On September 4, 2014 the formation of an al Qaeda wing in South Asia was announced by the group’s chief Ayman-al-Zawahri through an online video. The new branch would go by the name of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) with Maulana Asim Umar as its head. Umar is a Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan commander and al Qaeda’s Pakistani propagandist. In the 56-minute long online video, the al Qaeda chief urged the Muslims in Bangladesh, Myanmar and in the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Gujarat to fight against injustice and oppression.
The birth of AQIS at the time when al Qaeda is loosening its grip over the jihadist movement in the Middle East, which has been taken over by the Islamic State (IS), raises questions about al Qaeda’s possible resurgence in South Asia.
The region has been a target of various militant organisations, namely Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Haqqani Network, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which share ideological and operational links with al Qaeda. But the formation of an al Qaeda affiliate that focuses exclusively on the South Asian region might represent a shift in the direction of the spread of the global Islamist movement.
Zawahiri and Umar had previously urged the Muslims in Kashmir and Bangladesh to launch a jihad against their home states and to revive the caliphate of the Muslim nation. The creation of AQIS, especially after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of IS, claimed to be the caliph of the global Islamic State and subsequently challenged al Qaeda’s domination of the global jihadist movement, indicates that the al Qaeda leadership is desperate to reclaim its authority by establishing and organising a jihadist movement in South Asia with an active recruitment campaign, especially among the Muslims in Kashmir and the Rohingyas of Myanmar.
In order to strengthen the jihadist movement, al Qaeda is trying to normalise its relations with the Afghan Taliban as is evident from Zawahiri’s pledge of renewed loyalty to Mullah Omar. This move represents the possible tactic of using Afghanistan as the theatre of jihad and penetrating into the other countries of the Indian subcontinent. The spread of Deobandi jihadism in the region has an immense capability of providing an impetus to the activities of AQIS as the organisations which belong to this school have at some point or the other worked in tandem with al Qaeda. For instance, Fazlur Rahman Khalil, the leader of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HM), was one of the signatories of the 1998 Fatwa issued against the U.S. by bin Laden. HM has been active in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and southern Thailand and it has gradually increased its membership recruiting new cadres from these countries.
The so-called AQIS comprises Pakistani jihadists. This has raised critical security concerns, especially for India as it has been a permanent target of the terrorist organisations based in Pakistan. The AQIS is looking at the 2002 Gujarat riots, the clashes between the local Bodos and Muslims in Assam and the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir with keen interest, as these situations could likely be used as a propaganda by AQIS to recruit cadres in India. However, it is very difficult to speculate about this nascent militant group getting its footprints in India.
The events unfolding in South Asia opens up a wide range of possibilities for the future of al Qaeda’s recent affiliate. It’s resurgence and expansion in the Indian subcontinent is one of the possibilities. Zawahiri’s call to the Muslims in South Asia to unite in jihad against the enemy, liberate occupied lands and establish the caliphate does indicate al Qaeda’s attempt to expand its web of localised terror. Since, AQIS plans to draw its members from the jihadist groups already present in the region, the chances of it establishing a stronghold in the Indian subcontinent should not be overlooked.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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