Four weeks after a Hellfire missile fired from a drone blew apart his body on May 21, 2010, al-Qaeda third-in-command Said al-Masri’s digital ghost appeared online. “I bring you good tidings,” the dead commander said.
“Last February’s India operation was against a Jewish locale in the west of the Indian capital [sic., throughout], in the area of the German bakeries — a fact that the enemy tried to hide — and close to 20 Jews were killed.”
Four years on, fears that al-Masri’s post mortem speech might be more than idle words have been confirmed. Early on Thursday morning, India time, fugitive al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a video announcing the formation of a new wing of the terrorist group dedicated to waging jihad in the Indian subcontinent.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, sources told The Indian Express, was informed by the Intelligence Bureau at an emergency meeting on Thursday morning that the development would have direct consequences for India.
He was also told that persistent capacity deficits have made monitoring social-media based jihadi recruitment and propaganda operations difficult.
Through the day, Singh held two rounds of meetings with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Intelligence Bureau (IB) director Syed Asif Ibrahim, R&AW chief Alok Joshi and Special Secretary (Internal Security) Prakash Mishra to discuss the implications of the video. Singh briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi subsequently.
The Home Minister said the IB was working to verify the authenticity of the video, and would “handle the case”. A senior IB official said the video appeared to be genuine. The IB is expected to submit its report in a day or two.
The Home Ministry issued a nationwide alert, and advised state governments to especially watch “hot spots” that might be targeted by jihadis for fresh recruitments. “The concerned states have been alerted and they are keeping a vigil,” a senior Ministry official said.
India on alert as al-Qaeda unveils plan for jihad in subcontinent
PLAN FOR WAR
In the video, released on Twitter and jihadi websites, al-Zawahiri promises the expansion of al-Qaeda operations throughout the Indian subcontinent.
“A new branch of al-Qaeda was established and is Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian subcontinent, seeking to raise the flag of jihad, bring back Islamic rule, and empower the shari’a of Allah across the Indian subcontinent,” he says.
He adds that the group will defend the “vulnerable in the Indian subcontinent, in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir”, and tells Muslims in the region that “your brothers in Qaedat al-Jihad did not forget you and they are doing what they can to rescue you from injustice, oppression, persecution and suffering.”
Named the Jamaat Qaidat al-jihad fi’Shibhi al-Qarrat al-Hindiya, or Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent, the organisation also released online a manifesto written by its spokesperson Usama Mahmoud, and organisational chief Asim Umar.
“This entity was not established today, but it is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity to be with the main group, Qaedat al-Jihad, from the soldiers of the Islamic Emirate and its triumphant Emir, Allah permitting, Emir of the Believers, Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid,” al-Zawahiri goes on.
Last year, alleged terrorist Muhammad Ahmad Zarar Siddibapa, better known by the alias Yasin Bhatkal — who has been charged with the Pune bombing that al-Masri spoke of — is claimed to told the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that the Indian Mujahideen had made contact with al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s north-west.
“Riyaz [Shahbandri, a.k.a. Riyaz Bhatkal]”, Yasin Bhatkal said in videotaped testimony which, under Indian law, is not admissible for the purposes of his trial, “told that now we were with the Al Qaeda, and that they had also given some work, which he did not disclose fully to me then and said that the task of targeting Jews was the main [one]”.
In May 2013, Yasin informed Riyaz that he had visited Afghanistan, and completed discussions with the al-Qaeda leadership.
Little information is available on the men who lead the new organisation, but both are believed to be Pakistani nationals serving with al-Qaeda’s command in that country. Asim Umar has issued several manifestos and articles on al-Qaeda platforms, critiquing democracy and calling for armed jihad. He was earlier described in an al-Qaeda video as the organisation’s top shari’a law expert.
Last year, Umar issued an appeal directed at Indian Muslims: “You who have ruled India for eight hundred years, you who lit the flame of the one true God in the darkness of polytheism: how can you remain in your slumber when the Muslims of the world are awakening?
“If the youth of the Muslim world have joined the battlefields with the slogan ‘Shari’a or Martyrdom’, and put their lives at stake to establish the Caliphate, how can you lag behind them? Why is there no storm in your ocean?” he demanded to know.
INDIA ON RADAR
Though al-Zawahiri’s speech does not mention the “many groups” which have coalesced into the subcontinental al-Qaeda, India’s intelligence services have long known that jihadists both in the country and Pakistan were looking to the transnational organisation.
“The organisation itself isn’t new,” said Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi. “It’s just got a new brand name.”
David Headley, the Pakistani-American Lashkar operative now serving a life term for his role in the 26/11 attacks, had told the NIA of an anti-India “Karachi project” linked to global jihadi groups. Headley himself had begun working for slain jihadist Illyas Kashmiri’s Brigade 313, which in turn merged with al-Qaeda.
The development had its genesis in former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s 2007 siege of jihadists holed up inside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, an event that al-Zawahiri’s speech refers to. Headley told NIA that an ideological war had broken out among Pakistan’s jihadis after the siege. In spite of efforts by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), he said, the “aggression and commitment shown to jihad by the several splinter groups influenced many committed fighters to leave Kashmir-centric outfits and join the Taliban”.
Over the last two months, The Indian Express has reported on the surge in Indian jihadists training abroad, with four Maharashtra men leaving to fight with the Islamic State (IS), and a separate corps of former Indian Mujahideen operatives fighting alongside jihadists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent could tap the wellsprings of discontent among young Islamists in India, giving them a platform — and drawing more to training camps in Pakistan, to fight both India and the regime in Islamabad.
Experts say al-Qaeda also hopes to use the India card as a means of competing for influence and legitimacy with traditional jihadi groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba within Pakistan. In the wake of 26/11, al-Masri himself released a statement warning India of attacks if it struck against Pakistan, as a means of gathering public support.
The formation of AQIS comes at a time the organisation has seen significant reverses in West Asia, with the Dawlah Islamiyyah, or Islamic State, displacing its forces in large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The declaration of a Caliphate by the Islamic State signalled that it now claims leadership position of the global jihadist movement — a position long held by al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has also suffered losses in funding and legitimacy among financial backers of the global jihad, who now see the Islamic State as a more credible organisation.
“I believe al-Qaeda wants to wean away potential jihadists and financiers from ISIS, and to gather support in its heartlands, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Sushant Sareen, an expert at the Vivekananda Foundation in New Delhi.
The manifesto thus casts Afghanistan, rather than West Asia, as the true heartland of the global jihadist struggle —and expresses loyalty to Taliban chief and self-proclaimed leader of all Muslims, Mullah Muhammad Omar, to whom it earlier swore an oath of loyalty.
(With Vijaita Singh)