October 1999 News

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In Kashmir, Osama backs the wrong horses

19 October 1999
The Indian Express
By Suba Chandran(with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies)

Osama bin Laden's reported announcement of jihad against the US and India and his concomitant call to all the Kashmir militant groups to fight together against these countries has provoked fears concerning his ability to execute terrorist acts in Kashmir. The pertinent issue would be to assess the links that Bin Laden has with the militant groups operating in Kashmir. Fortunately, a review of the militant organisations operating in Kashmir suggests that Laden's influence over them is not consistently powerful and definitely not comprehensive.

There are at least three major militant groups active in Kashmir - the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen and Hizbul Mujahedeen - besides a number of minor groups such as Tehrik-ul-Mujahedeen, Al Badr, Al Barq and Al Jihad. Though these groups fought in the Kargil engagement under the banner of the United Jihad Council, they do not constitute a monolithic entity. There are immense differences among them in terms of their objectives, their area of operations, the people and groups who support they receive from the Pakistan government and the ISI.

Lashkar-e-Toiba is the militant wing of Markaz Dawa-ul-Arshad, whose twin objectives are preaching and jihad. The Markaz is a religious organisation founded in 1987 and is located in 190 acres of land in Murdike, a small town 30 miles north of Lahore. Initially funded by the Arabs and Pakistanis, the Markaz has resources like iron foundries and garment factories to generate its own income. It runs about 30 schools with 5,000 students. All the students do not become Lashkars, but those who opt into the movement are given military training in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Though initially helped by the ISI, the Markaz and the Lashkar are not entirely under the control of either the ISI or the Pakistani government because they have succeeded in mobilising independent incomes. Around 300 Lashkars are active in the Valley, Poonch, Rajouri and Doda. Bin Laden has been contributing to the Markaz liberally and has a certain influence over it.

The Harkat-ul--Mujahedeen(HuM) was earlier known as the Harkat-ul-Ansar and changed its name after the US declared it a terrorist group in 1997. The HuM is associated with the Deobandi-Wahabi faith and is closely linked to the Maulana Samiul Haq faction of the Jamat-e-Ulama-e-Islam(JUI). Unlike the Lashkar, the HuM does not have an organisational structure for recruitment. Most of its members are from other organisations, especially the Tabligi Jamaat. HuM members are mostly Afghans and were trained in the use of weapons (including Stinger missiles) by the ISI and the CIA to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. When the Najibullah government collapsed, they were sent to other parts of the world, from Algeria and Bosnia to Kashmir. Out of an estimated total of 5,000 volunteers, about 350 are fighting in Kashmir.

The Hizbul Mujahedeen (HM), unlike other organisations, operates only in Kashmir. Founded in 1989, its popularity increased once the pro-independence groups of Kashmir fell out of Pakistan's favour. The HM has strong links with the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan and most of its members are from the Islami Jamaat-e-Talaba, the student wing of the JI. Though the HM claims that its members are from Kashmir, there is a sizeable proportion of Afghanis and Pakistanis among its rank and file.

The HM, unlike the HuM and the LeT, does not have any training bases in Afghanistan, because of its proximity to the Jamaat-e-Islami. The Jamaat-e-Islami(JI) has close links with Gulbadin Hikmatyar, who is fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Contrary to popular belief, the JI does not support the Taliban's influence within Pakistan. Though supported by the ISI initially, the HM today is not under the total control of the ISI. There are around 800 Hizbul Mujahedeen fighters active in Kashmir.

There are differences among these groups regarding their objectives. Whereas the Hizbul Mujahedeen are focused only on the liberation of Kashmir from Indian occupation, the objectives of the HuM and the Lashkar are broader. Both aim to use Kashmir as a stepping-stone towards a larger goal - to unite the entire Muslim community in the subcontinent and elsewhere. Kashmir is but one component of the jehad they want to promote. For these jehadis, Kashmir is only a gateway to establish the "rule of Allah throughout the world". For them, Kashmir is not the end but only a means.

The ultimate aim of these jehadi groups is "to revive the tradition of jehad among Muslims everywhere in order to win back the lost glory of the Muslim world." Osama bin Laden has influence over the HuM and the Lashkar, but not over the Hizbul Mujahedeen, which is closely allied to the Jamaat-e-Islami. Besides, the Afghan content in the HuM and the Lashkar is significant, whereas the HM consists mainly of Kashmiri youths. Of all the militant groups operating in Kashmir, the main threat comes from the Hizbul Mujahedeen, over whom Bin Laden exercises less influence.

The picture, therefore, is a bit mixed. Bin Laden does have assets in Kashmir, lending credence to the theory that we may see a spurt in terrorist activity. But queering his pitch is the fact that his hold on the most capable organisation is the weakest.


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