Zakir Rashid Bhat or Zakir Musa has been unveiled as the leader of the Kashmir unit of global Islamist group, al-Qaeda, marking a new chapter in the restive valley that is wedged between India and Kashmir. The locally groomed Musa, who was once Hizbul Mujahideen commander, will now head the group formally known as Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind.
Indian officials in Kashmir and New Delhi attempted to play down the development though this marks the first time the al-Qaeda has created an affiliate for Kashmir, which has already been reeling under the serious tensions in the past few months.
"Militant is a militant (for us) and outfit does not matter. We will investigate the arrival of al-Qaeda in Kashmir," Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police, S P Vaid, told reporters adding that the local arm will have little impact on the ground. Kashmir authorities have denied the existence of international Islamist organisations such as al-Qaeda or Islamic State (Isis) though the latter's flags have been seen during protests in the valley.
Al-Qaeda's propaganda channel, Global Islamic Media Front, announced that Musa, a college dropout and a rising figure in the Kashmir militancy, will lead the jihad movement in Kashmir in the absence of slain commander Burhan Wani – whose death became the starting point for one the worst periods of violence in Kashmir.
"After the martyrdom of heroic Mujahid Burhan Wani the Jihad in Kashmir has entered a stage of awakening, as the Muslim Nation of Kashmir has committed to carry the flag of Jihad to repel the aggression of tyrant Indian invaders, and through Jihad, and with the aid of Allah only, we will liberate our homeland Kashmir," said the al-Qaeda media wing.
In May 2017, Musa appeared in a video calling for Islamist attacks in the Indian subcontinent and urged "spineless" Indian Muslims to "stand up against oppression". Though he appeared under the al-Qaeda banner at the time, there was no indication of the existence of a separate al-Qaeda wing.
The 23-year-old former engineering student is a known extremist in the region. Musa quit the Hizbul Mujahideen, after the group did not back his opposition to separatist leaders calling the Kashmir struggle as political and not religious. Musa has been staunchly advocating Shariah law in Kashmir and even went to the extent of calling for the beheading of separatist leaders.
It is still unclear whether Musa would directly report to the global al-Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri or will operate under, Sana-ul-Haq, leader of the al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent.
Following the al-Qaeda announcement, the United Jihad Council, an umbrella body of military groups in Kashmir, said in a statement: "There is no scope or room for any international organisations like Daesh (Islamic State) and Al Qaeda, we don't need them nor is there any necessity for their presence."