pressure from the Indian security forces (The Quint, November 7, 2015).  Indian analysts say that the designation of Salahuddin as a terrorist would have been effective had it come at least two decades ago (First Post, June 27). Sanctions on him now, at a time when he is largely irrelevant, are too little, too late.

Diplomatic Victory

More positively, the designation of Salahuddin as an SDGT will strengthen India-U.S. relations, especially in the field of counter-terrorism co-operation. Salahuddin’s blacklisting is an indication to Indian officials that the United States has come round to accepting India’s position that in Kashmir there is little difference between the violence of indigenous militants and Pakistani jihadists (The Week, July 09). For India, which has been pressing the United States for years to act more robustly against all Pakistan-based anti-India terror groups, including HM, the move is a major diplomatic victory.

The decision to designate Salahuddin as an SDGT was announced just hours ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. It set the tone for a productive meeting, which saw the two sides agree on setting up “a consultation mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designations listing proposals” (Indian Express, June 28).

Salahuddin’s designation is a victory for India in the India-Pakistan tug-of-war over cross-border terrorism, but Salahuddin’s designation as a SDGT is unlikely to impact HM’s military operations on the ground in Kashmir.

With Pakistan unlikely to shut off funding, the group’s capacity to carry out attacks in the Valley will not be undermined, and the United States is targeting Salahuddin at a time when he is a marginalized leader with little remaining influence in Kashmir. Instead, the move’s most significant impact has been to boost U.S.-India relations.




 [1] In 1947, when Pakistani raiders attacked the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Maharaja chose to accede to India. However, Pakistan has questioned the legality of the Instrument of Accession and argues that the territory is disputed. At least a third of the former princely state’s territory remains under Pakistani occupation today, an area India calls Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The main bone of contention between India and Pakistan is the Kashmir Valley, which is part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Since 1987, Pakistan has armed and trained Kashmiris and Pakistanis to carry out attacks in the state and other parts of India.

[2] “Wanted Details: Mohd Yusuf Shah,” National Inv/estigation Agency, Government of India (see:

[3] “Terrorist Designations of Mohammad Yusuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin,” US State Department, Washington DC June 26, 2017.

[4] “Appendix C – Background Information on Other Terrorist Groups,” in Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002, US State Department, Washington DC, pp. 134-35,