Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Indian war: For flagging al-Qaeda, a last throw of jihadi dice

In a video, al Zawahri promised to spread Islamic rule and 'raise the flag of jihad' across the Indian subcontinent.

By: Reuters Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Updated: September 5, 2014 10:48 am
zawahri Zawahri’s announcement also made two references to Gujarat, the home state of India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Source: Reuters)

“Liberating the Muslim nation,” wrote Ayman Muhammad Rabi al-Zawahiri in Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, a digital manifesto released by al-Qaeda on the eve on 9/11, “confronting the enemies of Islam and launching a jihad against them, require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land, that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it”.

The quiet, bespectacled scholar also had careful words of warning: “Without achieving this goal, our actions will mean nothing more than mere, repeated disturbances.”

Ever since 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in a United States raid on his safehouse in Abbotabad, the man who leads al-Qaeda has been trying to extricate his organisation from the rubble of 9/11.

The ferocious US response to the attacks decimated the Islamic state Zawahiri understood held the keys to power — and the mantle has since been seized by a successor, the Dawlah Islamiyya, which has decimated al-Qaeda’s ranks in Iraq and Syria.

In the years he has led it, al-Qaeda has remained a fighting force, represented through powerful regional affiliates that have seized control of swathes of territory from Mali to Libya and Yemen — but none have come close to taking control of the state.

The formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent could prove a last throw of the dice, with domination of the global Islamist movement as its prize.

ALSO READ: MHA asks IB to verify authenticity of Al-Qaeda video


In the autumn of 1999, as al-Qaeda’s influence in Afghanistan reached its peak, Osama bin Laden emerged as a charismatic cult figure for Islamists across the region. That October, seven-year-old Gulrez Siddiqui was reported to have been trotted out in front of 20,000 cheering Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) supporters in Mumbai, to read this couplet: “Islam ka ghazi, butshikan/ Mera sher, Osama bin Laden” (Warrior for Islam, destroyer of idols/ My lion, Osama bin Laden)”.

The men in the audience included several who would go on to become key figures in the Indian Mujahideen (IM) –among them, Riyaz Shahbandri, the group’s Karachi-based military commander, and Abdul Subhan Qureshi, a key lieutenant and ideologue.

At another time, the men might have reached out to al-Qaeda — but its mind was firmly focussed on a far enemy, the United States of America. Bin Laden believed destroying the US was critical to the advance of Islamism — and ignored enemies who cautioned against acts that could lead the US to attack the Islamic emirate ruling Afghanistan.

Following 9/11, much of al-Qaeda’s second-rung drifted away from Afghanistan, to head affiliates across West Asia. Men like Nasser al-Bahri, bin Laden’s bodyguard until the events of 9/11, published memoirs which included an unflattering assessment of al-Zawahiri.

“Bin Laden,” al-Bahri argued, “is a born leader”. But Zawahiri had “generated a great deal of reserve, sometimes very harsh criticism,” he wrote. “I doubt he has sufficient authority for such a position, even with his well-known authoritarianism and his penchant for centralizing power in himself.”

The Kuwaiti cleric turned al-Qaeda operative, Suleiman Abu Ghaith — who appeared in a video broadcast on al-Jazeera weeks after 9/11, proclaiming that “the storm of the planes will not stop” — last year published an online manifesto highly critical of bin Laden’s leadership.

Ghaith lashed out at al-Qaeda for “taking decisions in haste which led to a big defeat”. The poor decision-making, he said, was a consequence of bin Laden being “encircled by a bunch of advisers who do not qualify to give advice”. He was also critical of al-Zawahiri’s politics, which had led to “isolation of yourself and the mujahideen from the mainstream Islamic movements”.

There were many in al-Qaeda who thought the top job should have gone to Ibrahim Makkawi, also known as Saif al-Adel, part of a small caucus of top al-Qaeda commanders, including Saeed al-Masri and Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, who are said to have opposed the 9/11 attacks.

Born into a well-connected upper middle-class family from suburban Cairo, al-Zawahiri was very different from his his critics; an intellectual rather than a fighter. He is said to have excelled as a student, been drawn to poetry, and hated organised sports, seeing them as “inhumane”.

Drawn to the teachings of the Islamist ideologue Syed Qutb as a teenager, al-Zawahiri joined the Muslim Brotherhood when he was just 14. Qutb, whose works ‘Milestones’ and ‘In the shade of the Quran’ are foundational texts for the global Islamist movement, was executed in 1966.

In the years that followed, al-Zawahiri would train as a doctor and specialise as a surgeon. He married Cairo university philosophy student Azza Nowari in 1978; their wedding, held at the Continental Hotel, attracted attention in the liberal Cairo of the times: men were segregated from women, photographers and musicians were kept away, and joking banter was discouraged.

Following the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Zawahiri was among hundreds arrested and tortured. Released after three years in prison, he fled the country, and began practising medicine in Saudi Arabia. There, he came into contact with Osama bin Laden. He first travelled to visit bin Laden-funded jihad facilities in Pakistan in 1985, a relationship that would slowly mature until 2001, when the Egyptian Islamic Jihad formally merged with al-Qaeda.

The two men became inseparable: the intellectual, serious al-Zawahiri providing the perfect foil to the enthusiastic but politically immature bin Laden. Both men helped plan 9/11; it was to be al-Qaeda’s greatest moment: a spectacular gesture that would precipitate a civilisational cataclysm between Islam and the west, and signal that the power of the United States was illusory.

Azza, al-Zawahiri’s wife, and his youngest daughter Aisha would both die in November 2001, pinned under the debris of an al-Qaeda guesthouse hit by American bombs in Afghanistan.

Al-Zawahiri himself would spend the rest of his life trying to clear away the wreckage from around al-Qaeda.


From 2001, even before 9/11 ignited in Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri’s mind turned increasingly to India — seeing jihad in the subcontinent as a means of destroying the Pakistani state, and expanding the Afghan emirate. His 2001 manifesto proclaimed “a religious duty of which the [Muslim] nation had long been deprived, by fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya”. From 2011, when he took charge of al-Qaeda, building a subcontinental front to wage jihad began to become an operational objective.

The idea had been touched upon by bin Laden himself in 1996, when he issued a declaration condemning “massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Pattani, Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina”.

Later, in September 2003, al-Zawahiri invoked India to warn Pakistanis that their President, General Pervez Musharraf, was plotting to “hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret accounts.”

From that time on, al-Zawahiri expanded contacts with Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri, the leader of Brigade 313, a jihadist unit that draws its name from the number of soldiers who fought alongside the Prophet to defeat the numerically superior armies of pagan Mecca.

Incensed at Musharraf’s betrayal of the Pakistan army’s long-standing jihadist allies, al-Zawahiri set up base in North Waziristan, and began waging war against the state.

In 2010, evidence of Kashmiri’s global ambitions began to become evident. 26/11 perpetrator David Headley gave evidence of his plot to target the Jyllands Posten newspaper in Denmark. The following year, German nationals Shabab Dasti and E Bünyamnin, along with their French counterpart Naamen Meziche — all recruited from an Islamist-controlled Hamburg mosque once used by the 9/11 hijackers — were killed in a drone strike, while plotting attacks in Europe based on Kashmiri’s directions.

Thursday’s declaration of a subcontinent-wide jihad comes after years of contact between elements of the Indian Mujahideen and al-Qaeda, first set up by Illyas Kashmiri. In recent years, National Investigation Agency officers who have questioned alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives say members of the group have met with al-Qaeda to discuss joint operations.

There has also been at least one case of an Indian dying in combat with al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Afghanistan — Anwar Bhatkal, who died in an attack on an outpost in Kandahar last month, first reported in The Indian Express.

It is impossible to say if al-Zawahiri’s plan for subcontinental jihad will bring al-Qaeda back to the Islamist centre-stage — but it is certain that blood will be spilt in the effort.

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  1. R
    Jan 10, 2015 at 3:49 am
    dont say that
    1. H
      Sep 5, 2014 at 6:24 am
      If I was Modi, I would get on the phone to Vladimir and sort this mess created by US and it's allies. Vladimir Putin will be too glad to help, and I would cancel the trip to UN/US later this month, instead have a summit meeting with Vladimir on that day when US and the rest of the world is also talking rubbish in New York. It is that simple. This Ayman thug talks too much.
      1. A
        Sep 11, 2014 at 4:39 pm
        we already have to much on our platethingsare never easy with pak and china as our neighbours
        1. A
          Ameer Paul
          Sep 7, 2014 at 3:27 am
          If USA could not contain AL-QAEDA fully, how India can deal AL-QAEDA? Very, verey terse days for India in near future. As a matter of fact India is an UNNATURAL COUNTRY and doom to be divided into many small pieces.I think that Once American will move out from Afghanistan, Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Qaida, Hizbul Mujahideen in Afghanistan will join hands to fight in J&K, Punjab, Gujrat, Asam, etc. They will be very welcome not by Indian Muslim Youth only but by BHADUR SIKH, MAOISTS, NEXALITES, and yes by DALITS of India. With the support from stan India will not be able to counter them once they will attain the desired pority.
          1. K
            Sep 4, 2014 at 3:04 pm
            quite possible.US had faced no war on its soil.By resorting to this tactic they can reap double benefit-one the asian region will go into turmoil and second america can silently syphon off the oil in the confusion.
            1. A
              Av Bagur
              Sep 5, 2014 at 1:17 pm
              This is a great development. The Indian Muslims can use this opportunity to permanently put to rest people who have been questioning their loyalty to the country or affinity to its ethos.
              1. B
                Balakrishnan Subramanyam
                Sep 4, 2014 at 9:30 pm
                This is a direct consequence of the long standing overzealous enthusiasm of India's G old Pseudo Secular Congress party headed by Madam Sonia & her loyal anti national band of workers together with the UPA's longstanding pseudo Secular Partners all of whom have been all the while advocating a wsome soft line approach to the entire Islamic community with an effort to downgrade Hindus notwithstanding overwhelming majority in the Indian Potion.It was because of UPA weak regime over the last 10 years preceded by other Congress PMs save & except Mrs Indira hi, there was a tendency to totally ignore the nation's Security needs & wholly ignoring the need for modernization of Defence services ,We also had people like the timid Sushilkumar Shinde handling sensitive portfolio of the Nation's Home Ministry openly playing into the hands of the nation's traitors & sending directives to release & not to act against Muslim youth.Even after 26/11 & a series of anti national activities & also the atrocities suffered by the Kashmiri Pandits ,UPA tended to ignore the anti national Muslim activities particularly in UP ruled by another Pseudo Secular Islamic sympathetic Samajwadhi Party. Can any of the Congress vouch of absolute loyalty to the nation & point fingers at the Muslim terrorist elements? Good that the nation has seen a change of Government at the center & we can safely bank on Mr Narendra Modi to stand firm against any faction that may tend to attempt any break up activities with India & deal with an iron fist so that such elements will never again dare to play with Indian nation any longer.
                1. B
                  Sep 5, 2014 at 7:51 am
                  Lo, Fugitives who are running scared of their lives are threatening India as if India is a chicken and they will teal it and keep in their bags..
                  1. I
                    Sep 5, 2014 at 8:23 am
                    what? my comment deleted? I just wrote that Indian Muslim leaders and clerics should come together and help the govt. How that can be offensive? (yeah I also wrote that al-qaeda bigots does not have place in India)
                    1. F
                      Sep 4, 2014 at 10:56 am
                      Thanks but no thanks. India is a land of many religions cultures and languages with a secular majority. If fundamentalists like al quaeda and Bajrai Dal want to wage a war of hatred...they should find a place in the deep sea far away so innocents will not suffer. Thank you.
                      1. G
                        Giridharan Velamore
                        Sep 5, 2014 at 10:02 am
                        This is a suggestion to Muslim friends - It would be great if Islamic leaders or prominent Imams in India reject this call by Al Qaeda. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind as well as on the government or majority of Indians, on the loyalty of the Indian muslims. They have proven to be loyal Indians umpteen times and will continue to do so. It will only prove to the terrorists that their nefarious calls have been out-rightly rejected by the Muslims of India. The terrorists are, in reality enemies of Islam as well.
                        1. H
                          H K
                          Sep 4, 2014 at 11:36 am
                          Osama and zwahiri and a few more will wipe out Islam by creating enough enimies in the w world, Hope people will see religion in true sense,
                          1. S
                            Sep 4, 2014 at 12:03 pm
                            I believe the news item planted by Reuters is based on ficious facts. The report is based on an online video which can't be verified.There are certain agencies within India itself who are interested in targeting Muslims who are already victims of different forms of terror. And these agencies, including the government investigating and intelligence agencies, habe been found to be circulating false information about the involvement of Muslims in violence and terror activities like attack on the Samjhauta Express train, Makkah Masjid in Hyderabad and Malegaon etc.The story planted through Reuters is a latest trick being emplo by the agencies who want to defame Indian Muslims. As for the report of 300 Indian Muslims fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria, several news report say they were taken first to Singapore on the pretext of job employment. And then they were taken to Iraq. I feel that these boys were forced to fight for ISIS and they did not go there voluntarily. We should try to rescue these boys and interrogate them in-depth to find out how they landed in Iraq and Syria. And what agencies were involved in taking them to Iraq with a view to getting to the root and curb this menace permanently. I guess that these boys were tricked by some nefarious overseas agencies.As for some readers expressing concern over this non-verified video, I as an Indian Muslim must ure them that Indian Muslims don't want at all to create any kind of trouble for any one in the country or outside. This is because our future is linked with the growth and development of India, not with any other country whether it is stan or Saudi Arabia. Indian Muslims want to live in peace with our Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist neighbours.
                            1. J
                              Sep 5, 2014 at 3:56 pm
                              Why does India not get involved in the international fight against extreme Muslim groups? India has one of the best militaries in the world and a knowledge of stan and Afghanistan.
                              1. K
                                Sep 4, 2014 at 10:12 am
                                You are absolutely fool & ignorant about Islam,history of India & Muslim as a community.As an Indian I will & most of the Muslim are against who ever have a bad eye on India & don't support Al Qaida or any other Militant Organisation.If,you are really a sympathetic to Muslim then don't think that we are brain washed.We follow the true guidance from Allah & spiritually more strong & on righteous path than any other religion.So,better to respect Muslim & try to unite people and not sow hatered
                                1. B
                                  Sep 4, 2014 at 12:15 pm
                                  God knows what is the destiny of the world. As human everyone feel hurt and disturbed. When we saw human is killed by knife or by Bombardment, it pain. Abu Graib prison-Soldiers were terrorized through dogs, killed and F-16 targeted innocents in Iraq as game play. Innocent american gets killed by fanatic and filmed. pregnant women gets killed, her baby taken out and killed. In the name of religion, educated politicians barks dirty and for vote engineer riots. For oil control USA and allies destroy w nation. Syria pushed to civil war for political gains. Israel occupy lands and put Palestinians hostage in their land. The UNO is hostage to USA and allies. WW-III is predicted and is already taking start in some way or the other. UNO is paralysed, human sensitivity is lost. Let all religion are abandoned or modified with first lesson as HUMAN RELIGION. Every religion must start by basics of human dignity and ethics. Everyone is engaged in Human crimes, a strong through bombardment, a weak through knife and others through riots/terror act. Let everyone of us take oath to save a human life instead of becoming a party to kill someone by any means.
                                  1. R
                                    Sep 5, 2014 at 7:01 am
                                    Well said. If anyone truly cared, they'd build hospitals, care for the elderly and children, food for the poor, jobs for the youth and peaceful existence overall. And not throw extremism spewing tools under teh garb of ostentatious freebies (like KSA-UAE do) and then demand (through their fi Jihadists) that we waste our lives on blood drenched long drawn terrorising of the innocents and wanton insurgencies.
                                    1. B
                                      Sep 4, 2014 at 4:22 pm
                                      It is high time India, Europe and the USA get together and eliminate once and for all this evil cult! This is not a religion! It is a satanic cult! Charles Manson could be their leader!
                                      1. M
                                        Mansoor Sherif
                                        Sep 4, 2014 at 12:17 pm
                                        Whatever u do..dian muslims will not support you.....We dont wanna make our India as
                                        1. M
                                          Sep 4, 2014 at 1:03 pm
                                          India should crushed them outright, unlikely the other nation haven't, these moron misguiding youth, American left them survived till now.
                                          1. S
                                            Sanket Kohli
                                            Sep 5, 2014 at 7:44 am
                                            still there is a maximum proportion of Indian muslims fall prey to these forces . A convent educated civil engineer was among the 886 who joined ISIS from India . Situation is way more worse than in seems .
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