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Why India Should Be More Concerned About Al Qaeda Amidst Violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan
In 2014, the fugitive commander of Al Qaeda (AQ), Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the creation of a new wing of the group focused on waging jihad in the Indian subcontinent. In a 55-minute-long video, Zawahiri expressed his intention to expand Al Qaeda's operations throughout the region by stating, "Our brothers in Burma, Kashmir, Islamabad, Bangladesh we did not forget you in AQ and will liberate you from injustice and oppression." The announcement of the new wing of Al Qaeda came a few months after the Islamic State had declared its caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The group has since kept the Indian security agencies on tenterhooks with its transnational jihadi aspirations. It now aims to repurpose its propaganda addressing the growing communal tensions between the two most prominent religious communities in the biggest democracy in the world as the group looks to now expand its cadre in the country. As researchers and analysts focus on the ongoing endless bout of indiscriminate outbidding violence by Islamic State in Khorasan Pakistan (ISKP) and Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), this “resurgence” of Al Qaeda propaganda aimed at India should not go unnoticed. This paper will examine Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s (AQIS) renewed focus and ambition in India.
AQIS’s Focus on India
Al Qaeda has always considered India responsible for the atrocities of Indian Muslims. Ajay Sahni, the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, terrorism & insurgency research, indicated in an article from 2014 that even though Al Qaeda first mentioned or started targeting India in 1996, they could not gain significant ground, especially in Jammu and Kashmir and Assam. Moreover, AQIS has not been able to carry out any major attacks in India since its inception in 2014. The group implored jihadis to carry out lone-wolf attacks in India but found no volunteers. However, Zawahiri's mention of India in two subsequent videos released in 2022, as well as the arrest of seventeen Ansar Al Islam members, have again brought the danger from Al Qaeda in India into sharp focus.
India's intelligence bureau claimed that Ansar al Islam distributed Al Qaeda propaganda on social media and influenced and radicalized disillusioned men toward its ideology. In addition to inciting impressionable Indian youth to armed jihad, the group also was allegedly planning targeted assassinations of select right-wing figures in the country while mobilizing funds among sympathizers of Al Qaeda, according to a news report.
Zawahiri’s speech challenging anti-Hijab laws in Karnataka, which was the first by an Al Qaeda leader to address India, underscores the dangers the country faces. Compared to the time when the War on Terror began in the aftermath of 9/11, the global jihadist movement has greater territory at its disposal today. Al Qaeda now has a physical sanctuary thanks to the rebirth of the Taliban's Emirate in August 2021. As part of his eight-minute speech, Zawahiri praised Muskan Khan, the Karnataka student famous for her anti-hijab protest of February, for having "challenged a mob of Hindu polytheists with defiant slogans of Takbeer." While addressing the Indian Muslims, he stated, “avoid being deceived by the pagan Hindu democracy of India which, to begin with, was never more than a tool to oppress Muslims.”
However, these mentions are not the actual threats or dangers that Zawahiri or Al Qaeda poses to the country. Zawahiri emphasizes and instigates a cultural war, imploring the Muslims in India to join the jihad between the “chaste Muslim nation and the degenerate and depraved polytheist and atheist enemies that it confronts.” Al Qaeda has been historically fighting such religious and cultural wars apart from conventional warfare all globally since its inception. Growing communal tensions in India and alienation of India's Muslim community have essentially contributed to Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts. As Asafandyar Mir, a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, argues, Al Qaeda remains "the biggest threat to India and is a group that I am most concerned about.” He asserts that “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent are very concerning and singularly focusing on India.” Mir also highlighted Zawahiri’s videos and how the group, in particular, has upped its ante on India's targeted propaganda and operations, which is a concerning pattern. He added that “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has a presence in Afghanistan and the elements in Afghanistan are most probably, in the near term, are going to plot against India.”
Threats From Other Regional Groups
Even as AQIS remains of concern, the Indian security establishment can’t afford to ignore the regional affiliates of the Islamic State, which have repeatedly made its agenda evident through propaganda targeting India.
These regional affiliates, namely, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Islamic State in Hind Province or Wilayat-al Hind (ISHP), and the Islamic State in Pakistan Province (ISPP), could prove to be a major concern for India and Indian nationals/interests abroad. Participating in a transnational religious movement and a global struggle has always been a major attraction for young people to jihadism. Syria marked a significant turning point in India's participation in the global jihadist movement. The country became a melting pot for jihadists from all around the world. Nearly 200 members lived under the declared caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at one time. Some of these Indians have subsequently joined the ISKP, which was founded in 2015 and reportedly includes former Lashkar-e-Taiba cadres located in Pakistan. According to an article published in an Indian newspaper in 2021, ISKP managed to recruit close to 25 Indians since then.
In May 2019, Islamic State announced the establishment of a new branch in India (Wilayat-al Hind) after Indian security forces killed a group member in Kashmir. The Kashmiris, who have long considered foreign Islamists as complicating elements in their fight against the Indian state, initially welcomed the group's objectives with stony silence and outright rejection. Having said that, ISHP has since openly discussed its role in the region via its Al Naba newsletter and aims to expand its cadre through its aggressive propaganda. Surprisingly, according to several experts who examine India's terror environment, Kerala, a state in Southern India proved to be the largest contributor to the country's Islamic State (IS) related arrests. From 2014 to 2018, the country experienced around 200 IS-related arrests, with Kerala accounting for 40 of those. Researchers have cited various reasons for this lopsided contribution by Kerala to the Islamic State, ranging from a large South Indian diaspora residing in the Middle East to radical preachers in madrassas as well as the IS propaganda, which has recently started translating its content into a few South Indian languages such as Tamil and Malayalam. This trend is troublesome for the government of India as these affiliates.
The Islamic State declared a province or wilayat in Pakistan in 2019. The announcement of the Islamic State in Pakistan Province (ISPP) came only days after claiming an attack in the India-ruled section of the disputed Kashmir area under the moniker Hind Province. Although the group has carried out attacks within Pakistan, it has not had any attacks attributed to its name in India, though it is rhetorically hostile towards the Indian state.
While the aforementioned groups have had little tangible success in India, the potential of these groups coupled with the existing Afghan political landscape as well as the ongoing outbidding war in the country remain a concern for the South Asia region.
Scholars, including Asfandyar Mir, have warned that groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), active in Kashmir, may act as force multipliers for the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), as the two groups share somewhat similar ideologies, although LeT is not aligned with ISKP as of now. Riccardo Valle, an Italian researcher tracking ISKP and its jihadi propaganda states that recently, ISKP has deliberately advertised the diversity of its membership. Valle further stated that both the attacks on the Sikh gurudwara in Kabul in March 2020 and the prison break in Jalalabad in August 2020 were perpetrated by Indians, as was confirmed by ISKP. Valle argues that by portraying these attacks as being led by militants of varying backgrounds, ISKP may be hoping to gain the support of a broader pool of militants, which includes Indians and militants from Kashmir. Valle believes that the Islamic State’s transnational aspirations, unlike the Taliban’s, dictate their widespread use of propaganda across geographies.
India has already been affected by ISKP propaganda, with the most recent case being the arrest of Ahmed Murtaza in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) in India. Ahmed is accused of attacking Gorakhpur Math, an ancient temple in the state. According to the intelligence agencies, the accused had become radicalized through the online videos and magazines (Voice of Hind) published by the ISKP. It was classified as a "lone-wolf" attack by the state police.
Till now, any efforts by AQIS have fallen on the deaf ears of its target audience, as the group has been unable to rally the Indian Muslims for its “cause” or incite them to launch attacks in the country. At the same time, the effectiveness of the Indian security establishment and the government coupled with the cooperation of the Muslim community in the country have prevented groups like AQIS and the Islamic State from expanding in the country. That being said, a gradual rise in the incidents in U.P, as well as the arrest of the men belonging to the Ansar Al Islam module, does indicate a communal divide in the country. The government security agencies must therefore push for and support a reduction in communal violence in order to thwart any ambitions that groups like AQIS might have in the country.