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Why enigmatic Kashmir jihad commander Ejaz Ahanger could hold clues to Kabul gurdwara attack

Hours after bombing at Kabul’s Gurdwara Kart-e Parwan, Indian intelligence agencies look for Ahanger, a Srinagar-born jihadist who ordered an attack at another gurdwara in 2020.

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New Delhi: A photograph published in Islamic State’s propaganda magazine Al Naba shows Muhammad Muhsin standing with an assault rifle, his index finger raised — in IS iconography, the symbol of the oneness of God, the righteousness of its theology, and the divinely-ordained victory of the jihadists. The next morning, on 25 March 2020, he would blow himself up at the Har Rai Sahab Gurdwara in Kabul’s Shur Bazaar, killing an armed guard at the gate and at least 24 worshippers.

As India’s intelligence services work to piece together who carried out Saturday morning’s bombing of the the Gurdwara Kart-e Parwan in Kabul, they are seeking the location of the man who ordered Kerala-born Muhsin to carry out the earlier suicide-attack.

Kashmir jihad commander Ejaz Ahmad Ahanger, known to his followers as Abu Usman al-Kashmiri, hasn’t been seen since he was freed from Kabul’s infamous Pul-i-Charkhi prison by the Taliban last year. There’s no word, either on the many jihadists he recruited into the new Islamic State network he built to target India.

As fragile diplomatic engagement between India and Afghanistan’s Islamic Emirate resumes, many in the intelligence community fear Ahanger might become a weapon of a strange alliance assembled to destroy it: the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the Islamic State and the Taliban’s own hardliners.

Also Read: For Pakistan, peace with TTP jihadists can prove as bloody as war

The rise of Aijaz Dar 

Likely born around 1973, Ahanger was the son of a blacksmith living in Srinagar’s Mirjanpora area. Even though his family paid for him to attend Dreamland, a relatively-expensive private primary school, the young Ahanger did not prove a good student, a contemporary who went to the same school told ThePrint. After repeatedly failing his tenth grade examination, Ahanger dropped out of formal education.

In 1990 — like thousands of other young Kashmiris — Ahanger crossed the Line of Control, and found himself in jihad training camp run by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. 

The Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Ahanger told Jammu and Kashmir Police interrogators after his arrest in 1992, despatched him to a camp in Miranshah, in Pakistan’s North Waziristan. There, he spent six weeks training along with some forty others in the use of automatic weapons and explosives.

Even though the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen was far from Kashmir’s biggest jihadist group, it occupied a special position of prestige.  

In 1980, the jihadist leader Fazl-ul-Rehman Khalil — then a student at the the Sorbonne of the jihadist movement, Jamia Uloom-ul-Islamia seminary in Karachi — had founded the Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami along with his fellow students Irshad Ahmad and Saifullah Akhtar. 

Four years later, Khalil—along with a young lieutenant who went on to head the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Masood Azhar Alvi — split the organisation to form the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. 

The new group found a military mentor in Jalaluddin Haqqani, the jihad patriarch who went on to lead the Taliban’s most powerful wing, the Haqqani Network. Early on, scholars Dan Rassler and Vahid Brown have recorded that Khalil also developed a close relationship with Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden.

From Kashmir to Afghanistan

From inside Srinagar prison, Ahanger’s own rise in the jihadist movement had begun.  He found a mentor in Abdul Gani Dar, the cleric who founded the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen — ideologically linked to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In 1995, soon after Ahanger was released from prison, he married Dar’s daughter, Rukhsana. The marriage, police sources say, took place at Dar’s family home in Russu, near Budgam.

Ahanger earned a living at his father’s iron-foundry after his release from prison, his job serving as cover for his efforts to grow his jihadist group.

Then, fearing arrest, Ahanger and his wife fled across the Line of Control in 1996. For a time, Ahanger worked at the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s office in Islamabad, editing its magazine Shahadat, or ‘Martyrdom.’ Ahanger also began running a small stationery store in Rawalpindi.

The couple had two daughters — Sabira, born, according to her Pakistani passport, on 13 September, 1997, and Tooba, born on 27 December, 2001. 

In 2009, Rukhsana Ahanger decided to visit her parents in Kashmir. Local authorities confiscated her passport, and she was unable to meet her husband for the next five years.

Ahanger married again. His second wife, Muzaffarabad resident Saira Yusuf, was the sister of a slain al-Qaeda jihadist. Ahanger had two sons Abdullah Ibn-Aijaz and Abdul Rahman from this second marriage. 

Then, in 2010, Ahanger moved to Miranshah, to join the network of jihadist warlord,  Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri . Illyas — a veteran of the jihad in Kashmir with close links to both the ISI and al-Qaeda — had become a magnet for Indian jihadists, including Indian Mujahideen commander Riyaz Shahbandri and key 26/11 perpetrator David Headley. Ahanger likely occupied some role in these networks.

Fed up with the growing violence in North Waziristan, and under intense pressure from the United States,  the Pakistan Army cracked down on the Miranshah jihadists in 2014. Ahanger and his family fled across the border into Afghanistan’s Paktia province, and then Nangarhar.

Ahanger’s  Islamic State

Led by jihadist Hafiz Saeed Khan, and inspired by fighters who had served in Iraq, the jihadists who fled Pakistan proceeded to set up the Afghan wing of the Islamic State. The new organisation drew significant numbers of recruits from the across the region, including Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Maldivians. From 2016, at least 28 Kerala residents — including children, and pregnant women — arrived in Kunar to join the new mini-state.

Early in its existence, the Islamic State repeatedly clashed with the Taliban over revenues and territorial control. Saira Yusuf, Ahanger’s second wife, and his younger son, are believed to have been kidnapped in one such clash.

In 2017, though, the Haqqani Network negotiated peace between the Islamic State commander Aslam Farooqi, and the Taliban. The Taliban’s Quetta council, led by the Islamic Emirate’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, signed an agreement on 18 October 2017.

The motives behind the Islamic State peace deal aren’t hard to understand. Ever since the Islamic State emerged in 2017, it had been relentlessly targeted by United States drones: Ahanger’s older son was killed in one attack that summer.  Aslam Farooqi, who had earlier served in the Lashkar, had good ties with the ISI. The ISI was willing to offer him safe haven—but there was a price.

Following the agreement, Ahanger was given charge of a new Islamic State unit set up to stage attacks against India-linked targets. The Pakistani jihadist Amir Sultan Huzaifa—married to Ahanger’s daughter, Sabira—began publishing the Islamic State’s magazine, Sawt al-Hind. The National Investigation Agency alleges Ahanger succeeded in drawing multiple Indian recruits.

Early in 2020, the Kerala jihadists who had joined Ahanger began to be used for suicide attacks, targeting a prison in Jalalabad and the gurdwara in Kabul — the only such operations ever carried out by Indian nationals in the Islamic State.

From 2019, though, the growing tempo of attacks by United States and Afghan forces began severely degrading Ahanger’s resources. Amir Sultan was among dozens of cadre killed in drone strike. In the wake of one major battle in November, 2019, Ahanger fled to Kunar province

There, he married again—this time, to Russian national Leena Aisha, whose ethnic-Tajik husband had been killed in the fighting.

In April 2020, Ahanger moved again, this time to a safe-house in Kandahar . He was discovered there by Afghan intelligence, and held along with Aslam Farooqi and several other members of the cell. Afghan forces also detained 10 Indian women.

Freed by the Taliban, the arrested leaders disappeared. Aslam Farooqi was reported killed in January, under circumstances which remain unclear

Exactly where the Indians of the Islamic State are now no-one knows — but there’s reason to fear their daggers remain aimed at their homeland’s heart.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: Fauji or LeT, Hizbul worker? A Kashmir man’s identity comes under cloud after being shot dead



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