Salahuddin's 'global terrorist' branding means US sees Hizbul as terror movement
Mohammad Yusuf Shah, who later took the nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin, chief of Hizbul Mujahideen and the United Jihad Council, recently joined the list of people and organisations the US has designated as 'global terrorists'.
Others on the list include the Haqqanis, Boko Haram, the various affiliates of the Islamic State, beside various other terror groups and individuals active across the globe. Earlier in June, Shafi Armar, alleged to be the main recruiter for the Islamic State in India, had been added to this list.
India welcomed the US decision, even as there was controversy over the contents of the US State Department notification, which referred to Jammu and Kashmir as 'Indian administered Kashmir'.
“India has welcomed the designation of Salahuddin as a specially designated global terrorist by the US administration. This long awaited step had been under discussion,” MEA sopkesperson Gopal Baglay said, even as he tried to downplay the use of 'Indian administered Kashmir' to describe a territory which India has maintained is an integral part.
“The use of term 'Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir' merely affirms our position that Syed Salahuddin has been involved in cross border terrorism against India,” Baglay said, adding how a similar term has been used in State Department's country reports on terror which are brought out every year. He, however, added that India's position that the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part is well known, and that the “US government has been apprised of it once again”.
The decision by the Donald Trump administration is a win for India's arguments on the continuing violence in Kashmir, and that the US recognising a top leader as a global terrorist is a big 'notional satisfaction' for India, as one security expert puts it.
Another security expert, however, says it is a big step, for the recognition of Salahuddin as a global terrorist by the US means that it realises the Hizbul Mujahideen, like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and others, is not an indigenous uprising or a freedom struggle, but a terrorist movement. “Do not get bogged down by the small picture that this decision may have little impact on the situation on the ground. But in terms of the big picture, the larger narrative around Kashmir, it is big,” the expert says.
“He may not be active locally, but he continues to be a cult figure in the valley,” says another intelligence expert.
End of US ambivalence
The decision to put Salahuddin on the list ends US ambivalence on how to treat these individuals, who India has wanted on the list for long. The US had been sitting idle on the requests for over a decade now.
The move by the US administration also halts efforts by the Pakistani government to corner India on the Kashmir situation. Since Burhan Wani's encounter in July 2016, Pakistan had aggressively engaged in portraying Wani as the face of the Kashmiri struggle. India continues to blame Pakistan-based groups for fomenting trouble in Kashmir, with the help of the neighbour's notorious security establishment.
It should also ring warning bells among the leadership of the Hurriyat Conference and the Jamat-e-Islami, for by virtue of their association with the individuals connected to the Hizbul Mujahideen and Syed Salahuddin, they could also come under fire for their support to a terrorist or a terror group.
Condemnation from separatists & Pak
The decision, expectedly, saw condemnation from both the separatist leaders in Kashmir, and Pakistan, which continues to host the Hizbul chief.
“Declaring a Kashmiri freedom fighter as a terrorist will not resolve the Kashmir dispute or bring peace. What it can do is embolden the Indian government to further suppress Kashmiris and further increase the level of human rights violations committed against them,” a statement by Kashmiri separatists, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and Yasin Malik said.
An unnerved Pakistani foreign office issued the following statement. “The designation of individuals supporting the Kashmiri right to self-determination as terrorists is completely unjustified.”
In fact, three individuals said to be close to Geelani were taken into preventive custody on 28 June. The individuals, Ayaz Akbar, Altaf Shah, and Mehraj-ud-Din Kalwal, are under the arc of investigations into the source of Hurriyat's funding. The agencies suspect a flow of funds from across the border.
Shah, a businessman and Geelani's son-in-law, is also his political advisor, and takes active part in the working of the Hurriyat.
Won't change much on the ground
Salahuddin's presence on the US list will not change much on the ground. It is not just Hizbul which is engaging in violence in the Valley, targeting Indian security personnel. Other cross-border terror groups like the Lashkar, too, are active in the Valley. The leadership and operations of the Hizbul too have gone into the hands of other leaders like Wani, who also belonged to Kashmir, but chose to not cross the border.
Salahuddin is also not somebody who is known to travel. “The only place the agencies suspected that he would travel to is Saudi Arabia. And there he could still travel on a fake passport,” a security expert says, adding how the Hizbul senior operative fled to Pakistan and has since been controlled by the ISI.
But for India, which wants to put Pakistan on the mat for its continued support to terror, Trump has certainly lent a helping hand by putting Salahuddin on the list.