Riyaz Naikoo, a top Hizbul Mujahideen commander, on the run for nearly one decade, was on Wednesday killed in an encounter with security forces in his hometown Beighpora, Awantipora. He was one of the oldest members of the indigenous Hizbul Mujahideen outfit. Naikoo, who was considered a moderate among the hardline Hizbul terrorists, took over as its commander after their poster boy and commander Burhan Wani was killed in a gunfight with the security forces in Bundoora Kokarnag area of South Kashmir on July 8, 2016.
Prior to joining militancy, Naikoo was teaching mathematics at a local private school in Pulwama. He made his presence felt for the first time in January 2016, when he arrived during the funeral procession of a colleague in Pulwama and fired several shots in the air. The video was shot and widely circulated on social media. Police believed that the tactic adopted by Naikoo brought many youths to militancy in the Valley since then. Naikoo was nominated as operations chief by the Hizbul in early 2017 to counter the narrative that terrorists in Kashmir were fighting for Caliphate and imposition of Sharia (Islamic law).
The Hizbul leadership was under tremendous pressure after another commander Zakir Musa spoke about establishing an Islamic caliphate in the Valley besides threatening separatist leaders. By appointing Naikoo as the new chief, the Hizbul killed two birds with one stone. Naikoo sidelined Musa due to his stature in the terror outfit and also Hizbul proved that it was not fighting for Islamic rule in Kashmir. Musa, who broke away from Hizbul to form Ansar Gazwat-ul-Hind, Kashmir affiliate of Al-Qaeda, was killed in an encounter with security forces in the Tral area of Pulwama in 2019.
After taking over the reins of the Hizbul, Naikoo in 2017 said his outfit was willing to welcome Kashmiri Pandits back to the Valley.
"We will welcome them (Kashmiri Pandits) warmly and there is always a place for them in our hearts. They are part of our nation. We are their protectors and not their enemies," he had said in an audio message released on social media, in 2017. According to police records, Naikoo after his release in 2014 (when he was detained under Public Safety Act (PSA)) got indoctrinated into militancy.
Naikoo, who was wanted in several killings and abductions of policemen and their families, was a close associate of Burhan and was seen in some photographs with him in 2015 and 2016. The tech-savvy Naikoo, like Burhan, turned to social media to communicate. Naikoo was directly involved in the killing of ‘truck drivers and fruit traders’ post abrogation of Art 370. A native of Beighpora in Pulwama, Naikoo is said to have escaped from the trap laid down by the security forces several times over the past few years, before luck ran out for him on Wednesday.
Hizbul is almost as old as the Kashmiri militancy which started in the late 80's. The group is made up almost entirely of local youths and had always campaigned for joining Pakistan. Meanwhile, authorities have suspended mobile Internet across the Kashmir Valley and imposed curfew in most major towns of the valley to ensure that no ugly fallout of Naikoo’s death affects the law and order.