Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has refreshed his call for jihad against India and announced the formation of a new wing of his group in the subcontinent. In a 55-minute video posted online, Zawahiri described this development as glad tidings for Muslims in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Kashmir and said this was a message that al Qaeda had not forgotten its brothers in India. The video has evoked interest among experts on terrorism who reckon that this is a publicity exercise meant to remind the world — and potential recruits — that al Qaeda is still alive and kicking, even as its ‘competitor’ Islamic State (ISIS) captures the imagination of radicals across the world by ruthlessly taking over parts of Syria and Iraq.
The Narendra Modi government will be looking keenly at the import of Zawahiri’s message for India. Al Qaeda’s capacities have been significantly degraded over the years and its appeal has waned after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Experts now see the group less as a coherent organisation and more as an idea and method that other jihadi groups emulate and appropriate, as if it were a franchise. Zawahiri’s statement, however, assumes significance in the light of reports that a section of the Indian Mujahideen’s leadership in Pakistan has gravitated to al Qaeda after being disillusioned by Islamabad’s efforts to restrain anti-India attacks. Even if al Qaeda is unable to wage jihad directly, Zawahiri’s message may point to the possibility of indigenous and Pakistan-based elements stepping up jihad in India under the al Qaeda banner in order to attract more recruits.
The chilling reiteration of terrorist rhetoric should compel the Modi government to plug the gaps in India’s security preparedness. India has made progress after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, but severe deficits remain. Key agencies like the National Investigation Agency, state criminal investigation departments and police forces are still woefully short-staffed. Budgets for training and modernisation of forces are deficient. Coordination between the Centre and states is a work in progress as is developing infrastructure for coastal security. These are all certainly big challenges but the government should know that there is not a moment to lose.