The Branding Of Syed Salahuddin As Global Terrorist: Symbolic Yet Significant      

by Syed Ata Hasnain - Jun 28, 2017 11:59 AM +05:30 IST
The Branding Of Syed Salahuddin
As Global Terrorist: Symbolic Yet Significant       Syed Salahuddin addressing a rally. (Hindustan Times)
Snapshot
  • President Trump has in one stroke further demonstrated his intent to energise the global war on terror and target all those organisations, which have the potential to be threats.

    To expect anything further from the declaration and to attempt to force the US to go beyond may be naive.

It was in May 2011 that I was speaking at a public meeting of elders at Zainakut near the HMT factory in the suburbs of Srinagar. After making the usual points in favour of Kashmir being a part of India, I went on to say that we were sitting not far from Soibugh, one of the significant landmarks in Kashmir’s landscape. I reminded the audience that this was the village of Mohammed Yusuf Shah alias Syed Salahuddin, the leader of the mostly homegrown Kashmiri terror outfit Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) to whom I was giving a message.

The message was simple; “do return to where you belong, because you look alien in that alien land”. Essentially, I was conveying to the HM leader to realise the futility of his efforts and help make Kashmir join the mainstream of India. I am not sure whether Salahuddin ever received that message but somehow since 2011 his dominance of the HM was always under challenge.

Syed Salahuddin is a known figure in the rest of India, but as it happens with most leaders of terrorist groups, knowledge about them always remains peripheral. So who exactly is this bearded Rasputin-like and cap-wearing character, who has just gained further notoriety after being designated a global terrorist by the US? Seventy-one-year-old Salahuddin, a Jamati to boot (member of the Jamat e Islami Kashmir – JeI), contested the Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections of 1987 on the ticket of Muslim United Front and lost due to alleged serious rigging in the Amirakadal constituency, forcing him to become a renegade.

He joined the HM in 1989, then a fledgling militant organisation founded by Mohammed Ahsan Dar, who later left and Salahuddin became the supremo. HM became the militant face of the JeI (K) and Salahuddin was virtually separatist Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s pointsman. He moved across the Line of Control (LoC) in 1990, and later was appointed the chairman of the United Jihad Council in 1994, also known as the Muttahida Jihad Council (MJC). It is a Muzaffarabad-based conglomerate of initially 13 terrorist organisations focused on attempting to defeat the Indian security forces and have them evacuate J&K.

Syed Salahuddin has been one of the chief recipients of Pakistani largesse and support, which has helped him usurp the position of the main rabble rouser and anti-India voice from among those Kashmiris, who fled to and live in Pakistan. He had problems with various HM militant commanders from time to time in the last 25 years or so, chief among them being Abdul Majeed Dar. The latter, in September 2000, had a change of heart and wished to seek peace with India.

Initially, this was supported by Salahuddin, but under Pakistani pressure, he went back on his support. The ceasefire or seizure of offensive operations Majeed Dar had negotiated fell through and violence resumed shortly thereafter. Dar was later assassinated in 2003 by unknown assailants but Salahuddin was known to have been involved. Interestingly, Salahuddin as one of the chief surrogates of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has closely toed its line and received its guidance in the control of terror activities in J&K; now largely restricted to the Kashmir Valley sector alone. The HM’s infamous Pir Panjal Regiment, which operated in close vicinity to the lofty range was no longer existent. The HM is known to be financed through a complex system involving Pakistani, Indian and fake Indian currency.

Before the construction of the LoC fence, the HM had an easier system of logistics support from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Couriers could travel singly through the open border or leave contraband at pre-identified locations near the LoC, to be subsequently picked up by border guides or shepherds. The fence effectively bottled this up especially the bringing in of lethal hardware.

However, in 2008 with the introduction of informal trans-LoC trade, different means of laundering money and funding separatist organisations through the system of under invoicing were adopted. Now with the National Investigation Agency (NIA) actively involved in investigating the financial conduits of support to the Hurriyat and the militant groups these routes seemed destined for short life hereafter.

While the HM’s activities continue all over the valley, it is south and central Kashmir, where it is the dominant militant group. The changing nature of militancy from 2008 onwards had an effect on Salahuddin’s functioning style and level of control. Although a member of JeI (K) and a part of the Pakistani grand strategy of religious and ideological change in J&K, to link the Kashmiris to the Ummah for the fight against India, it is primarily from 2014 that his functional style veered dramatically towards this methodology.

Attempting to link the separatist violence in the Indian state with pan-Islamic jihad in Syria and Iraq, Salahuddin declared that help from Al Qaeda, Taliban or any other like-minded group or country would be welcome. On 13 July 2014, the declared martyr’s day all over Kashmir and accused the Indian Army of running a "reign of terror" that was "proved by 6,000 unmarked graves, daily killings, molestation of womenfolk and incidents of arson". The attempt to give energy to the apparently flagging movement in 2014 through these utterances was due to the feelers he got from 2011 to 2014 of his waning control over HM. A new generation of restive Kashmiri youth was emerging. The proxy war generation born in or around 1989 is known to have grown under the shadow of the inevitable Indian hard power that was then needed. It started showing the first signs of its impatience with the manner in which Salahuddin ran the HM and guided its role in the proxy war.

It was the beginning of the deification of young separatist leader Burhan Wani and the introduction of technology into militancy, the nature of which changed quite dramatically. From 2012 onwards north Kashmir, already suffering from the absence of Pakistani terrorist leaders after the killing of Abdullah Uni, progressively abdicated dominance of the separatist movement to south Kashmir. Burhan Wani’s social media driven violent movement made him the poster boy of the HM, threatening Salahuddin’s hold and position. Burhan Wani’s killing on 8 July 2016 became the trigger for the severe turbulence in south Kashmir and the emergence of a slew of leaders, who tried to inherit his mantel. This included Sabzar Bhat, who was recently killed in an encounter.

The recent interesting aspects related to Salahuddin’s position in HM and the nature of emerging threats will assist in ascertaining the extent of effect of the US action. Just recently, Salahuddin condemned Zakir Musa and ejected him from the HM after the young militant leader threatened to behead Hurriyat leaders. Zakir Musa said, "I am warning all those hypocrite Hurriyat leaders. They must not interfere with our Islamic struggle. If they do, we will cut their heads and hang them in Lal Chowk". He asserted that Hizbul Mujahideen was clear in its motives of "fighting to impose a Shariat in Kashmir and not resolving the Kashmir issue by calling it a political struggle."

Salahuddin’s need for the Hurriyat is evident from this action, although he may not have minded following Musa’s ideological extremism. It would have gained greater support from the Pakistani establishment and make him quite indispensable. What is however becoming quite evident is that the unity of the resistance moment in Kashmir is now progressively getting dented. Islamabad’s recent hard push to induct Pakistani terrorists across multiple points on the LoC is demonstrative of the fact that it finds its control waning over the new generation of Kashmiri terrorists.

Sensing some dilution in Pakistan’s support, Salahuddin had in an interview in June 2012, claimed that Pakistan had been backing the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in its fight in Kashmir. He went on to threaten that if this was withdrawn he would fight Pakistan internally. “In September 2016, Salahuddin vowed to block any peaceful resolution to the Kashmir conflict, threatened to train more Kashmiri suicide bombers, and vowed to turn the Kashmir Valley into a graveyard for Indian forces”. It was this statement on which the US State Department pounced.

The timing of the US to declare Salahuddin a global terrorist was most apt; a few hours before the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump. It brought a positive note to the expectations, which were getting apprehensive by the moment. In the event, the summit actually achieved much more than expected.

Although unconnected, it does look as if the Iranian supreme leader’s uncalled for Eid message, urging Islamic nations to support the struggle of the Kashmiris against the Indian Army, could have instigated the US action. It is doubtful that any response could be as quick as this but the US action was actually well thought through. It sends a message to the UN Security Council, especially China, about the designation of another notorious leader, Pakistan JeM’s Masood Azhar, which is hanging fire due to China’s intransigence.

The US fully realises its compulsions in not pressing home on Pakistan the implications of having similarly declared Jamat-ud-Dawa’s Hafiz Sayeed. A bounty of $10 million on his head has made scant difference in Pakistan’s handling of the master terrorist except once in a while incarceration to send messages of cooperation to the international community; post Trump inauguration this is exactly what happened when Sayeed was detained.

It’s a far cry for India from the 1993-94 period, when Robin Raphel, US assistant secretary of state in the first Bill Clinton Administration, openly sided with Pakistan and proposed the legitimisation of the third option (azadi). The change from 1994 to 2017 is symbolic of the dynamic alteration of the international order. Raphel’s negative approach had forced the Indian government to pass the joint parliamentary resolution on J&K on 22 February 1994, emphasising on all territories of the former kingdom being a part of India’s legitimate aspiration.

There was no compulsion on the part of the US to have acted as such in declaring Salahuddin a global terrorist. It also realises that Pakistan continues to remain strategically significant as far the future of Afghanistan is concerned. However, it also probably perceived that Pakistan’s strategic confidence and cockiness was increasing with the assured backing of China. A balance had to be drawn between pushing Pakistan into the China-Russia fold and appeasing it on Afghanistan. A window was also being sought to send India positive signals without going overboard and without having to act much upon a decision. To that extent this action achieved everything. Most of all, it set the tone for the Modi-Trump summit in a most appropriate way.

To expect anything further from the declaration and to attempt to force the US to go beyond may be naive. President Trump has in one stroke further demonstrated his intent to energise the global war on terror and target all those organisations and entities, which have the potential to be threats. The HM in its current avatar bears no threat to the US, but its emerging potential as a radically-oriented violent extremist group, which is trying to adopt the model of other international terror groups, demands pre-emptive action. That it targets a US strategic partner is also a good reason to declare its leader a global terrorist.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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