By Fayaz Bukhari and Alasdair Pal
NEW DELHI/SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – Islamic State (IS) claimed for the first time that it has established a “province” in India, after a clash between militants and security forces in the contested Kashmir region killed a militant with alleged ties to the group.
IS’s Amaq News Agency late on Friday announced the new province, that it called “Wilayah of Hind”, in a statement that also claimed IS inflicted casualties on Indian army soldiers in the town of Amshipora in the Shopian district of Kashmir.
The IS statement corresponds with an Indian police statement on Friday that a militant called Ishfaq Ahmad Sofi was killed in an encounter in Shopian.
IS’s statement establishing the new province appears 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.
IS has stepped up hit-and-run raids and suicide attacks, including taking responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombing in Sri Lanka that killed at least 253 people.
“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 Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intel Group that tracks Islamic extremists.
“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 IS ‘caliphate’.”
Sofi had been involved in several militant groups in Kashmir for more than a decade before pledging allegiance to Islamic State, according to a military official on Saturday and an interview given by Sofi to a Srinagar-based magazine sympathetic to IS.
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 had been the only militant left in Kashmir associated with IS.
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 arch-rival Pakistan. They have not, like Islamic State, sought to establish an empire across the Muslim world.
Nuclear powers India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, and came to the brink of a third earlier this year after a suicide attack by a Pakistan-based militant group killed at least 40 paramilitary police in the Indian-controlled portion of the region.
A spokesman for India’s home ministry, which is responsible for security in Kashmir, did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in SRINAGAR and Alasdair Pal in NEW DELHI, additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in CAIRO; Edited by Martin Howell and Christian Schmollinger)