Al Qaeda has announced the creation of a South Asian branch, dubbed al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The question is why now?
Al Qaeda has threatened India before. “Such statements have been coming regularly since Osama Bin Laden’s 1996 call to jihad,” says Ajai Sahni of the South Asian Terrorism Portal, “when he named India and, specifically Jammu and Kashmir and Assam.” He notes that after the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat this was added to various al Qaeda statements as well.
In the past, what has been noticeable is how unsuccessful al Qaeda has been in operating in India.
US President George W Bush was known to hold up Indian mslims in private conversation because of their refusal to heed Bin Laden’s deadly siren call. However, a Qaeda had other reasons to avoid India.
One, after a spectacular attack like 9/11, attacking a soft target like India was not seen as an image-enhancing exercise. Two, there was evidence that Pakistan resisted Al Qaeda efforts to operate in India, preferring to let that be the domain of its chosen terrorist groups.
Zawahiri’s announcement is seen as a consequence of a number of varied developments.
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One, Indian muslim have become more radicalised in the past few decades and this may have encouraged Zawahiri to woo South Asians. “What Bush said was true in the 1990s,” said an ex-intelligence bureau official. Events in India like the 2002 riots and developments in West Asia, like the invasion of Iraq, have pushed a small number into adopting militant pan-Islamicism.
Small groups have been going to Pakistan and Afghanistan the past few years. Indian intelligence knows of nearly 20 Indian muslims who joined or tried to join the ranks of the Islamic State, despite its virulent hatred of Shias. “As many as 80 to 90 Indian muslims may have joined al Qaeda, IS and similar groups,” he said. This would have almost certainly been noticed by Zawahiri.
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Two, Zawahiri desperately needs to revive al Qaeda which is being eclipsed by the Islamic State and other militant groups.
Al Qaeda has barely been operational for the past few years, battered by the death of Bin Laden and US drone attacks that have wiped out many of its senior commanders.
Zawahiri has been critical of the Islamic State’s anti-Shia stance – it is one of the reasons that the Islamic State ended its allegiance to al Qaeda. Worse, many of the al Qaeda affiliations in Afghanistan, the Arab world and West Africa have switched their loyalties from Zawahiri to the Islamic State.
As his star is declining in the Arab world, Zawahiri may have sought to compensate in South Asia. Muslim unease over Narendra Modi’s election, the repression of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and any number of events in Pakistan may have seemed like fertile ground for recruitment and activity.
Three, AQIS may represent a logical culmination of another trend: the growing interest of the Tehreek e Taliban in global jihad.
Zawahiri says that putting together AQIS “has taken over two years”, a date before the rise of the Islamic State.
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Strikingly he has appointed Maulana Asim Umar as its head is telling. Umar is a former commander of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan and called for Indian muslims to join the global jihad in a video in 2013 titled “Why is there no storm in your ocean?”
Umar boasts about how Tehreek fighters are fighting in Syria and Iraq. Western intelligence has confirmed that Tehreek has an active base in Syria.
“Al Qaeda has been trying to attract elements from various groups – Jaish e Mohammad, Lashkar and so on – into direct alliances,” says Sahni.
To do so, however, Zawahiri would have to focus more on India and the subcontinent.
Sahni is confident that al Qaeda at present does not have a functional network in India at present.
“This threat however should not be taken lightly,” says Rana Banerjee, former number two of the Research and Analysis Wing.
Read: Centre puts states on alert after al Qaeda announces India wing