Indian Police on Tuesday admitted for the first time that there was a “marginal presence” of Islamic State in Indian-administered Kashmir, a day after the terror group claimed a weekend attack that killed a policeman in the disputed Himalayan region.
Amaq News Agency, which is allegedly Islamic State’s media wing, said Monday that the terror outfit’s operatives carried out a daring daylight assault on the outskirts of Srinagar on Sunday, killing police constable Farooq Ahmad Yatoo, who was guarding a separatist leader’s residence.
On its website, the agency displayed an image of the slain policeman’s rifle, which, it claimed, the attackers seized, and warned that “war has just begun” alongside the image.
“The recent attack could be the handiwork of a lone wolf or a few indoctrinated individuals carried away by the Islamic State ideology,” S.P. Vaid, Indian Kashmir’s police chief, told BenarNews.
“But I can tell you with authority that the presence of IS in Kashmir is only marginal. We have already identified the suspect responsible for Sunday’s attack and a manhunt is under way to track him down,” he said.
Police would only be able to shed more light on the matter once the attacker is captured, Vaid said, adding that the IS foothold in Muslim-majority Kashmir was “indeed a worrying sign.”
“I am sure that with the people’s cooperation, we will not allow another Syria or Iraq in Kashmir,” he said.
Claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, the Indian side of Kashmir – called Jammu and Kashmir state – has been grappling with a separatist insurgency that has claimed more than 70,000 lives since the late 1980s.
Although IS flags had surfaced during funerals of suspected militants and anti-India protests, authorities in Indian Kashmir consistently denied the group’s presence in the region, calling it a “conspiracy by fringe militant groups to create sensation and grab media attention.”
Last November, IS claimed an attack in Srinagar that killed a police officer. However, the police dismissed the group’s claim at the time.
In July 2017, global terror outfit al-Qaeda (AQ) announced the establishment of a new wing in Indian Kashmir with Zakir Rashid Bhat (alias Zakir Musa), a 24-year-old former leader of Kashmir’s largest separatist faction, Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), to head the new group, called Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind.
Two months later, police claimed to have arrested more than 20 supporters of Musa, who were allegedly involved in raising IS flags and making pro-al Qaeda slogans in Srinagar.
More than 90 Indian Muslims have been arrested and are on trial for alleged links with IS. According to intelligence agencies, more than 50 Indians have left the country to join IS in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Of them, at least 10 have been killed in battle.
But the Indian government has never admitted to the group’s presence in the country.
“Despite having a large Muslim population, Islamic State has been unable to establish a hold in India,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in November.
The Home Ministry on Tuesday contradicted the Kashmir police chief’s statement, with a spokesman telling Press Trust of India (PTI), “there is no physical infrastructure or manpower of the IS in the Valley. It does not exist in the Valley.” The term refers to the Indian-administered part of Kashmir.
One analyst warned that the admission by Kashmir’s police chief should act as an alarm for India’s security establishment.
“It is not surprising that the global terror module has somehow established a foothold in Kashmir, considering that radicalization is rampant in the Muslim-majority region,” retired Maj. Gen. G.D. Bakshi, a New Delhi-based security analyst, told BenarNews.
“I am certain IS will spare no efforts to increase its base and spread their operations following their defeat in Iraq and Syria. Our forces need to be extremely alert and ensure that operatives of this group are eliminated before it is too late,” he said.
Another analyst disagreed with Bakshi, saying the claim that IS was responsible for Sunday’s attack was baseless.
“It seems that such claims are only being made to create sensation and highlight such attacks at the international level,” Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, told BenarNews.
“Without paying much attention to these claims, security forces should focus on eliminating militants who are trying to disrupt peace in Kashmir,” he said.