In its recently published article, “A camouflaged Pakistani hand may be behind the expanding footprint of Al Qaeda in Jammu & Kashmir”, the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) comments on how over the last few years, amidst an ongoing and effective offensive against Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups by Indian security forces in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), complemented by robust diplomacy and international outreach that has exposed and driven in Pakistan’s use of terror as a policy of State, a new and aberrant trend that has raised its head in the restive state is the mysterious advent of international terrorist organizations such as the Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The ideology and goals of these international terrorist organizations are very different to that of local and Pakistan-backed terrorist outfits such as the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM), and others. The residents of J&K have traditionally been immune to the alien and culturally discordant narrative sought to be peddled in J&K by the Al Qaeda and its ilk, and have been dismissive and closed to them.
EFSAS also describes how the last two years has seen this position change in J&K, albeit slowly and incrementally. The Al Qaeda in 2017 announced the formation of a J&K-specific wing called the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), and although this outfit has not grown anywhere close enough to threaten the establishment of a Caliphate in J&K, it has nonetheless achieved some traction and planted the seeds of a divisive and even more violence-driven ideology in the state. This is reflected in the fact that Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri last week released his first video specific to J&K in which he called for “unrelenting blows” against the Indian government and its security forces in order to “bleed” the economy and make the country suffer. In the video Zawahiri also warned terrorists in J&K not to fall into the trap of Pakistan, which he termed a puppet of the United States (US).
In addition, experts on the region are intrigued at the sudden and increasing level of acceptance that the Al Qaeda has managed to conjure up in recent times. They have been confounded by statements of support for Al Qaeda in J&K that even leaders of the separatist, Pakistan-backed and funded Hurriyat Conference have come up with. Quite obviously, the Pakistani military establishment, which firmly and possessively controls the country’s J&K policy, would not brook any interference in, or dilution of, its monopoly over terrorism in J&K, which the emergence of Al Qaeda and ISIL would imply. This has led some experts to postulate the complicity of the Pakistani military establishment in this new phenomenon at a time that Indian and international pressure on Pakistan to act against its proxies such as the HM, LeT and JeM has been so concerted and incessant that it has become unfeasible, at least temporarily, to persist with these outfits on the ground without inviting severe retribution.
Furthermore, the emergence of the Al Qaeda in J&K took the Indian government, the Hurriyat Conference and the terrorists operating in J&K all by surprise, and presented different new challenges for each. Former J&K police Chief SP Vaid described it as an “ideological shift”. Some Indian security experts have interpreted the emergence of the AGH as another major security challenge with a hard-line Islamist outlook that may appeal to sections of Kashmiris and encourage more youth to take up arms against the Indian State.
EFSAS concludes in its article that the Indian security apparatus would, the dismissive nature of the Ministry of External Affairs statement notwithstanding, do well to recognize that the AGH needs to be monitored closely to ensure that it is not able to capitalize in the years ahead upon the trend of growing radicalization amongst sections of the youth in J&K. The role of the ISI in strengthening the AGH as part of a new strategy to keep violence alive in J&K in order to protect the pre-eminence of the Pakistani military establishment, especially, needs to be watched with a hawk’s eye and countered promptly and robustly.