SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Police in Indian-administered Kashmir said Friday they were investigating a claim that al-Qaeda has launched a new terrorist branch in the troubled Himalayan valley.
Earlier this week, an al-Qaeda-affiliated media group said in a statement that Kashmiri militant Zakir Musa would head a “new movement” of al-Qaeda in Kashmir with the goal of expelling Indian forces from the region, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist organizations.
Al-Qaeda has not traditionally operated in the Kashmir Valley, long disputed by Pakistan and India and mostly home to indigenous insurgents supported by Pakistan.
Although police officials said the claim was a security concern, they downplayed Musa’s influence, saying he had only a small band of followers and lacked the firepower to carry out a large-scale attack. But he could draw from the ranks of other terrorist groups in the region, police said.
“Whoever picks up a gun is a terrorist,” said S.P. Vaid, director general of the Jammu and Kashmir Police. “We treat everybody equally, al-Qaeda or no al-Qaeda.”
Musa, once a field commander for the terrorist group Hizbul Mujahideen, had been flirting with al-Qaeda for weeks after an ideological split with separatists, who say they are battling for freedom from India, not for a global caliphate.
In an incendiary online video released in May, Musa threatened to kill separatist leaders and hang their severed heads in Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s main market.
Kashmir’s war is only to enforce sharia law, he said. “It is an Islamic struggle.”
Local militant commanders issued statements Thursday rebutting the announcement, saying that al-Qaeda has “nothing to do” with what they describe as Kashmir’s freedom movement and that there is “no space” for international terrorist groups in the valley.
The al-Qaeda announcement is a “big win” for the group as it struggles to find ways to prove it is relevant in South Asia, according to Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Yet it will complicate efforts by Kashmiris to garner more international support, he said.
“It’s hard to argue you’re fighting for a noble local cause when one of your movement’s leaders becomes an al-Qaeda leader,” Kugelman said.
Some analysts say global terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have not made significant inroads in India, despite a population of 1.3 billion that is 14 percent Muslim. An analysis by Dhruva Jaishankar and Sara Perlangeli of Brookings India found that only 142 Indian citizens have some kind of Islamic State affiliation, for example, far fewer than in other countries.
Musa is a former associate of Burhan Wani, the local folk hero and Hizbul commander whose killing last July sparked weeks of protests that left nearly 100 dead. After Wani’s death, Musa, a college dropout from an affluent and well-educated family, was tapped as a Hizbul commander with the hope that he could establish a similar online presence, analysts said.
As with Wani, Musa is popular with Kashmiri youths, who share his photos and videos on WhatsApp and Facebook.
“Whatever he does, we believe in him,” said Tariq Ahmad, 22, a carpenter in Anantag district.
Ishfaq Naseem in Srinagar and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.