Was Kashmir’s Burhan Wani an al-Qaeda operative?

Three days after the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was slain in a brief encounter with the Indian troops, the al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent asked Kashmiri people to follow his example.

It is probably the first time al-Qaeda has owned any Kashmiri militant fighting in the valley. Is it just a ploy from al-Qaeda to show its presence in the valley? But what would they get for playing such a ruse? Was then Burhan Wani an al-Qaeda operative? To understand that, one has to see his modus operandi. Since he started broadcasting his message on social media, it was clear that a highly intelligent and sophisticated mind is at work. But was he the mind or just a face to propagate a particular message?

Burhan joined the armed resistance movement at the age of 16 in 2010. After his militant cousin Aadil Mir was killed in an encounter, Burhan came to the forefront on social networking sites. From 2015 onwards, Burhan became the face of the resistance movement in Kashmir. Despite probably never travelling outside his town, Burhan’s video messages were profound! He was associated with Hizb ul Mujahideen that believes merger with Pakistan. A few years ago, majority of Hizb militants came from Jamaat-e-Islami background. Importantly, in his video messages, Burhan never mentioned any mendicant All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader.

He, in fact, surprised Kashmiris when in his penultimate message he urged the people of Kashmir to fight for the establishment of Khilifat. He also said in the same video that they are capable of harassing the families of the policemen like they do to their families but cited Sharia laws not allowing it! It was certainly a tectonic shift. Neither Hizb nor Jamaat-e-Islami has ever talked of establishing Khilifat in Kashmir. Their Khilifat started and ended with the merger of Pakistan. Then how come a mere 22-year-old youth, who has never been out of Kashmir, thought of fighting for establishing a Khilifat?

To understand that one has to look at the US occupation of Afghanistan and the subsequent turmoil in Pakistan. It is no secret that the US is primarily fighting against al-Qaeda to “smoke them out”. Since al-Qaeda believes in establishing Khilifat for Muslims, Kashmir has come under its radar. In 2008, the USA designated Af-Pak Kashmir policy, which meant all the three areas are cobbled together as a single theatre of operations. But the Indian state forced the US to withdraw Kashmir from its policy.

Burhan’s Killing 

A non-issue has been turned into the subject of debate. Burhan, once he joined the militant ranks, knew he would be killed. It didn’t matter to him how he would be killed. What mattered was the martyrdom. He attained that. The theories circulating about his death take the focus away from the cause he sacrificed his life for.

Since Burhan talked of Khilifat in his penultimate video message, it may have irked the Pakistani intelligence agencies. Together with their counterparts in India, they may have been thinking that the Kashmir movement is slipping away from them. For India, Pakistani state is the best option to deal with rather than with an enemy that believes in reconquering it, and wave the flag of Islam there. The Indian state cannot negotiate with an organisation as elusive and indefatigable as al-Qaeda. For Pakistan, Kashmir is a place through which they control a large section of religious extremist groups. So both India and Pakistan may have already joined forces to stop the march of al-Qaeda in Kashmir. It was no surprise that the media in both countries ignored AQIS extolling Burhan. Ideally, the Indian state should have raked this issue to “defame” the Kashmiri movement. BurhanWani-01_hf76p1

A section of the people and most intellectuals here think that Kashmir conflict should not be seen in religious terms as it only “defames” the movement. It is a laughable argument. The Israeli state is a pure religious and racist state in the world, yet the same world community does not condemn its religious bigotry. The youth of Kashmir who take the gun or stones in their hand come out because of Islamic values. Since Islam has always been a revolutionary religion never seceding itself from political affairs, the youth of Kashmir do not care what the world is saying.

For most Kashmiris, it may be blasphemous to think that the Pakistani state can connive with the Indian state. The sharing of intelligence between the two countries started in 2008 when the Taj Hotel at Mumbai was attacked. It brought India and Pakistan on the brink of a war but the US understood al-Qaeda’s game plan and stopped them. And since then both countries share intelligence with each other. It is possible that the Pakistani intelligence agency may have given some clue about his whereabouts. Those who know a thing or two about nation states understand how they behave in particular situations. Every state has paramount interests that cannot be sacrificed for others, no matter what their citizens think. Remember it is the same state that handed over Afghanistan to the US for butchery. Despite Afghanistan being the strategic depth of Pakistan, but once the US asked to which side of fence it belongs, Pakistan sided with the US in annihilating Afghanistan. Take Afghanistan in comparison: it refused to hand over a Muslim person to a non-Muslim country. You cannot expect such a sacrifice from nation states.

Burhan and al Qaeda connection

In 2014, AQIS released a message for Kashmiris in which it questioned the Hurriyat leaders and their ways of resistance. Although, it was the first time AQIS was heard but al-Qaeda operatives have been to Kashmir many times. In 2002, two Dutch nationals were killed at Dalgate when Indian troops accused them of attacking with knives. Strangely, the Dutch embassy didn’t make it an issue. Five years later, a video purportedly of al-Qaeda was circulated to the newsrooms. I was then a news editor in now defunct Take1 news channel. The head of our news unit handed over the CD to me. After watching the video, I laughed and refused to make a news item out of it. The contents inside the CD blasted the Hurriyat leadership and their mendicant ways.

A year later, Kashmir erupted against the handing over of land to controversial Amarnath shrine board. In 2006, Kashmir was rocked by the notorious sex scandal and later discovery of unmarked graves in many parts of Kashmir. But protests came and vanished. The narrative that dialogue and peace are inconvertible for the solution of Kashmir was holding the ground. In 2009 and 2010, Kashmir erupted in protests again, but nothing moved. The state even failed to file cases against the killer forces. Were these protests launched to break the statist narrative of peace, progress and prosperity?

In its 2007 video message, al-Qaeda preached. Seven years later, the same organisation releases a video with the same preachy tones and questioning mendicant methods in driving the military out. Al-Qaeda used same words of disgust against the Hurriyat and Pakistani state for ditching the Kashmir movement at crucial times. A year later, an al-Qaeda operative of Kashmir was killed in a drone attack. He had gone to Pakistan as an Hizb militant but had subsequently joined ranks of al-Qaeda. It was not the first time Kashmiri freedom fighters had joined this outfit. In 2007, Bandipora youth Ajaz Ahmad Malla was also killed fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Hurriyat (G) chairman Syed Ali Geelani offered prayers in absentia for him. Kashmir is an abode of Sufism. But why did those who followed Sufi ways join an outfit that is globally banned?

Ghazwa-i-Hindi, Afghanistan war and modus operandi

As US led invasion forces occupied Afghanistan, a wave of hatred spread against the Pakistani state. Here was a Muslim state that took pride in having an “Islamic bomb”, but ready to ditch neighbouring Muslim country for its selfish interests. The US’ war was with al-Qaeda, and according to the late Syed Saleem Shahzad, al-Qaeda had already prepared itself, and dispersed into tribal areas bordering the border with Pakistan. Since the

Pakistani state had willingly joined the “war on terror”, it meant al-Qaeda and its operatives would be targeted. Targeted they were. This put al-Qaeda in direct confrontation with Pakistani state and they responded: initially cautiously, and then unrestrained. Since al-Qaeda did not believe in nation state and interests of state being paramount than Muslim interests, it was no surprise that intelligent people were sucked in. These were the people who believed in Khilifat and strived for its establishment. It is perhaps the only Muslim organisation that is ready to sacrifice itself for the establishment of a Khilifat. The Taliban government in Afghanistan could have easily handed over Osama bin Laden to the US, avoided war and the collapse of its government. But, unlike Pakistan, it refused to hand over a single person to the American administration. The selflessness sacrifices of al-Qaeda had borne fruit as the Taliban government refused to bow down before the mightiest nation in the world (Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban by SS Shahzad). 

Al-Qaeda was also perhaps aware of Muhammad’s (SAW) reported prophecy about India’s conquest that would start from Af-Pak. Kashmir seemed the gateway for which they worked diligently. The US occupation of Afghanistan was the first step toward that prophecy and since then they have found many takers among the Muslims. The Pakistani state’s clampdown on mujahideen gave al-Qaeda an opportunity to indoctrinate them toward the establishment of Khilifat. This indoctrination may have helped them use Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad networks in Kashmir. And since al-Qaeda knows that the main theatre of war is in Af-Pak before they can proceed toward India, they started to sow the ideological seeds in Kashmir. This ideological blitzkrieg, at present, seems to have been started from rural areas. Because these areas are closer to forests giving al-Qaeda operatives opportunity to manoeuvre. Since guerrilla wars sustain on manoeuvrability, cities are bad the idea. One should not think that the outfit would send its foreign operatives here. They will instead recruit the locals.

We have seen people in some rural areas pelting stones at forces during encounters with militants. But how did this trend develop suddenly? Who and what made it possible for the fearless youth to gather and attack forces? Probably some guerrilla veterans are guiding these youth. Otherwise how is it possible that the youth who stormed the notorious special operations group of police razed their buildings to the ground? Now see their methods: during the July 2016 agitation the youth used trucks, JCBs and other heavy vehicles to raze the strong buildings of the notorious SOG. Then the youth tried to storm the Indian army camps. Such things are not a work of a common youth. There seems a comprehensive strategy behind these attacks. What made this year’s agitation dangerous was the youth mapped many policemen, SOGs, Kashmiris working in Indian army and other officials. The military intelligence does this kind of mapping. Here it’s the common people doing it. This cannot be called a street evolution. Someone is pitching ideas to the youth. Notice one more things – the protests are decentralised – a successful al-Qaeda strategy.

India and Pakistan may have come on the same page to eliminate the militant ‘commander’ used probably by the al Qaeda to turn Kashmir’s freedom movement into a fight for Khilafat

On July 14, the Indian Express reported that AQIS, in its latests message, has taken a break from preaching and has given operational tips to agitating Kashmiri youth –  “Attack the forts of the enemies. petrol bombs are one of the best ways to soften up the enemies and then attack them with knives and iron rods.” Nineteen days later, a petrol bomb is thrown on the house of former bureaucrat, columnist turned pro-India politician Naeem Akhtar Andrabi.

Take the case of militant videos and pictures that have surfaced over the past couple of years. It seems Kashmiri militants are actively identifying themselves with that global outfit. Look at what gears they use. Look at their get up once they join armed movement against the Indian state. Look at Sabzar Ahmad of 2015 and Sabzar of 2016. Anyone can mistake him a jihadist associated with the global outfit. You cannot distinguish them from other jihadist of the world. These Kashmiri militants no longer speak of azadi, they openly confess striving for the establishment of Khilifat and implementation of sharia law.

I think Burhan was the face used to propagate a certain message. He was chosen because he had all the traits the Kashmiri middle class mentality would identify with. He was the son of a top government employee. His mother was a science postgraduate. His brother was pursuing PhD, and others were also in higher education. He came from a wealthy family. His family followed Tablighi Jamaat, the most pacifist Muslim organisation. Since in Kashmir, the middle class mentality measures success in terms of job profile and family resources, Burhan seemed to be an ideal medium of the message.

To say many youth got attracted and were recruited is a puerile theory. We are not in the ’90s when anyone could become a militant. The militants operating in the rural areas do not take anyone in their fold. It’s an ordeal to become a militant. He has to gain the trust and this trust is not gained in a few months or years. Then he has to be ready that his family, relatives and friends will be tortured and psy-ops would be used to break him. For all the fantastic theory of Burhan joining militant ranks in revenge proved dismal. First, sense of revenge doesn’t last long. Second, he didn’t take his revenge by attacking the army camp. Third, the militants in Kashmir do not take anyone in their ranks with fickle ideology. Fourth, when the occupation is naked, it is bound to be repelled with harsh resistance. You don’t need a reason to join resistance force in an occupation. So the narrative that Burhan’s videos attracted youth to join militant ranks does not stand ground. If they had to recruit people, they needed resources to fight with. These videos may have been used to test the waters in Kashmir. al Qaeda does not recruit people randomly and this model has been followed in Kashmir as well. Already, we have seen that a number of al-Qaeda men have been arrested in India and a few of them have been to Kashmir as well.

Relevance of the All Parties Hurriyat  Conference

The day Burhan Wani was killed along with his two aides, huge number of people came out from their cosy homes. A conservative estimate of around 2-3 lakh people took part in the charismatic militant commander’s funeral. Despite curfews and restrictions, a sea of people moved towards Burhan’s home late in the night and camped there. The people didn’t need anyone’s instruction on what to do next. But since the Hurriyat claims to be the custodian of the tehreek, it was beyond it not to jump in. Although from the past 14 years, it has subtly distanced itself from the armed resistance. The Hurriyat, which believes in peaceful resolution of Kashmir under the auspices of the UN, gave a one-day strike call initially. They later amended it and give a three day strike call! Remember, the Hurriyat does not believe in the establishment of Khilifat. The people in Kashmir were already defying the Hurriyat diktats and its calls were openly challenged on the streets. The situation, already worse for the state, turned against the Hurriyat. On July 26, when the Hurriyat announced relaxation in strike after 2pm, the city youth refused to abide.

The rural areas are already out of Hurriyat’s reach. The city and civil line areas resemble the war zones depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down. In order to save its ever decreasing hold on the people, Syed Ali Geelani, the head of his own Hurriyat faction claimed Burhan had called him and told the mendicant leader that he is right on his front! Far away Hafiz Saeed, the head of LeT in Pakistan, also bragged the same thing! It was a tactical lie from Geelani to assert himself on the youth of the Valley. It failed. It was bound to fail. The Hurriyat is no revolutionary party. This year 87-year-old Geelani, who is often bestowed with a misnomer of “the revolutionary leader”, was seen writing graffiti on the walls! It would have been better if the same graffiti was written on the largest army cantonment of Srinagar. He must be perhaps the first and the last “revolutionary leader” who was seen writing graffiti when the people on the streets are butchered and maimed.

From 2008 to 2016, the Hurriyat’s abject failure was clear to the people. Its hollowness came to the fore when its activist was killed on July 30, a day after he had led protests in Sopore. This attack seemed to be in consonance with what AQIS had chalked out: “Balance your emotions with shrewd planning. Keep all the activities decentralised, so that the Kuffar are not able to control it using any of the leaders who are hell bent on taking you off the path of Jihad.” Not to be deterred the Hurriyat restored to character assassination of the youth. Militant organisation LeT too put “posters” urging the people to abide by the Hurriyat calendar. It didn’t work. Since slave nations are unable to take great decisions, the Hurriyat is always seen as conflict mangers. The agitation of 2016 showcased the revolutionary methods of the people while the Hurriyat was trying to tame it.

Meanwhile, Pakistan also activated its channels and international media started to hype protests. They also put the Hizbul Mujahideen cadre pictures in the daily Greater Kashmir to show Kashmiris that Pakistan is with them. This support may buoy up a section of the people but not the people with guns fighting against the might of the Indian army. Those fighting against the might of the Indian state are increasingly relying on the help of Allah and the fulfilment of the prophecy. They, for sure, are not demanding azadi but Khilifat and implementation of Sharia. And this seems the end of the beginning for the Indian and Pakistani state.

(The writer is based in Srinagar, Kashmir. The views expressed by the author are his own. If you wish to write for Kashmir Dispatch, please send your writings to editor@kashmirdispatch.com.)