Beighpora (Pulwama): Riyaz Naikoo, the dreaded Hizbul Mujahideen commander killed in an encounter Wednesday, was a mathematics graduate once known to offer free tuitions to poor students.
The son of a farmer family, the 35-year-old’s first brush with militancy is said to have come after 2010, when Kashmir witnessed large-scale protests after a civilian was killed during clashes with security forces.
His rise through the ranks was quick. By 2017, he had become the top commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, the militant outfit headed by Pakistan-based Syed Salahuddin, and is known to have kept it together amid a rebellion that threatened to split it.
His death is seen by security forces as a major blow to local militancy, with sources telling ThePrint that it might help reduce recruitment. However, they admitted that the death of the “last popular face” may reduce militancy to being a faceless threat that could prove dangerous if not kept in check.
Naikoo’s killing Wednesday sparked protests across Kashmir, especially in its southern parts. Sources said the protests had resulted in at least 12 people getting injured.
Internet service was suspended across the Valley. Voice calls were suspended as well, except for BSNL subscribers.
Son of farmers
Naikoo was born in Beighpora village of Awantipora tehsil in Pulwama district in April 1985. His father Asadullah Naikoo, 60, also set up a tailoring shop in their locality while his mother Zeba worked the family fields.
He is the second eldest among four siblings, which includes Naikoo’s sister and two brothers.
He pursued his initial studies at the government school in the neighbouring village of Gulzarpora, before being enrolled at the higher secondary school in Noorpora. Both are in Pulwama.
Naikoo then went on to pursue his graduation, with Mathematics as his major, and began teaching at a local school. It is during this time that he offered free tuitions to children from economically weaker families.
Sometime between 2010 and 2012, police officers say, Naikoo came in touch with local militants and became an overground worker (OGW) responsible for providing logistical support to militant groups.
On 21 May 2012, Naikoo joined the Hizbul Mujahideen.
According to local police officers, Naikoo spent the years between 2012 and 2017 strengthening the group and building his profile, by being a part of attacks as well as bringing in fresh recruits.
Naikoo’s background as a teacher, seen as a “respectable profession”, earned him much admiration among his fellow militants, a senior police officer said.
In 2016, the Hizbul Mujahideen suffered a major blow as one of its most high-profile members, commander Burhan Wani, was killed in an encounter.
The next year, the outfit found itself in an existential crisis as Wani’s successor Zakir Musa aka Zakir Rashid Bhat split in the pursuit of a global caliphate, an idea promoted by the likes of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as opposed to the Hizbul’s pro-Pakistan stance.
Musa, who was killed last year, formed his own outfit, the Ansar ul Gazwat ul Hind (AGH), bringing the three-decade-old Hizbul Mujahideen on the verge of a split. However, Naikoo, then a senior in the outfit and close to Salahuddin, managed to prevent members from breaking away.
“Naikoo brought the Hizb closer to its pro-Pakistan stance at a time when pan-Islamist ideologies were taking over several of its cadres. Naikoo ensured that he reached out to almost all militants of his outfit,” said a senior police officer posted in south Kashmir. “As a result, the AGH never grew as a force and has since stayed a fringe militant outfit.”
Within 2017, Naikoo had been given the reins of the Hizbul Mujahideen in Kashmir.
During his time as the top local commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Naikoo oversaw some major violent campaigns. One of the senior police officers who spoke to ThePrint for this report said Naiko’s “major successes” included the series of abductions of some police personnel and their families in 2018, which came after the relatives of the Hizbul Mujahideen’s Tral commander Hammad Khan were taken into custody. Naikoo’s own father, who has been detained on multiple occasions, was also detained at the time.
“Police were ordered to release the families of the militants by then DGP (S.P. Vaid). A Twitter handle we long suspected was used by Naikoo even wrote ‘well done boys’, a line used by Vaid after encounters,” said the officer.
Another officer said Naikoo brought a “certain ruthlessness” into the outfit, something earlier associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), two Pakistan-based terrorist outfits also involved in fuelling the local militancy.
In 2018, for example, Naikoo is believed to have sanctioned the killing of civilians suspected to be informers, and even encouraged the group to target policemen, including personnel of a junior rank. Through all of this, Naikoo’s popularity did not take a hit.
In a press release issued after his killing, J&K Police said Naikoo used to upload audio and video clips on social media to “motivate youth to join militancy”. “He looted orchard owners and farmers to collect funds for his outfit,” the added, claiming that he had “also has been collecting booty from the illicit cultivation of opium and bhang in south Kashmir”.
‘He made Hizbul stronger’
As the Hizbul Mujahideen chief, senior police officers said, Naikoo not only ensured the militant group did not lose focus after Wani’s killing, but also helped it grow stronger than the LeT and the JeM.
“The killing of Naikoo is a major blow to not only the Hizbul Mujahideen but also the morale of militants in other groups. Undoubtedly, Naikoo was one of the most effective militant commanders we have seen in since the 1990s (the peak of Kashmir militancy),” said another senior police officer.
“He was a good a strategist and his killing will affect recruitment and the attack capacities of the Hizbul Mujahideen.”
According to police data, 54 local residents joined militant ranks in 2010, with the next three years — 2011, 2012 and 2013 — registering a steep decline, at 23, 21 and 6, respectively. The numbers reached 126 in 2017, the year after Wani was killed and Naikoo took over, and 200 in 2018.
Naikoo was killed in a gun-battle at a house in Beighpora, along with another militant named Adil Bhat. Sources in the security establishment hinted that the Hizbul Mujahideen might appoint a militant named Saifullah Mir as his successor.