SRINAGAR: A day after the killing of Sabzar Bhat , Hizbul Mujahideen identified Riyaz Naikoo, at 29 the oldest surviving terrorist of the outfit, as its new commander in Kashmir, sources said on Sunday.
Tech-savvy Naikoo is considered a moderate among the hardline Hizbul terrorists, and speaks contrary to the deposed Hizb commander Zakir Musa. He favours a secular society in the valley.
A few months ago, Naikoo had invited Kashmiri Pandits to return to the valley. In an 11-minute video address, Naikoo, alias Zubair, had said, “We will welcome them (Kashmiri Pandits) warmly and there is always place for them in our hearts. They are part of our nation. We are their protectors and not their enemies.”
Intelligence sources said Hizbul is likely to nominate Naikoo as its new chief to counter the narrative of deposed commander Zakir Musa that terrorists in Kashmir were fighting for an Islamic Caliphate and imposition of Shariat.
Pakistan-based Hizbul leadership, according to intelligence agencies, is under tremendous pressure from ISI after deposed Hizb commander Zakir Musa last week spoke about establishing a Caliphate in the Valley, besides threatening separatists against terming Kashmir’s struggle as political fight.
“By appointing moderate Naikoo as new chief, Hizb may overshadow Zakir, who gained prominence among hardliners in Kashmir due to ISIS ideology. Also, Hizbul would prove to the world that it was not fighting for Islamic rule in Kashmir,” an intelligence source said.
Indeed, after Zakir’s statement, PoK-based Hizbul spokesman Salim Hashmi had distanced the outfit from his statement.
Naikoo, along with Saddam Padder and Altaf Kachroo, is rated ‘A++’ category terrorist carrying a Rs 12 lakh bounty on information leading to his arrest.
A native of Durbug in Awantipora in Pulwama district, Naikoo is said to have escaped from trap laid down by security forces several times in the past three years.
Police records state that Naikoo, after his release from detention under public safety (PSA), got drawn into terrorism. He is wanted in several killings including of police officers, and was a close associate of Burhan Wani, and was seen in some photographs with him last year