New head of al Qaeda group in Kashmir calls for independent jihadist council

Abdul Hameed Lelhari (a.k.a. Haroon Abbas) released his first message as the emir of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind on July 6.

The new emir of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), Abdul Hameed Lelhari, has released his first audio address. In the message, titled “Solid Structure,” he accuses the Pakistani state of trying to rein in the jihad in Kashmir and calls for an independent shura council to decide which operations to conduct.

Lelhari (also known as Haroon Abbas) was named the leader of AGH in early June after his predecessor, Zakir Musa, was killed in a shootout with Indian forces. AGH is an al Qaeda group and its messaging closely tracks Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s (AQIS) statements. Both AQIS and AGH have criticized Pakistani-backed jihadist groups in Kashmir for supposedly pursuing nationalist goals at the expense of seeking to implement sharia, or Islamic law, throughout the region.

Lelhari continues with this theme in his first address as AGH’s emir. The audio message was released by the group’s Al Hurr Media on July 6. Al Hurr features a photo of Lelhari throughout much of his speech, which is spliced together with images of Pakistani and Indian officials. AGH media supporters also provided a rough translation of his remarks, from which the quotes below are drawn.

After Zakir Musa’s “martyrdom,” Lelhari alleges, “an agency from Pakistan reached out to us.” The Pakistanis “offered a deal of weapons” in return for AGH meeting “some conditions.” The “first condition” was that AGH wouldn’t act “without permission from the agency.” Second, “no action would be big and impactful.”

Of course, FDD’s Long War Journal cannot confir that the Pakistanis made such an offer. AGH and AQIS have repeatedly accused the Pakistani state of undermining the jihad in Kashmir, and it is possible that Lelhari is embellishing to make this narrative seem more urgent. Still, the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment has a long record of supporting jihadist groups in Kashmir, and it is possible that some branch of the government has sought an accommodation with AGH.

AGH’s new emir continues by claiming that this Pakistani agency must have thought, erroneously, that the group could be turned into a “puppet” of the state after Musa’s death. But the “conditions” offered only show “how enslaved and weak our jihad has been made.”

Therefore, Lelhari argues, the jihadists cannot stay silent, otherwise they won’t “just be responsible for [the] end of this jihad, but will also turn to be its culprits.” He says the “mission should be to keep this jihad firm” by countering the “conspiracy” to end it.

With that goal in mind, Lelhari offers three objectives. First, the mujahideen should “strive purely” and “only to establish Allah’s Law on Allah’s Land.” This has been AGH’s mantra since it was established in 2017. Musa repeatedly employed the slogan “Sharia or martyrdom” to emphasize his commitment to an ideological vision for the Kashmiri struggle.

Second, Lelhari says that all “military operations” should be conducted based on the “decisions” made “by commanders in occupied Kashmir and these decisions would be taken only in interestĀ of jihad and considering ground realities.” This is intended to subvert Pakistan’s authority over the conflict.

Third, the AGH leader calls for unity among the militants’ ranks in Jammu and Kashmir. He says the “interests of jihad should be given priority over organizational and personal interests” and “this jihad should not be allowed to be exploited by any country or agency.”

The first part of this formulation is consistent with al Qaeda’s strategy in multiple jihadist battlefields, as the group has consistently called for Muslim “unity” against common foes. (Such unity has proven elusive in Syria and elsewhere.) This stands in contrast to the Islamic State’s top-down, authoritarian approach, in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men demand fealty to their so-called caliphate, which no longer controls significant territory. The Islamic State has an upstart branch in Kashmir, and it is likely that Lelhari seeks to weaken the exclusive claims made by Baghdadi’s representatives. The second part of Lelhari’s point above (preventing the jihad from being “exploited by any country or agency”) is a restatement of his objection to the alleged role played by Pakistan.

Call for independent shura council

Lelhari ends his address by saying that if the fighters from different groups all “agree upon these points, then a shura” council should be established such that “two mujahideen would represent each tandheem [organization] respectively.” At that point, all military operations and strategic decisions would be made “after thorough discussion” and “would be applicable on all.”

“Allah willing,” the AGH head says, “this process will benefit” the jihad in Kashmir, providing it “with new hope and give it a new life.” He adds that “if any brother” has questions or suggestions, he can contact AGH and his message will be forwarded “to the leadership.”

AGH seems to have a small presence after two years in the field. And it has suffered leadership setbacks in recent weeks. In addition to the death of its founder, Zakir Musa, the group lost its spokesman, Abu Ubaidah, in late June. It was Abu Ubaidah who announced Lelhari’s role as the new AGH emir earlier that same month.

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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