Top Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, the 21-year-old poster boy of militancy in the Valley with a Rs 10-lakh bounty, was killed in an encounter with security forces in south Kashmir’s Kokernag on Friday.
Wani’s death is a huge setback to the group as he was a star recruiter and the brain behind many attacks, though he rarely participated in them.
The police, who acted on specific intelligence, killed two other militants in the operation in Anantnag district.
Security forces, while celebrating the success, are on alert as they expect days of unrest and have already put in place elaborate arrangements for the funeral. As the news of Wani’s death spread, crowds pelted stones at police in Srinagar and in some southern areas of the militancy-hit state.
Wani, the son of a school headmaster, was a cricket lover and bright student who scored over 90% in his Class 8 exams, but dropped out 10 days before his Class 10 boards to take up the gun.
“He has gone to Allah,” his father Muzaffar Wani told HT on phone before switching off.
Savvy on social media, the handsome young man quickly became the face of a new generation of militants, attracting hordes of youth via video and audio messages, urging them to join the “holy war” and promising them “a fulfilled life”.
“Wani never used masks, was clean-shaven and had the gift of the gab,” said an official.
His words hit a chord and even the educated became his followers, said intelligence officials. For the first time in a decade, local militants outnumbered foreign operatives in the Valley. South Kashmir became the new militancy hotbed.
“He started using social media at 16. Pictures of him in battle fatigue holding rifles went viral. Facebook and WhatsApp have immense reach here and when you have a young, good-looking man inviting you for jihad, it does make an impact,” said the officer.
“He was responsible for the recruitment of many local boys last year and this year as well,” said Jammu and Kashmir police chief K Rajendra.
Wani reportedly joined the militant ranks after security forces humiliated his brother Khalid during the 2010 unrest. “Some policemen stopped the brothers, then teenagers, and one of them pounced on Khalid to scare them. The shock knocked out Khalid,” said a family friend.
Khalid was killed last year while on his way to meet Wani in a forest hideout.
As a top Hizb operative, Wani’s ultimate goal was to “unfurl the flag of Islam on Delhi’s Red Fort”.
Funerals of militants draw huge crowds in the state, and Wani’s is expected to draw the maximum. “All roads leading to his village Sharifabad in Tral (south Kashmir) will be blocked,” said a senior J-K Police officer.
“But it isn’t only the funeral we need to worry about. He (Wani) fired the imaginations of Kashmiri youth and we will have to watch out for those who might want to step into his shoes,” said the officer.
Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani urged people to attend the funeral in large numbers. Many separatists have already been put under house arrest, while authorities ordered restrictions on the movement of people and traffic in parts of Srinagar.
Moderate Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq called a “complete strike” on Saturday and “mourned” Wani’s death in a Twitter post.
Former J-K chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted: “Burhan isn’t the 1st to pick up the gun & won’t be the last...(sic)”
Alas Burhan isn't the 1st to pick up the gun & won't be the last. @JKNC_ has always maintained that a political problem needs pol. solution— Omar Abdullah (@abdullah_omar) July 8, 2016
“For all Burhan’s social media activity I don’t recall any militancy incident attributed to him while I was in office. Not sure after that,” the National Conference leader posted.
Mobile internet services suspended. Restrictions/curfew announced for a lot of places. Separatist leaders detained. #Kashmir— Omar Abdullah (@abdullah_omar) July 8, 2016