The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) has claimed for the first time that it has established a “province” in India, a claim that police in India-administered Kashmir have described as “pure propaganda”.
The ISIL claim followed a clash between armed rebels and security forces in the disputed Kashmir region in which a fighter with alleged ties to the group was killed on Friday.
Late on Friday, ISIL’s Amaq News Agency said in a statement that it called the new province “Wilayah of Hind”, and also claimed the group inflicted casualties on Indian army soldiers in the town of Amshipora in India-administered Kashmir’s Shopian district.
The ISIL statement corresponded with an Indian police statement on Friday that an armed rebel called Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi was killed in an encounter in Shopian, Reuters news agency reported on Saturday.
“This is pure propaganda. The militancy part of the ISIL is over in Kashmir completely. However, the ideological inclination is there to some extent,” a senior police official in India-administered Kashmir told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
The police officer added that Sofi was the last ISIL fighter in Kashmir. “One more was there but he joined another armed group,” he said.
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intel Group that tracks armed fighters, told Reuters that the ISIL claim “should not be written off”.
“The establishment of a ‘province’ in a region where it has nothing resembling actual governance is absurd, but it should not be written off,” said Katz.
“The world may roll its eyes at these developments, but to jihadists in these vulnerable regions, these are significant gestures to help lay the groundwork in rebuilding the map of the ISIL ‘caliphate’.”
Claim to bolster standing?
ISIL’s statement establishing the new province appeared to be designed to bolster its standing after the group was driven from its self-styled “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria in April, where at one point it controlled thousands of miles of territory.
ISIL has stepped up hit-and-run raids and suicide attacks, including taking responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that killed at least 253 people.
Sofi had been involved in several rebel groups in Kashmir for more than a decade before pledging allegiance to ISIL, according to a military official and an interview given by Sofi to a Srinagar-based magazine sympathetic to ISIL, Reuters said.
He was suspected of several grenade attacks on security forces in the region, police and military sources said. “It was a clean operation and no collateral damage took place during the exchange of fire,” a police spokesman said in the statement on Friday’s encounter.
The military official said it was possible that Sofi was the only fighter left in Kashmir associated with ISIL.
Separatists have for decades fought an armed conflict against Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir. The majority of these groups want independence for Kashmir or to join India’s archrival Pakistan.
They have not, like ISIL, sought to establish an empire across the Muslim world.
Nuclear powers India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, and came closer to the brink of a third earlier this year after a suicide attack by a Pakistan-based group killed at least 40 paramilitary police in the Indian-administered portion of the Himalayan territory.
A spokesman for India’s home ministry, which is responsible for security in India-administered Kashmir, did not respond to a request for comment, Reuters said.
Additional reporting by Rifat Fareed from Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir