More than 10 months after a U.S. drone killed Mohammad Ashraf Dar in an airstrike in North Waziristan, Pakistan, his family held an in absentia funeral Friday for the presumed al-Qaeda fighter in Nagam, his home village in south Kashmir.
Police in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir say they still are trying to confirm the identity and death of the 30-year-old Dar. If that proves to be the case, he would be the first person from Kashmir known to have joined the militant Islamist organization founded by the late Osama bin Laden and been killed in action, locals say.
Dar spent nearly half of his life away from home, yet Dar’s relatives say they never knew he had joined al-Qaeda after he left home at age 15. They were under the impression that he had taken up arms for Hizbul Mujahedeen (HM), a militant Kashmiri separatist group, his relatives told BenarNews.
Dar’s family said they only learned that he was with al-Qaeda when police officers knocked at their door, after As-Sahab, al-Qaeda’s media wing, had released an online video in mid-November announcing that Dar had been killed in a drone strike on Jan. 23.
“A team of police officials from the local police station visited my home during the night on Nov.18. They showed the video released by al-Qaeda and asked me to confirm if the slain [man] shown in the video was my brother,” Nazir Ahmad Dar, 47, told BenarNews.
“At first glance, I recognized the slain [man] and confirmed to police the [man] in the video was my brother Ashraf. My father and brother also recognized the slain [man] after seeing the video and re-confirmed [this] to the police officials,” he added.
Gone 14 years
Fourteen years ago, Dar (pictured in 2011) and two other boys vanished from their village.
The family searched frantically for the 15-year-old Dar and filed a police report, said Bashir Ahmad Dar, 43, another sibling. Three years passed before they heard from Dar.
“In 2004, he contacted us by phone from Pakistan and said that he was working for Hizbul Mujahedeen, the militant group,” Bashir told BenarNews.
“He would talk to us at regular intervals from Pakistan, and we would always try to persuade him to come back home or marry and settle down in Pakistan. But he never agreed to do so, and, in December last year, we lost contact with him,” he added.
According to their father, Ghulam Ahmad Dar, 77, his son became a devout Muslim at a very young age.
“He would offer prayers five times [daily] and showed the least interest in worldly affairs, even as he started attaining youthfulness,” the senior Dar, a farmer, told BenarNews.
The shock of the separation from her son took a toll on Dar’s mother, Raja Begum, and she died five years ago, his father said.
“I would always urge Ashraf on the phone to come back home and start a fresh life, but he always turned down my request,” he said.
Other villagers in Nagam, which is located in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, are struggling with the news of Dar’s death.
“I was shocked to know that Ashraf died in a U.S. drone attack in January,” Sheeraz Ahmad Tantary, 30, a local resident and agricultural official, told BenarNews.
“I knew him well and he would often talk about waging a war against Indian security forces for committing excesses on Kashmiris. Everybody believed he would come back and fight for his own countrymen,” he added.
Tariq Ahmad Dar 35, a vegetable vendor and relative said, “I could not believe my ears when I heard about Ashraf’s affiliation with al-Qaeda and his subsequent killing in U.S. drone attack.”
“Everybody expected that after receiving arms training, he would come back one day and fight for his own people, but he choose to join al-Qaeda,” he told BenarNews.
‘Such a long period of time’
Police, meanwhile, have yet to verify whether the man shown in the al-Qaeda video was of Kashmiri origin.
“Ashraf’s family claims that the slain [man] shown in video was their son, but police are still ascertaining if he was a Kashmiri,” a senior police officer who requested anonymity told BenarNews.
“Ashraf went missing from home more than 14 years ago, and it would not be easy even for his family to recognize him after such a long period of time,” the source said.