Kashmir jihadist, trainer of Indian Fidayeen from Kerala, on the run again after escape from Kabul jail

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From some hours, the prisoners didn’t realise they were free. The guards had silently fled Pul-i Charkhi prison in the darkness, ahead of the advancing Taliban, leaving behind them piles of blankets, uniforms and even assault rifles. Then, a great procession of men—small-time criminals, bandits and some of the most dangerous jihadists in the world—flowed out over the stinking moat that surrounds the prison, headed to the market at Bagram in time to catch the first bus home.

Among the thousands who escaped from Pul-i Charkhi was quiet, middle-aged Indian man, almost unknown in his homeland. At the Badam Bagh women’s jail in Kabul—two dozen small rooms spread over three floors, some eight prisoners packed into each one—his two daughters and wife were waiting.

From Afghanistan’s remote Kunar, Aijaz Ahmad Ahanger trained and ran a network of Fidayeen suicide-squad attackers raised from among Indian nationals—among them, one-time dentist Ijas Kallukettiya Purayil, killed in a bid to storm a prison in Jalalabad last year, and his fellow Kerala resident, Muhammad Muhsin. Ahanger ran propaganda operations targeting new jihad recruits in India, and set up terror cells inside Kashmir.

Now, a year after his arrest by Afghanistan’s intelligence services, Ahanger has disappeared, along with his family.

For more than three decades, Ahanger served the jihad, traversing Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the ranks of terrorist groups ranging from the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islam to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

His journey, most likely, isn’t done: In the shade of the Taliban’s swords, Ahanger’s decades-old war on India seems set to blossom.

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Every morning—when, that is, there was no curfew or a cordon-and-search operation—Ahanger would arrive early at his father’s small ironworks in Srinagar’s Mirjanpora, charged with firing up the kilns. Like many other young men in the neighbourhood, his seemed headed nowhere. His father had pulled him out of a—relatively expensive—local private primary school, Dreamland. Later, after he repeatedly failed his tenth grade examinations, he dropped out of school altogether.

Then, Ahanger went to prison for the first time. Like the second, he wouldn’t spent a long time in jail.

Like thousands of other Kashmiris, Ahanger had crossed the Line of Control in 1990, as the long jihad in Kashmir erupted. He joined what was then a little-known group: the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, created by the Islamist warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, along with the Pakistani jihadist and politician Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil.

In 1980, Khalil—then a student at the Jamia Uloom-ul-Islamia seminary in Karachi’s Banuri Town—had founded the Harakat-ul-Jihad Islami along with his fellow students Irshad Ahmad and Saifullah Akhtar. 

Four years later, following a leadership dispute, Khalil, along with the now-head of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Masood Azhar Alvi, split the organisation to form the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, under Jalaluddin Haqqani’s military leadership. From an early stage, scholar Dan Rassler has recorded, Khalil developed a close relationship with Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden.

The Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Ahanger told Jammu and Kashmir Police interrogators after his arrest in 1992, despatched him to a camp in Miranshah, North Waziristan. There, he spent six weeks training along with some 40 others in the use of automatic weapons and explosives.

Inside months of his return to Kashmir, though, Ahanger was arrested.

The months Ahanger spent in prison saw him become more enmeshed with the jihadist ecosystem. He was mentored by Abdul Gani Dar—also known as ‘Abdullah Ghazali’. Already over 50 when he joined the jihad in 1990, Dar introduced Ahanger to the wider world of the global jihadist movement. The relationship was also personal. In 1995, soon after Ahanger was released from prison, he married Dar’s daughter, Rukhsana Ahanger. The marriage, police sources say, took place in Dar’s family home in the village of Russu, near Budgam in central Kashmir.

For two years, Ahanger earned a living at his father’s iron-foundry, his job as blacksmith serving as cover for his efforts to grow his jihadist group.

Then, in 1996, fearing arrest, the couple fled to Islamabad. There, Ahanger began working at the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s office, editing its magazine Shahadat. Later that year, Indian intelligence officials believe, the ISI arranged identity papers for the couple. Ahanger also began running a small stationery store in Rawalpindi.

Living in their new home in Islamabad, the couple had two daughters—Sabira, born according to her travel documents on 13 September, 1997, and Tooba, born on 27 December, 2001.

In 2009, Rukhsana Ahanger decided to visit her parents in Kashmir. Local authorities confiscated her passport; she was unable to return to Pakistan for the next five years.

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Four weeks after a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone ended his life on 21 May, 2010, Said al-Masri’s spoke to his followers from the grave, through a posthumous audio tape. “I bring you the good tidings,” Al Qaeda’s third-in-command declared, “that last February’s India operation was against a Jewish locale in the west of the Indian capital [sic., throughout], in the area of the German bakeries—a fact that the enemy tried to hide—and close to 20 Jews were killed in the operation.”

“The person who carried out this operation was a heroic soldier from the Soldiers of the Sacrifice Brigade, which is one of the brigades of Qaedat al-Jihad [al-Qaeda’s Arabic name] in Kashmir, under the command of commander Illyas Kashmiri”.

Inside months of Rukhsana Ahanger’s departure, Ahanger had married again. Abid Yusuf, the brother of his bride, was also a jihadist, with close links to  Illyas Kashmiri. In 2010, Ahanger moved with his new wife, Saira, and children, to the town of Miranshah, in North Waziristan, where he had trained so many years earlier.

A complex web of Indian connections was forming in Miranshah around the time Ahanger arrived there. Fugitive Indian Mujahideen commander Riyaz Shahbandri—who Indian investigators have alleged was responsible for the bombing of the German Bakery in Pune, the basis of Al Qaeda’s claim—is believed to have bee in touch with Illyas Kashmiri. There’s reason to suspect, therefore, that Shahbandri might have carried out the bombing on Al Qaeda’s behalf. The Lashkar-e-Taiba intelligence operative and key 26/11 perpetrator David Headley had also moved to Miranshah during this period.

Kashmiri had long been a trusted asset of the Inter-Services Intelligence. The jihadist had served the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami—a forbear of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen—in Afghanistan and then operated in Kashmir. In 2002, photographs of his bearing the severed head of Indian Army soldier Bhausaheb Maruti Talekar of the Maratha Light Infantry had appeared in Muzaffarabad newspapers.

The commander’s relationship with the ISI, however, had soured after General Pervez Musharraf turned on the jihadist movement in 2002-2003. Kashmiri turned to Al Qaeda—leading, in 2011, to his elimination in a United States drone strike.

Fed up with the growing defiance of jihadists in North Waziristan, Pakistan’s army finally struck against them in 2014, staging a massive military offensive code-named Zarb-e-Azab. Ahanger and his family fled a second time, this time across the border into Afghanistan’s Paktia province, and then Nangarhar.

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The idea of the Islamic State had risen, like curls of smoke, from the fires set off by Zarb-e-Azab. Ten years earlier, in April 2004, the jihadist Nek Muhammad Wazir had stood on stage near his home in the Shakai valley, glowing as Pakistan’s XI corps placed a garland around his neck. “When India attacks Pakistan, if you look into history, you will see the tribals defending 14,000 kilometres [sic.] of the border”, told Lieutenant-General Syed Safdar Husain. Wazir promised the General his jihadists would serve as “Pakistan’s atomic bomb”.

As the United States began to bomb Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, hundreds of volunteers had marched across the mountains from Pakistan’s North Waziristan, to defend the Islamic Emirate the Taliban had founded. Among them was Hafiz Saeed Khan, born in 1972 in the small town of Mamozai, and educated at the Dar-ul-Ulum Islamia seminary in Hangu.

Within months, the Islamic Emirate disintegrated.

From 2007, though, the jihadists in North Waziristan began to create a little emirate of their own, under the command of the jihadist Baitullah Mehsud. Local tribal leaders and Pashtun-nationalist politicians from the Awami Nationalist Party were targeted for assassination. The ISI patronised the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, as the jihadists in North Waziristan called themselves, making several peace deals with the group.

Each successive deal, however, soon disintegrated—starting with the one made in 2004.

As Ahanger and hundreds of other Pakistani jihadists fled into Afghanistan in he wake of Zarb-e-Azb, they drew inspiration from an organisation that had swept aside entire national armies: the Islamic State. Led by Hafiz Saeed Khan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan formed the Islamic State in Khorasan Province.

The group began to draw significant numbers of recruits from the across the region, including Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and even Indians from Kerala. From 2016, at least 28 Kerala residents—including children, and pregnant women—arrived in Kunar, to serve under Hafiz Saeed Khan.

Inside Afghanistan, though, the Islamic State made few friends. The group developed a reputation for brutality; its efforts to stamp out opium cultivation, moreover, alienated the region’s poor peasants.

Early in its existence, moreover, the Islamic State repeatedly clashed with the Taliban, with feuds breaking out over revenues and territorial control. Saira Yusuf, Ahanger’s second wife, is believed to have been kidnapped in one such clash, and later died in Taliban custody.

In the summer of 2017, though, the Islamic State of Khurasan Province split, after a faction, made up of ethnic-Uzbek fighters set up a parallel faction. According to the scholar Antonio Guistozzi, the Uzbek group believed the organisation’s military commander, Aslam Farooqi, was in fact working for the ISI. Their suspicions, it would turn out, were well-founded.

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Late in 2018, the Haqqani Network began negotiating an with the Aslam Farooqi-led Islamic State faction in Nangarhar, Kunar, Zabul and Sar-i Pul. The Taliban’s Quetta shura, or council, led by its overall Emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada, formally signed an agreement on 18 October, 2017. The reasons for Farooqi cutting a deal with the ISI aren’t hard to see. Ever since the Islamic State emerged in 2017, it had been relentlessly targeted by drone strikes: Ahanger’s son was killed in one attack that summer.

The ISI offered safe havens inside Pakistan—in return for the Islamic State jihadists serving its ends. The Islamic State and the Taliban have generally been cast as enemies; from the time of the 2017 deal, that was no longer entirely true.

Following the deal, Farooqi is believed to have given Ahanger charge for operations targeting India. Working under the charge of the Pakistani jihadist Amir Sultan Huzaifa—whom his daughter Sabira Ahanger married—Ahanger began publishing the Islamic State’s magazine, Sawt al-Hind. The National Investigation Agency alleges Ahanger recruited multiple Kashmir residents, as well as a separate network run by Hyderabad-based Abdul Basith.

Early in 2020, the Kerala jihadists who had joined Ahanger began to be used for suicide attacks, targeting a prison in Jalalabad and a gurudwara in Kabul—the only such Fidayeen strikes by Indian nationals working for the Islamic State.

From 2019, though, the growing tempo of attacks by United States and Afghan forces began severely degrading Ahanger’s resources. That year, Ahanger’s son-in-law, Amir Sultan, was killed in a drone strike. In the wake of a major battle in November 2019, Ahanger fled to Kunar province. There, he married again—this time, to Russian national Leena Aisha, whose ethnic-Tajik husband been killed in the fighting.

In April, 2020, Ahanger moved again, this time to a safehouse in Kandahar. There, he was arrested, along with Aslam Farooqi and several other members of the cell. Afghan forces also detained ten Indian women, widows of jihadists killed in Nangarhar, along with nine small children.

There is no clear word on their whereabouts. Tens of other Indian jihadists who travelled to join the Islamic State, as well as their families, are also  in prisons abroad or unaccounted for.

Ahanger’s Islamic State wasn’t the only jihadist group the Taliban offered sanctuary to: United Nations sanctions monitors have repeatedly warned the group has Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad cadre among its ranks. Four terrorists who stormed India’s consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif in 2016 left behind graffiti proclaiming their action “revenge for Afzal Guru”—the Jaish operative hanged for his role in attacking Parliament House in New Delhi.

Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will allow new opportunities to revive Ahanger’s effort to use the country has a base for training and organising Indian jihadists.

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