Al Qaeda-linked jihadist in Kashmir criticizes Pakistani Army

In an audio message released on Aug. 31, Zakir Musa criticized the Pakistani government and vowed to fight for the implementation of sharia law in Kashmir.

Zakir Musa, the leader of the newly-formed Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, has released an audio message in which he accuses the Pakistani government of betraying the jihad in Kashmir. Musa, a former commander in Hizbul Mujahideen, became a vocal critic of the established jihadist groups fighting in Kashmir earlier this year. He has accused his one-time comrades of being puppets of the Pakistani Army and criticized them for failing to seek the implementation of sharia law. Musa expounds upon these same themes in his latest message, which was released online on Aug. 31.

Musa says his group’s jihad is not merely for land or to serve the interests of supposedly corrupt rulers. Instead, according to a translation prepared by his online supporters, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind’s jihad aims to free the “ummah” (worldwide community of Muslims) from the nonbelievers and “establish the law of Allah.”

“Our war is against the Indian army, the murtadd (apostate) police of Kashmir, the Government of India, their officers and their political structure and every such individual who would collaborate with the Kuffar (nonbelievers) and tried to harm this jihad,” Musa says.

He provides a brief history of the jihad in Kashmir, claiming that the “muhajireen” (emigrants) kept the “flame of jihad alive with their blood” despite persistent pressure from Indian forces. But in 2001 the situation changed, according to Musa, when Afghanistan “was attacked by the occupiers” and the Pakistani government “backstabbed” the jihadists. The “same mujahideen” who fought in Kashmir “were declared terrorists,” while “training camps were shut down” and “many brothers” were either killed or imprisoned.

Musa stresses that while his organization does not target average Pakistanis, it does oppose “the slaves of America” in the Pakistani Army and government who have supposedly “betrayed” Muslims and the “mujahideen” fighting in Kashmir. Musa adds that he and his men love all the Muslims who seek to unite Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the “whole subcontinent under the banner of Islam” and monotheism. It is for this purpose that Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind was created, free from the “shackles” of the Pakistani government and the “Indian cow worshippers.”

The new audio message, which was released by Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind’s Al-Hurr Media, is just over nine minutes long. Although it is formatted in a basic fashion, the production is a significant upgrade over Musa’s previous releases, which were spliced together with publicly-available images.

In his new release, Musa is also well-groomed and dressed in highly-stylized garb.

Ties to al Qaeda

Musa has not publicly sworn allegiance to al Qaeda, but there are multiple indications that he and his men are affiliated with the terror network. It is possible (though not confirmed) that Musa is loyal to al Qaeda’s leaders, but they have decided not to publicize this fact for various reasons. Al Qaeda has often obscured its organizational links to various jihadist groups around the globe.

The rift between Musa and his former Hizbul Mujahideen boss, Syed Salahuddin, became public in May when Salahuddin publicly distanced the jihad in Kashmir from global terrorist organizations. “This movement is purely local and indigenous. It has no international agenda,” Salahuddin said, according to press reports. “Al Qaeda, Daesh [Islamic State] or Taliban have no involvement or role in Kashmir,” Salahuddin added.

It was a reversal, of sorts, for Salahuddin. Previously, the Hizbul Mujahideen leader had welcomed any jihadist support his men could get from outside groups. Salahuddin was added to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorists in June and Hizbul Mujahideen was designated as a terrorist organization in August.

Musa responded to Salahuddin with a message of his own in May, explaining his separation from Hizbul Mujahideen and his commitment to “Shariyat ya Shahadat,” meaning “Sharia Law or Martyrdom.” Musa also thanked al Qaeda for supporting his efforts in an article that appeared in Nawai Afghan Jihad magazine.

Musa’s high-profile break from Hizbul Mujahideen was celebrated by pro-al Qaeda jihadists. A statement allegedly issued by Haji Mansoor Mehsood, who was identified as a Pakistani Taliban commander, praised Musa’s decision. The statement noted that Musa’s previous messages included images of al Qaeda figures such as Anwar al Awlaki and Abu Hamza al Muhajir (the deceased leader of the Islamic State of Iraq). Still other al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, were included in the productions as well.

Mehsood credited the “hard work” done by Asim Umar, who is the emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and other al Qaeda leaders for Musa’s decision to defect. “All this” shows that al Qaeda’s “thinking about Kashmir is going in [the] right direction and showing its impact and fruitful results,” Mehsood purportedly wrote.

Musa’s split also coincided with al Qaeda’s pointed criticism of the Pakistani-backed jihadist groups fighting in Kashmir. In June, AQIS released its “code of conduct,” which contained a section addressing jihadists backed by governments.

“We call on all jihadi groups working under anti-sharia intelligence agencies in any place to end their dependence on them,” AQIS wrote. “This is the only way to help the oppressed Muslims, and to make real progress towards implementation of sharia,” because the militaries of corrupt governments “destroy [the] fruits of these mujahideen’s jihad.”

“The Kashmiri Jihad is a clear example of this,” AQIS warned.

It was a telling comment, as the Pakistani state has sponsored the leading jihadi groups fighting Indian forces in Kashmir for years, including Hizbul Mujahideen. Even though these same outfits share much in common with al Qaeda and the Taliban, al Qaeda doesn’t think they go far enough. It is the same critique leveled by Musa. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, AQIS emphasizes allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, Taliban in new ‘code of conduct’.]

On July 26, just weeks after AQIS’s code of conduct was released, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind’s founding statement was published online by the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), which translates and distributes al Qaeda propaganda. The statment can be seen on the right. “After the martyrdom of heroic Mujahid Burhan Wani, the jihad in Kashmir has entered a stage of awakening, as the Muslim Nation of Kashmir has committed to carry the flag of jihad to repel the aggression of tyrant Indian invaders, and through jihad, and with the aid of Allah…we will liberate our homeland Kashmir,” the statement read.

Burhan Wani was killed by Indian forces in July 2016. He was a young, charismatic jihadist and is “largely credited with reviving and legitimizing the image of militancy in Muslim-majority Indian-administered Kashmir,” according to BBC News. Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind sought to capitalize on Wani’s popularity, portraying Musa as his rightful ideological successor. Indeed, the group said it had been “founded by the companions of martyr Burhan Wani,” under Musa’s leadership.

On Aug. 20, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind released a threepage statement, emphasizing that it is “free from the influence of all” intelligence agencies. The message was entirely consistent with the argument advanced by AQIS in its code of conduct. The group said it was not advocating “any different Manhaj,” or methodology. “We will not change the direction of Jihad on the dictation of any country or agency but will stand like a wall for the welfare of Islam and Muslims,” the statement read.

Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind rejected democracy, “nationalism” and “man-made borders,” while saying it would accept members regardless of “race or tribe.” Musa’s organization claimed to be “independent,” with “all its decisions” being made “under the guidance of its Shura Committee.” (This statement does not foreclose the possibility that the group is part of al Qaeda’s network, as other al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists have claimed to operate independently.)

“We invite all the Muslims of Kashmir and the world for Jihad against India and hope that they will strengthen this Jihad with their lives and money,” Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind said in its Aug. 20 statement. The jihadists specified that their “targets” are “the Indian Army, police, and every such person who is overtly or covertly involved in oppression against Muslims of Kashmir and India.”

The jihad against Indian forces

Historically, al Qaeda has maintained close relations with the jihadist groups focused on Kashmir. But tensions have emerged over the past year. The Hurriyat alliance has appealed to the United Nations for assistance at times, a move that Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind explicitly rejects. Both Hurriyat and the United Jihad Council (UJC), which is led by Hizbul Mujahideen’s Salahuddin, have also portrayed their efforts as purely “local,” arguing that there is no need for global jihadist groups to enter the fray.

Therefore, Musa’s defection from Hizbul Mujahideen and the formation of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind come at an opportune time for al Qaeda. To date, al Qaeda and its newest branch, AQIS, have had little success in sparking jihad inside India itself. Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind could serve al Qaeda’s efforts in both Kashmir and India proper. Al Qaeda may be hoping that Musa’s personal appeal boosts its endeavors. Like Burhan Wani, Musa is popular on social media, with photos and videos regularly highlighting his star personality. Musa’s popularity may also help his organization poach from established jihadist groups like Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT), and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), all of which have received support from the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. The Let and JeM also have longstanding ties to al Qaeda.

Some of Musa’s online supporters have compared him to Ilyas Kashmiri, another popular jihadist who made a name for himself fighting the Indians before climbing through al Qaeda’s ranks to become one of Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants. If the comparison to Kashmiri is apt, then Musa could very well prove to be a formidable foe. But first he will have to survive the increased scrutiny he will now receive from his enemies, as Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind attempts to make a name for itself in the Kashmiri jihadist scene.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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