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3 yrs after Burhan Wani, Kashmir militants targeting each other in ideological conflict

On 27 June, militants of Hizbul and LeT clashed with Islamic State’s Hind Province, in first instance of Valley's insurgents turning on each other.

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Srinagar: On 27 June, when the Jammu and Kashmir police stumbled on the body of militant Adil Dass, a member of the Islamic State’s Hind Province (ISHP), a self-proclaimed ISIS affiliate, they also found an injured Aarif Hussain, a Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) militant.

The two men had been in an unusual firefight at Sirhama village in South Kashmir’s Bijbehera — one that didn’t involve Indian security forces. The duo was instead part of a group of local militants, belonging to pro-Pakistan outfits Hizbul Mujahideen and LeT, and the ISHP, who had turned on each other — adding yet another dimension to the decades-long insurgency in the Valley.

The tension had been simmering between the groups following the 2016 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, who was seen as a cohesive force for militancy in the region.

In the three-year period, rebellions in the Hizbul Mujahideen and Tehreek-ul Mujahideen ended up creating the Ansar-ul-Gazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), the Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK) and the ISHP.

There have been ideological differences, with the ISIS-affiliates terming pro-Pakistani militants as apostates. There have also been defections — Dass, the slain terrorist, had been with LeT before he switched over to ISHP — and there have disagreements within the groups.

This, however, is the first time that the disagreements have translated into violence in recent times.

While social media and Telegram channels sympathetic to militant groups see the confrontation as a battle of ideologies, the J&K Police insist a shortage of weapons was at the core of the 27 June skirmish.

A senior police officer, privy to Hussain’s interrogation, told ThePrint that logistical issues were at the heart of this conflict. “A group of LeT and Hizbul militants had contacted Dass and told him that they too wanted to join his outfit. When Dass met the group of three militants, the discussion went sideways when one of them suggested that they should return the weapons to the LeT and Hizbul leadership as they had defected,” the officer said. “Dass protested and soon the militants revealed that the only reason they had come to the place was to take back the weapons.”

Officials said the Pakistan government’s crackdown on militant outfits, due to mounting international pressure following the 14 February Pulwama suicide attack, has led to the shortage of weapons.

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“Shortage of weapons is a recurring issue in Hizb and LeT cells. We have recovered a lot of weapons after encounters,” the officer said. “Also whenever one of their member defects, they expect them to surrender the weapon but that doesn’t happen.”

Spurt in militancy, a difference of ideology since Wani’s death

There has been a spurt in the number of local youth joining militancy since Wani’s death in 2016.

In 2010, the number of local youth joining militancy stood at 54, following which there was a steep decline between 2011 and 2013 when figures stood at 23, 21 and 6 respectively. In 2014, however, 53 Kashmiri youth picked up arms.

That figure doubled after Wani’s killing when 126 youth joined insurgent groups in 2017.

This has not only spawned new outfits with differing ideologies but has also led to logistical issues within established insurgent groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Police data suggests that the amplified counter-insurgency operations have also coincided with increased militant recruitment. Last year, even though over 260 militants were killed, 191 joined various outfits. This year the number stands at 80, according to sources in the police who added that over 250 militants are still active in the Valley at the moment, and more than 150 of them are locals.

The increase in recruitment numbers has meant providing new recruits with weapons that groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen were already short on. The situation triggered the revival of Jaish-e-Mohammed.

“JeM had taken a backseat allowing Hizbul and LeT to gain a stronghold between 2005 and 2013,” a senior police officer said. “After Wani’s killing, Hizbul reached its saturation point when many locals decided to join the outfit. As a result, those interested in joining Hizbul were redirected to the JeM.”

JeM intensified its ‘Operation Qisas (revenge in Arabic)’, which included a campaign of fidayeen attacks between 2017 and 2019.

The heightened militant recruitment and JeM’s revival in south Kashmir raised alarm bells with the security establishment in Kashmir.

Security forces upped the ante by launching Operation All Out in which scores of militants were killed, triggering a crisis within Hizbul whose several top commanders were being gunned down.

This strategy also led to differences within the militant outfits. For instance, the AGH’s now slain chief Zakir Musa had begun questioning the strategies of the Hizbul leadership. He advocated a stronger response from the militants that included the killing of local police officials and suspected informers, a proposition that sources say was refused by the Hizbul leadership.

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It was then that Musa floated the AGH.

Similarly, the ISJK was formed due to a strong resentment against separatist and militant leadership within the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen.

The changing face of Kashmiri insurgency

Security officials also say that there has been a marked difference between the insurgency during Burhan Wani’s time and the one after his killing.

While the post-Burhan Wani insurgency has come to be known for its increased involvement of local recruits, it is also the acts of Kashmiri militants that have at times breached what were previously considered behind red lines.

This could be a result of pro-Pakistan militants trying to assert themselves more, in face of security crackdown and defections, given that AGH and ISHP have not been involved in a single major attack in Kashmir.

Take for instance the Pulwama attack on 14 February. It was almost after nearly two decades that such a bombing by a local militant had taken place. Two years before that, in December 2017, a local Kashmiri teenager was involved in the fidayeen attack on a CRPF camp Lethpora area of south Kashmir. Fidayeen squads in the past were entirely made up of foreign militants.

Likewise, the use of IEDs to target security forces was also something associated with foreign militants who are trained bomb makers. The 17 June attack this year, carried out using a car bomb, is also being seen as the handiwork of local militants. Two Army personnel were killed in this attack when the convoy they were part of was targeted in south Kashmir.

Another feature of the post-Burhan Wani insurgency was not only the killing of civilians, who were accused of being police and Army informers, but also the video recording of the executions. Abduction of police personnel and their family members in the summer of 2018 was yet another area where local militants had not traversed.

Ajai Sahni, executive director at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, attributes the rise of local militancy in Kashmir to “polarising politics”.

“It is very difficult to convince or motivate people to engage in violence when there is space for them to voice their opinions. Instead what we see in Kashmir is dismantling of democratic institutions and existing power structures like the regional parties,” Sahni said. “Debates over removing Kashmir special status and calling residents traitors had only created deeper divisions.”

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