Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri Invokes Kashmir Again, Calls for ‘One’ Jihad

Abdul Hameed Lelhari, the new head of al-Qaeda’s Kashmiri affiliate (source: timesnownews.com

by Animesh Roul July 26, 2019 Jamestown Foundation

On July 9, al-Qaeda’s Emir Ayman al- Zawahiri incited violence against India and Pakistan by vehemently criticizing these neighboring countries for the plight of Muslims in Kashmir. Zawahiri’s video message titled “Don’t Forget Kashmir” was released by al-Qaeda’s propaganda arm, As-Sahab media foundation, on the online messaging platform Telegram. [1] Al-Qaeda, which struggled for many years to establish its foothold in the region, considers Kashmir as a core component of its Islamist campaign in South Asia. In spite of having a dedicated South Asian branch known as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), it failed miserably to entice Kashmiri youths or militant elements directly into its fold in the past. However, it has been successfully coopting the local Ansar Ghazwat ul-Hind (AGH), founded by a renegade Hizbul Mujahideen militant Zakir Rashid Bhat, (a.k.a. Zakir Musa), since July 2017.

AQIS and AGH have openly showcased jihadist solidarity and the desire for establishing an Islamic state in Kashmir in accordance with Sharia law. Al-Qaeda welcomed AGH’s emergence in Kashmir’s militant landscape, and on July 27, 2017, announced that the insurgency in Kashmir had entered a stage of awakening and the region was committed to carrying the flag of jihad against India’s atrocities. It vowed in a message to liberate Kashmir under Musa’s leadership (New Indian Express, July 27, 2017). Following the death of Zakir Musa on May 23, AQIS paid rich tribute to the slain AGH leader and later welcomed the appointment of Abdul Hameed Lelhari (a.k.a. Haroon Abbas) as Musa’s successor in early June. Despite having less influence and clout on the ground, both of these groups are often critical of dominant militant groups in Kashmir, such as Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba, for toeing Pakistan’s separatist agenda rather than fighting for the supremacy of Islam and Sharia.

Al-Qaeda’s latest 14:30-minute-long video surfaced on social media platforms a couple of days after the newly appointed leader of AGH Lelhari released his own anti-Pakistan video, which called for unity among Kashmir mujahideens in the Urdu language (View Point, July 8; YouTube, July 8). Lelhari accused the Pakistani state of trying to control and dilute Kashmiri jihad and called for an independent and unified Shura council to decide on the operational strategy of the group. Both messages—Zawahiri’s and Lelhari’s—have several things in common: mobilizing jihadist sentiment in the Kashmir region and enticing more recruits to al-Qaeda and AGH, especially at a time when the rival transnational jihadi group Islamic State (IS) has intensified its campaigns in South Asia by announcing its India and Pakistan Wilayats (provinces) with a focus on Kashmir (Economc Times, May 12; The Nation, May 17). Another plausible explanation about the timing of Zawahiri’s message is to give credence and support to AGH’s jihadist campaign in Kashmir following the major setbacks that the deaths of Zakir Musa and AGH spokesman Shabir Ahmad Malik, a.k.a. Abu Ubaidah, represent (Daily Excelsior, May 24; Rising Kashmir, June 26).

Al-Qaeda’s Kashmir-centric propaganda, however, is not new. In the past, al-Qaeda’s leadership has made several audio-visual exhortations citing the suffering of Kashmiris and inciting violence against the Indian establishment, including the government and security forces. Though not very prominently figured earlier, Kashmir remained a reference point for most of al-Qaeda’s propaganda materials concerning South Asia. For example, Ayman al-Zawahri’s April 2006 video message praised the jihadist movements fighting against India in Jammu and Kashmir. Most recently, al-Qaeda’s as-Sahab Media Foundation released an Urdu-language Nasheed (Islamic chants) titled “Kashmir Lost But Not Forgotten” on December 29, 2017. [2] The seven-minute-long jihadist chant featured clips of Kashmir, India, and Pakistan’s political leadership, military drills, and visuals from Burhan Wani’s funeral procession. Wani was closely associated with AGH’s slain leader Zakir Musa under Hizbul Mujahedeen’s banner and had virtually inspired a new breed of militants in Kashmir even after his death in early July 2016.

Though nothing is novel in the latest message for Kashmir, core al-Qaeda and AQIS made similar appeals in previous messages. The July 9 message from Zawahiri is in tandem with AQIS’ ‘code of conduct’ (CoC) document released in June 2017 that elaborated long-term objectives and its strategy for jihad. This 20-page document also had several references to Kashmir, hinting at expanding operations in the valley (Jihadology.net, June 24, 2017).

Al-Qaeda’s chief reiterated the concept of a single Ummah, and the on-going jihad as ‘one jihad.’ He vehemently criticized Pakistan for being complicit with the United States in persecuting the Taliban and other jihadists operating in the region, primarily in Afghanistan. He blamed Pakistan’s intelligence agencies for sharing information about ground locations and the movements of militants, and for providing logistical support for U.S. intelligence in the region for monetary benefits. He termed the Pakistani government and its armed forces as “the toadies of America,” which is only interested in amassing ill-gotten wealth. According to Zawahiri, the United States and Pakistan relationship is an “alliance of thieves,” and stated that the Pakistani government or its army should not be trusted in the fight for Kashmir’s liberation. Zawahiri exhorted Kashmiri youths to partake in al-Qaeda’s brand of jihad. According to Zawahiri, Muslims in Kashmir are trapped between “Hindu brutality” and the “treachery and conspiracies” of Pakistan’s intelligence establishments. For Zawahiri, Kashmir is a “bleeding wound” in every Muslim’s heart and any aggression against
Kashmir is aggression against the entire Muslim Ummah and vice versa. Trying to bring greater legitimacy to its brand of jihad, he implores Muslim clerics of the world to preach that jihad in Kashmir is an “obligation” upon every Muslim. He said, “We are a single, united Ummah; geographic boundaries or national differences cannot divide us” (Jihadology, July 9).

Similar to the instructions depicted in the CoC, Zawahiri reiterated his call for attacks on the Indian military. He advised jihadists in Kashmir to focus their attacks on India with “unrelenting blows,” and on the Indian government and armed forces by inflicting financial losses. Unlike his “Don’t Forget Kashmir” speech, the CoC document singled out Indian military officers as targets because their actions resulted in the deaths of Kashmiris (both militants and civilians). Similar to the CoC, Zawahiri’s July 9 speech cautioned against jihadist operations targeting Muslim civilians and not to “violate the sanctities of Muslims.” He urged al-Qaeda’s followers not to target mosques, markets, and gathering places of Muslims. However, he lamented the existence of deviants in the ranks doing un-Islamic practices such as “kidnapping for ransom and blackmailing,” due to the lack of a strict adherence to Sharia guidelines.

Indeed, the longstanding cross-border terrorism in India’s state of Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed a steady shift with the increasing traction of ‘Sharia or Shahadat’ (Implementation of Islamic Sharia Law or Martyrdom), the jihadist catchphrase coined by Zakir Musa and popular among extremist elements, which is fast replacing the age old ‘pro-Pakistan’ separatist clamour (Kashmir Observer, May 15, 2017). This transformation has gathered momentum in the last few years, especially with growing outreach of transnational jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and IS, which have entered the Kashmir theatre by enticing the disgruntled local militants to reinvigorate the enduring Kashmir conflict. Although al-Qaeda’s grip on the Kashmir affair is still in its nascent stage, over time, its ideology of pro-Islamic Sharia and Caliphate is continuing to gain grassroots support from alienated and radicalized Kashmiri youths.

Notes

[1] The al-Qaeda video is presently available on YouTube, See, “Don’t Forget Kashmir”, Al Qaeda chief threatens Indian Army, J&K govt in new video”, IBTimes India, July 10, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_lRdrj62Tc

[2] “AQIS Releases Video for Urdu Chant Promoting Cause of Kashmiris, Inciting Against India”, SITE Intelligence, January 2, 2018, http://sitemultimedia.org/video/SITE_AQIS_Kashmir_Lost_Not_Forgotten.mp4

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