An al-Qaida-affiliated propaganda channel has announced one of Kashmir’s most popular militant leaders as the head of a newly created cell in the disputed Himalayan territory.
The appointment of Zakir Musa as the head of the new group represents the first time militants linked to al-Qaida have operated openly in Kashmir, site of a decades-long separatist insurgency and the only Muslim-majority region under Indian control.
Musa, 23, is the leading figure among a new generation of militants who have exploited social media and growing disillusionment among Kashmiris to revitalise the insurgency against Indian control of the region.
His announcement as the head of the new cell, named Ansar Ghawzat-Ul-Hind, is the deepest inroad al-Qaida has yet made in Kashmir, part of a long-running campaign by the terrorist group to penetrate the region, including with a 2014 video explicitly calling on “brothers” there to wage jihad against Indian authorities.
The creation of the new group was revealed in a statement released on Thursday by Global Islamic Media Front, an al-Qaida-affiliated information network.
Kashmir, a former princedom divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both, has been the site of an insurgency opposed to Indian rule since 1989.
Al-Qaida announced the establishment of an Indian wing in 2014 but like Isis has garnered little support among India’s Muslim population, the third-largest of any country in the world.
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But in recent years, analysts have been detecting an ideological shift among local militants towards the worldview of both jihadist groups.
Burhan Wani, another popular fighter, called in 2015 for a “caliphate [to be] established in Kashmir”. After Wani’s death last year, his successor Musa sharpened the rhetoric further, declaring in April that Kashmiris should not “fall for nationalism” – the traditional goal of the separatist movement.
“I see that many people in Kashmir are engaged in a war of nationalism, which is forbidden in Islam,” Musa said.
The fight in the region should “not be for the sake of Kashmir”, he added. “It should be exclusively for Islam so that sharia is established here.”
Another video released by Musa’s group in April attacked Pakistan for the first time, declaring: “There is no Islam [there] at present, so we are unhappy with it. We have to do jihad with Pakistan as well.”
Musa’s increasing alignment with al-Qaida is likely to deepen divisions between local militants and an older generation of separatist leaders in Kashmir.
Kashmir’s traditional separatist leadership has been at pains to distance the movement from groups such as al-Qaida and Isis, saying in May they had “nothing to do with our struggle and are non-existent in Jammu and Kashmir”.
An alliance of separatist leaders has yet to respond to the announcement of the formation of the new group. Ansar Ghawzat-Ul-Hind said on Thursday it expected to release another statement this week.
The formation of the group comes at a time of increased tension in Kashmir following another summer of protests in which Musa’s name has been frequently invoked.
Local sympathy for the militants, who number around 210, is thought to have grown in recent years as hopes for political dialogue with Delhi have languished. The Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi has also pursued a harder security line in the restive state.
Nearly 100 civilians were killed in months of protests last year that followed Wani’s death at the hands of Indian security forces. Turnout at elections in April was a record low. Eight Hindu pilgrims were killed earlier this month when their bus came under fire from militants.