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Al-Qaeda is getting more active in the Indian subcontinent and by 2017, it boasted several hundred members, with its cells mostly in Afghanistan and its operatives flourishing in Bangladesh, counter-terrorism experts have told the US lawmakers. “By 2017, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent boasted several hundred members and had cells in Afghanistan’s Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Paktika, Ghazni, and Nuristan Provinces. Al- Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan was almost certainly larger and more expansive than five or even ten years before,” said Seth G Jones, a strategic expert.
He was speaking during his Congressional testimony before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence on Friday. This expansion, Jones said, may have been partly due to Taliban advances in Afghanistan and al-Qaida’s relationship with operatives from the Taliban and other groups, such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e Jhangvi.
“Al-Qaida operatives in Bangladesh were particularly active, conducting a range of attacks. In addition, al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent conducted a steady propaganda campaign from its media arm As-Sahab,” he said.
However, the group conducted few attacks in Afghanistan or Pakistan and was largely irrelevant in the Taliban-led insurgency, Jones said. In September 2014, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had announced the creation of regional affiliate al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent, taking advantage of sanctuaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
“A new branch of al-Qaida was established — Qaida al-Jihad in the Indian subcontinent, seeking to raise the flag of jihad,…and return the Islamic rule across the Indian subcontinent,” al-Zawahiri had said.
The group was led by Asim Umar– an Indian and former member of Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami– a Pakistan-based terrorist group with branches across the Indian subcontinent. Umar was flanked by Abu Zar, his first deputy.
In October 2015, US and Afghan forces targetted a large training camp in Kandahar Province, killing over one hundred operatives linked to al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, Rhodes said.
According to Katherine Zimmerman, research fellow, American Enterprise Institute, the al-Qaeda presence in the Indian subcontinent remains weak after Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the launch of a new affiliate in September 2014.
Al-Qaeda divides the Pakistani theatre by ethnic group, he said. The Pashtun are part of its Khorasan theater, which includes Afghanistan and Iran, and the Punjab is under al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which works through the Indian Punjab and Bangladesh, Zimmerman said.
“A recent surge in propaganda from AQIS leadership may indicate an attempt to revive the group,” Zimmerman told the lawmakers. Zimmerman said al-Qaeda never fully lost its sanctuary in Pakistan and used this base to project forward into Afghanistan again as the US drew down militarily.
“By 2015, al-Qaeda was running large training camps inside Afghanistan. The US began revising its assessments of al-Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan based on the discovery of these training camps,” he said.
“The US killed senior al-Qaeda leaders operating in Afghanistan in an October 2016 air strike, their presence a telling indicator that al-Qaeda had returned to the country,” he added.