Originally Published 2014-09-12 00:00:00 Published on Sep 12, 2014
The al Qaeda video showing its current head Ayman al-Zawahari declaring a renewed bout of jihad in the Indian subcontinent has triggered widespread alarm in the region, especially in India. The alarm over a video may seem exaggerated but there are enough reasons for India to worry.
Al Qaeda video and its message for India

The al Qaeda (AQ) video showing its current head Ayman al-Zawahari declaring a renewed bout of jihad in the Indian subcontinent has triggered widespread alarm in the region, especially in India. The alarm over a video may seem exaggerated but there are enough reasons for India to worry.

One, quite obvious, is that it is a reassertion of authority by the al Qaida leader in the face of a mounting challenge from breakaway groups like Islamic State (IS). With IS gaining traction in Syria and Iraq and attracting recruits from different countries, including India where AQ had failed in the past, there has been a steady erosion of the authority and influence of the core leadership of AQ. Ayman al-Zawahari, who took over AQ after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, has at best remained a shadow leader struggling to cope up with a growing mutiny within.

This means AQ and its embattled leadership is desperate, and hence more dangerous as far as India is concerned. The possibility of the video message as a precursor of an impending attack against India could not be dismissed. The claim made by AQIS for the brazen attack on the Pakistan naval establishment in Karachi on September 6, three days after the Zawahari video went online makes it difficult to dismiss the fears.

AQ can carry out this attack or series of attacks in two ways—one on its own and second with the help of other terrorist groups with a similar anti-India agenda. AQ's own capacity for carrying out an attack is limited. This is amply reflected in the decision to make Asim Umar, a propagandist and head of AQ's Sharia committee in Pakistan, as the head of Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS). This reveals the absence of a strong operational commander within the AQ ranks.

The AQ therefore will have to rely on associates or groups with similar objectives. There are quite a few of them in Pakistan and Afghanistan who could carry out the AQ mission against India. Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and Jaish-e-Mohammad are two such groups who may not be directly connected with AQ but have a common enemy in India. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Haqqani Networks have in the past worked with AQ but their reach is limited to targets Indian interests in Afghanistan. There is no known instance of TTP or the Haqqani Network attacking India.Two years ago, AQ had appointed Farman Shinwari as its Pakistan head. Shinwari is not a stranger to India; he has been part of Harkat-ul Ansar (HuA), a group which was once active in terrorism in Kashmir. HuA was a splinter group from Harkat-ul Jihad al Islami (HuJI), the first Pakistani 'mujahideen' group in Afghan Jihad. JeM chief Masood Azhar was an active member of HuA before he launched Jaish-e-Mohammad in 2000 after his release from the Indian prison following the hijacking of an Indian airliner.

Shinwari is linked to the new AQIS chief, Asim Umar, who is also a former HuJI leader. Shinwari, with experience in terrorist activities in India and Pakistan, could become involved in operational matters in AQIS. Going by these alliances, it is possible that AQ might use the HuJI network to carry out its terrorist agenda in India. HuJI is a transnational ally of al Qaeda with bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Former al Qaeda operational commander responsible for Indian subcontinent, Illyas Kashmiri, was a former HuJI leader; he was also a former Pakistan Army commando and a prized trainer at LeT camps. The old network of HuJI could be utilised by AQ to revive its terrorist agenda in the sub-continent.

The al Qaeda using the HuJI network gains more credence from the radicalisation taking place among Rohingyas in Myanmar. There are a substantial number of Rohingya refugees in India and Bangladesh. HuJI has set up a separate unit to recruit and train Rohingyas by the name of HuJI (Arakans) which is headed by Maulana Abdus Qudus Burmi. Qudus has fought in Afghan Jihad and currently operates out of Karachi.

Other messages contained in the Zawahari video are no less worrisome. By expressing his obeisance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and declaring India the potential target, Zawahari has made a dramatic turnaround. In the recent past, Zawahari had urged the people of Pakistan to revolt against Pakistan Army. But the reference to Mullah Omar as the Amir-ul Momeen of all jihadis and the clever omission of Pakistan as the battleground of jihad, Zawahari has reached out to the army and the jihadi groups in its stable. This ploy may be of little use in persuading Pakistan Army leadership to ally with al Qaeda's objectives in the Indian sub-continent. But it does open up the possibility of creating a convenient alibi in case a Mumbai has to be repeated for strategic reasons. The upcoming US drawdown in Afghanistan presents such a trigger.

Another worry is the increasing number of recruits getting drawn towards the 'global jihadi agenda'. So far, there has been no known case of an Indian joining AQ. Even though a raging militancy once ran through Kashmir and there were foreign terrorists in the Valley, there is no instance of a Kashmiri militant joining al Qaeda. But the recent cases of Indians joining IS in Syria and others who were caught before they could travel to Syria raise serious concern. This shows the growing attraction among the Indians for 'global jihad'. AQ, like IS, might tap into this constituency. This development could transform the nature of terrorism in India.

(Wilson John is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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