Last week marked India’s 70th independence and “division” anniversary. India celebrated amid tensions on the borders between it and China. India protested on Bhutan’s behalf but China defied it and Bhutan kept silent. India’s economic boom did not hide the tensions in Kashmir as the situation there is dangerous now that people’s struggle shifted from calling for freedom to calling for “an Islamic caliphate.” This has worsened divisions between extremist Kashmiri groups and violence may escalate in the future between “the brothers in terrorism.”
It seems the situation there may lead to the return of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent which is looking forward to have a foothold in Kashmir and in India later as there are close interests between al-Qaeda and Kashmiri local groups that support an Islamic caliphate in Kashmir.
In June, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent issued a “code of conduct” for its followers and called on other jihadist groups to vow loyalty to the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The code said: “We will work with jihadist groups that are independent from the influence of intelligence agencies in India, Bangladesh and Rakhine in Burma. In Pakistan, the goals are American interests, military and intelligence officials, policemen, Pakistan’s government and the infidels who oppress Muslims. In India and Bangladesh, the goals are police and army officials and chiefs of Hindus separatist organizations. In Burma, the goals are the army and armed Buddhist groups.”
Al-Qaeda’s message here is clearly different than previous messages as it is focused on India and especially on Kashmir. A message by the organization in March last year specified the priorities in the major targets, and they are “the US, the army and the intelligence and security apparatuses in Pakistan and the Pakistani government, atheists and blasphemers.” What’s new in the most recent message is that the targets covered the entire of South Asia.
This is because Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent considers the Indian state as “the major obstacle” when establishing “an Islamic India.”
Al-Qaeda has exploited two developments here. The first one is the death of Burhan Wani last year. Wani was an extremist Kashmiri and the leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen. He became popular due to his activity on social media and armed operations against India in Kashmir. Since his death, the situation became tense in Kashmir. On July 8, which marked the anniversary of his death, clashes erupted between security forces and Kashmiri fighters. Al-Qaeda tried to exploit this tension and the organization’s leader there, Maulana Asim Omar, published an audio recording highlighting Wani’s achievements.
Al-Qaeda may have seen a window of opportunity that it awaited for years to extend its presence in India.Huda al-Husseini
The second one is the divisions in Hizbul Mujahideen which Zakir Rashid Bhat, who is nicknamed Zakir Musa caused. India views Musa as an active terrorist in Kashmir. He was assigned leader of Hizbul Mujahideen after Wani was killed. In May this year, he called for imposing sharia by force in Kashmir thus deviating from the group’s well-known path which is fighting for “Kashmir’s freedom” and called for establishing “an Islamic Kashmir.”
Later in June, Musa declared establishing a new movement called “Taliban-e-Kashmir” that’s linked to al-Qaeda organization.
Deviating from the slogan “a free Kashmir” and rejecting nationalism to establish “Taliban-e-Kashmir” was welcomed by Kashmiri youths. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent also welcomed the move because it matches its goal to impose sharia in Kashmir.
The divisions among local armed groups, particularly within Hizbul Mujahideen, and the harmonious ideology between emerging local groups and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent provided al-Qaeda with an opportunity to enter India. The organization has so far failed in mobilizing Indian Muslims to launch terrorist attacks inside their country. This marriage of convenience will have dangerous repercussions on Indian internal security as the Kashmir Liberation Front which was greatly compared with Palestine, Iraq and Syria by many in the Muslim community, will be recognized by global “jihadists.” This is due to sharia-related confusion between international terrorist organizations – which in order to provide a cover-up adopt an extremist Islamic ideology – and emerging Kashmiri groups like the Taliban-e-Kashmir headed by Musa.
Many websites have shed light on the Kashmiri struggle and likened it to Palestine, Sham (Syria) and Khorasan (Afghanistan). They’ve also said this struggle supports the so-called “Islamic caliphate in Kashmir.” Al-Qaeda’s main focus here is to integrate terrorist operations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar under one umbrella in South Asia.
Integrating India, specifically Kashmir, in such a regional “jihadist” arena will have serious repercussions because it will guarantee the movement of men, supplies and funds in these countries and will guarantee continuous flow of money to Kashmir from outside India, except for Pakistan which has been the major funder of the fighting in Kashmir so far.
Facts show that the concept of the “Islamic caliphate in Kashmir” has gained the support of “the brothers in jihad.”
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s call to similar groups to integrate and work with it in South Asia confirms that it intends to employ small terrorist groups there as these independent groups can cause dangerous problems in all of India and not just in Kashmir. There are frightening signs to what may happen later.
Tendency towards the “Islamic caliphate in Kashmir” will increase “jihadist” competitions there. Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen which seek to liberate Kashmir from India and which are supported by Pakistan will fight and will confront groups which they believe are occasional like ISIS and al-Qaeda and which seek to establish an “Islamic caliphate in Kashmir.”
Add to that the bloody and bitter competition between al-Qaeda and ISIS in other places, particularly in Syria. Both share the ideology of an “Islamic caliphate,” and each group will try to confront the other. As a result, violence will escalate in Kashmir.
Groups linked to al-Qaeda support Tahrir al-Sham and they oppose ISIS in Syria and Iraq. This contradiction may also play a bloody role in Kashmir. The proposed solution of the nationalists instead of the “Islamic caliphate” will lead to divisions in more organizations. The groups that will defect will be more violent compared with their original organizations, just like what happened with ISIS which defected from al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda organization may have seen a window of opportunity that it awaited for years to extend its presence in India. This window though will not get any bigger because the organization may confront a bitter enemy as other “jihadist” groups may fight it on behalf of the Indian state.
We must not underestimate the threat of al-Qaeda’s terrorism. As ISIS is losing its territories in Iraq and Syria, it is possible for fighters to look for a haven and for “greener areas” to destroy, like what happened in Mosul. Kashmir can be that area that attracts them and that restores al-Qaeda’s role, which ISIS has now assumed.
In any case, this terrorism is on the move and it’s trying to gouge out the states’ eyes through its operations. Indian security agencies though, are wide awake, battle-hardened, and are unlikely to be feeling threatened.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Huda al-Husseini is a political writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.