Zakir Rashid Bhat, a Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander based in south Kashmir, has been appointed head of a new al-Qaeda affiliated group in Jammu and Kashmir called Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, the terrorist group's media wing announced on Thursday.
Bhat, also known as Zakir Musa, had earlier made statements supporting jihad and Shariat rule in the state, though Indian police and intelligence officials said it would have little impact on ground.
''The jihad in Kashmir has reached 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'', the statement by al-Qaeda's Global Islamic Media Front read.
Invoking Allah and the Prophet Mohammad, it announced that a new movement of jihad with the goal of liberating Kashmir had been founded by the companions of "martyr" Burhan Wani under the leadership of Mujahid Zakir Musa.
Jammu and Kashmir's police chief today said they would investigate the presence of the new jihadist organisation in the state.
''A militant is a militant, whichever tanzeem (outfit) he belongs to. Somebody who has picked up a gun is a militant for us. We will investigate the arrival of al-Qaeda in Kashmir,'' said Director General of Police (DGP) S P Vaid at a press conference in Srinagar.
Bhat had appeared in a video in May under the al-Qaeda banner, accusing Indian Muslims of cowardice and calling on them to engage in jihad against the government. Earlier this month, al-Qaeda's Urdu-language magazine Nawa-i Afghan Jihad had also carried an article referring to Musa's group.
Ghazwa-e-Hind, from which the new organisation takes its name, is a prophecy attributed in some Islamic traditions to Prophet Muhammad, proclaiming that a victorious army rising from the West shall establish Islam in India before the Day of Judgment.
It is unclear if Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind will operate under the umbrella of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, led by Uttar Pradesh born Sana-ul-Haq, or report directly to the organisation's chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Haq has long been a proponent of linking the jihad in Kashmir with the wider pan-India jihadist cause.
India's security establishment did not however see much significance in the news, as the new organisation has no major sources of arms or funding, unlike established militant outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). It is seen mainly as an effort to reach out to young Kashmiris drawn to global jihadism through the internet.
The Hizbul Mujahideen and LeT on Thursday lost no time in slamming the new outfit.
The HM supreme commander alleged the new outfit was part of a "conspiracy by the Indian establishment to create a division among the mujahideen in Kashmir and set the stage for bloodshed in Kashmir on the lines of what had happened in al-Qaeda and Islamic State-influenced theatres like Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, etc".
LeT issued a statement on Thursday saying that "Indian conspiracies are being foiled ever since the locals and leaders forged unity among themselves ... groups like al-Qaida and IS are being brought up to label the legitimate freedom struggle (in Kashmir) as terrorism".
The message announcing the formation of Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind said its official media would be called al-Hurr, which means free/independent.
It also released the logo of al-Hurr. Indian intelligence agencies are still trying to ascertain whether Musa loyalties lie with al-Qaida or IS, though he has earlier praised the former's work. Even though he has never named IS, his statements have mentioned 'khilafat' on at least two occasions.
Eased out, though not formally expelled, from the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen for threatening leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in a video released in May, Bhat has struggled to draw recruits to his cause, reports The Indian Express citing police sources. Two potential recruits to his small group recently dropped out after their families received threats from the Hizb.
Though described in several media accounts as highly educated, the 1994-born Bhat in fact was asked to leave the Ram Dev Jindal College in Chandigarh after failing his first term examinations.
Family sources contacted by The Indian Express described a conflicted young man, who joined the Hizb in 2013, deeply humiliated by his lack of success compared with his older brother, a Srinagar-based doctor.