Kashmir militant to head Al-Qaeda-linked group

AP , Thursday 27 Jul 2017

An al-Qaida-linked propaganda network announced Thursday that a militant leader in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir will head a new group that will fight against Indian rule in the disputed region.

It is the first time that al-Qaida has publicly claimed to be active in Kashmir.

The announcement was made by the Global Islamic Media Front, which said Kashmiri militant Zakir Musa will head al-Qaida-linked Ansar Ghawzat-ul-Hind.

It said the group will "repel the aggression of tyrant Indian invaders, and through jihad, and with the aid of Allah ... we will liberate our homeland Kashmir."

Musa recently left Kashmir's largest indigenous rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, and is believed to have been joined by less than a dozen others.

Previously, no global jihadi groups have openly operated in Kashmir, a territory divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both.

In 2014, al-Qaida announced the creation of a cell in the Indian subcontinent, but it failed to attract significant support.

Musa issued a series of audio messages in April saying that Kashmir's struggle was for the Islamic cause and had nothing to do with nationalism, highlighting a shift in ideology among some rebels in the region, where militants have mainly fought for the independence of the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan.

Separatist leaders, who challenge India's sovereignty over Kashmir, have repeatedly rejected the presence of outside groups, including al-Qaida, and have accused India of portraying the Kashmiri struggle as extremist.

Senior Indian police officer S.P. Vaid said troops will continue to fight militants irrespective of their group affiliations.

"Anyone who picks up gun to fight against the state is a terrorist to us. Their party affiliation hardly matters to us," Vaid said.

However, he said police would closely monitor the impact of Thursday's announcement on militancy.

"It's hard to predict any impact immediately, though there is a concern that it might sway youth toward the radical ideology," he said.

Musa was a close aide of Burhan Wani, a charismatic rebel leader whose death last year triggered open defiance against Indian rule.

Wani's death and the public fury it caused brought the armed rebellion into the mainstream in Kashmir and gave new life to a militant movement that had withered in recent years, reduced to only about 100 fighters in scattered rebel outfits. Officials say since Wani's killing, at least 100 young men have joined rebel ranks, some of them after stealing weapons from soldiers and police.

His death also cemented a shift in public behavior, with people displaying anger at Indian rule openly and violently when troops raid villages to hunt rebels.

Rebel groups have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the armed uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.

Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir's mostly Muslim population, with most people supporting the rebels' cause against Indian rule.

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