Opinion | Al Qaeda saga of failure in India
No threat should be underestimated. But the jihadi group has been substantially delegitimisedUpdated: Jul 11, 2019 21:03 IST
At a time when al Qaeda is facing an existential crisis and has been entirely marginalised in the global Islamist terrorist movement, and at a time when its incipient proxy in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), the Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind (AGH), has been virtually wiped out barely two years after its formation, Ayman al Zawahiri, the current amir (chief) of al Qaeda, has issued a renewed call for jihad in Kashmir. Interestingly, he dismisses the Pakistan-backed ‘jihad’ as opportunistic, “a secular rivalry over borders”, condemns Pakistan as a puppet of the United States, and warns fighters in Kashmir that the “Pakistan army and government” are only “interested in exploiting the mujahideen for specific political objectives, only to dump or persecute them later”. Zawahiri exhorts Kashmiris to “inflict “unrelenting blows” on the Indian Army and the government to “bleed” the economy and make the country suffer.”
Public memory tends to be short, and there is a proclivity to see Zawahiri’s latest statement as something new and unprecedented, raising fears of a generational transformation in the trajectory of terrorism in J&K. While no terrorist threat should ever be underestimated, the dangers and consequences of overestimation — and potential overreaction — are just as great. Crucially, within the broad environment of communal polarisation in the state, Zawahiri’s statement can easily feed into the politics that seeks to demonise all Kashmiris as part of, or sympathetic to, a global jihadist movement.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is, al Qaeda has been trying to make inroads into India – and specifically into Kashmir – at least since 1996, when Osama bin Laden referred to India in general, and Kashmir and Assam in particular, among regions where Muslims were living under “oppression”, and as legitimate theatres of jihad. Numerous similar exhortations followed including, prominently, bin Laden’s articulation, in 2006, of the theory of a global “crusader-Zionist-Hindu’ conspiracy, where he declared, inter alia, “It is the duty for the Umma… to establish jihad, particularly in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kashmir and Chechnya.”
After bin Laden’s killing at Abottabad in Pakistan in 2011, the mantle of leadership has fallen on the lacklustre Zawahiri. Despite his persistent efforts and exhortations, including the formation of the Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) in 2014, the group has secured almost no traction on Indian soil, beyond the ambiguous and operationally ineffectual AGH. It is useful to recall that the now-deceased AGH leader Zakir Musa had flirted with the idea of joining the Islamic State, before he eventually pledged his troth to al Qaeda. Musa’s group is, in fact, best seen as a disgruntled splinter of the Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen, which sought prominence through affiliation with a global jihadist grouping, and, after floundering about for a bit, eventually settled on al Qaeda. Little strategic advantage accrued to AGH as a result, and not a single significant operation in J&K is attributed to this group, though it has been implicated in a grenade attack on a police station in Punjab.
Indeed, in 2014, a few months before the establishment of the AQIS, Asim Umar, later declared the chief of the new organisation, had issued a rather plaintive video and pamphlet titled, “Why is there no storm in your ocean?” bemoaning the failure of Indian Muslims to join the global jihad. In 2016, Umar again interrogated the Indian Muslim in a video, demanding, “Will the land of Delhi not give birth to a Shah Muhadith Dehlvi who may once again teach the Muslims of India the forgotten lesson of jihad and inspire them to take to the battlefields of jihad?”
Al Qaeda, moreover, is on a trajectory of global decline. According to the Global Terrorism Index, 2018, the group accounted for 5.5% of 29,376 fatalities attributed to major terrorist groups in 2015; and 7.2% of 25,673 in 2016. The Index provides no data on al Qaeda linked fatalities in 2014 and 2017. There have been only occasional reports of significant al Qaeda terrorist activity in Pakistan, and by affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, thereafter.
Some residual threat may, of course, exist. But al Qaeda has substantially been de-legitimised by its operational failures after 2001, by the steady loss of cadres and leadership, and its general ineffectiveness. There has been a continuing and dramatic loss of prestige after bin Laden’s execution, and as a result of Zawahiri’s failure to revive the organisation and its operations.
Islamist terrorism in J&K, and, indeed, across India, has succeeded only where it has been backed by the Pakistani State. Global jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and even the Islamic State have secured little or no traction on Indian soil. Indeed, budding affiliations with the group have been the kiss of death for aspiring terrorists. The al Qaeda brand is a good idea to get into the headlines, but it brings no significant material or operational advantage to its affiliates in Kashmir. At the same time, it focuses extraordinary intelligence and enforcement attention on such affiliates, resulting in their quick detection and neutralisation.
Ajai Sahni is executive director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal; editor and publisher, Faultlines: The KPS Gill Journal of Conflict & Resolution
The views expressed are personal