The bogey of Islamic State in Kashmir

The resurfacing of Al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIS, when he took credit for the worst terror attacks in South Asia, the Easter Day attacks in Sri Lanka which killed 258 people and injured more than 500, is indicative that though United States President Donald Trump declared victory over the ISIS in end-February, the terror entity is not quite history as yet.
It is unlikely to be defeated with finality any time soon since it finds conflict zones fertile grounds for thriving in. Such zones are aplenty in the region ever since the US chose to deploy the extremist philosophy of Saudi origin, Wahabbism, as a mobilisation tool to entrap the erstwhile USSR in Afghanistan in the eighties. Today, Afghanistan is site for pockets of ISIS presence, confined by Taliban’s ethnic-nationalist, rather than pan-Islamist, insurgency in Afghanistan.
Even as Kashmir continues to see unrest, this does not amount to ISIS being at India’s doorstep. Given that it has been seeing continuous conflict, Kashmir could attract the ISIS’ sympathetic and self-serving attention; in turn, its once-ascendant star may have attracted disaffected Kashmiris youth surfing social media, its recruiting ground. However, that’s as far as ISIS has gotten to yet.
Over the past five years there have been overblown reports of ISIS activity in Kashmir. Black flags made an appearance in some street demonstrations. Terror mastermind Zakir Musa, currently with an Al-Qaeda-inspired outfit, once advocated the caliphate. For his pains, he was roundly criticised for weakening the political dimensions of the Kashmir problem and expelled from his position as local leader of the Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen.
Over the turn of the year, masked youth appeared at Srinagar’s historic Jamia Masjid after the Friday prayers waving ISIS flags, prompting a rally the following Friday by the separatist conglomerate, the Hurriyet, against what they claimed was an attempt by unspecified forces to way-lay their ‘indigenous’ movement for ‘self-determination’. For its part, the Pakistan-sponsored Lashkar-e-Toiba pointed to ‘Indian agents’ being behind the incident.
The latest instance of ISIS rising its head is in its designating Kashmir as Wilaya-e-Hind, a province of a to-be caliphate. Earlier, Kashmir was on the radar of the ISIS-affiliate overseeing its supposed Khorasan province that includes Afghanistan.
The claim was made immediately after security forces killed the last known surviving member of the Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir (ISJK). The ISJK had only a handful of self-proclaimed cadre to begin with and no links with West Asia. It was wiped out in successive operations over the past two years, while two alleged associates were caught in the mainland.
The police has thus rightly characterised the ISIS announcement as propaganda, since there are no ISIS remnants in Kashmir. The claim is a clear bid to break out of its current status as a virtual threat confined to cyber space.
Not having made inroads in Kashmir even when at its height and when the post-Burhan Wani phase was at its peak, a return of ISIS under improved conditions of today is unlikely.
Besides, the last ISIS-affiliated terrorist was also known for switching terror groups from time-to-time, and took to terrorism after reportedly being tortured by security forces. Another fighter was reportedly disgruntled at losing a cousin in police firing. This indicates motives other than radicalism, pointing to a magnification of radicalisation as threat.
The Kashmir police was apt in rejecting the allegation by the Sri Lankan army chief that the Easter Day terrorists had visited Kashmir, there being no record of the visit. The image of Kashmir as a hot-bed of radicalism does not square with the politics of Kashmir rooted as they are in an inter-state territorial dispute.
Hyping of any ISIS mention in the media appears in Kashmir as motivated attempts to tarnish the ‘movement’. Likewise, strategic commentary taking ISIS’ claims at face-value betrays a confirmation bias, useful as it is for points-scoring against Pakistan. Electoral dividend is also sought by motivated political forces feeding into an anti-Muslim discourse as part of a Right-wing project of ‘Other-ing’ Muslims. There is danger of reports of ISIS being manipulated to continue with a militarised status quo. Placing it in perspective is necessary.
Even so, it takes merely a handful of terrorists to perpetrate horrendous outrages, such as the Easter Day attacks and the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. Vigilance is inescapable. It would be denial to believe that the politics and insurgencies in India provide no opportunity for attention of nefarious forces. Alongside, therefore, ‘root causes’ must be addressed.
The United Nations plan of action for prevention of violent extremism provides a comprehensive framework of response. The report says, ‘Urgent measures must be taken to resolve protracted conflicts.’
This underscores the necessity to bring back a political track to complement the military prong of strategy in Kashmir. Therefore, ending the conflict in Kashmir can best preserve it from the proverbial evil eye.
Ali Ahmed is visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Views are personal.



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