“I bring you good tidings”, al-Qaeda’s third-in-command Said al-Masri said in a macabre speech that was released online four weeks after a Hellfire missile blew his body apart near Pakistan’s Miramshah on 21 May, 2010. “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”.
Now, four years on, that disembodied, incoherent boast has turned out to be prophecy.
Early on Thursday morning, Indian time, fugitive al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahari announced the formation of a new wing of the feared terrorist group dedicated to waging jihad in the Indian subcontinent.
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In the videotape—the first released by the al-Qaeda chief since August 2013—al-Zawaheri promises that al-Qaeda will now expand its operations throughout the region: “Our brothers in Burma, Kashmir, Islamabad, Bangladesh”, he says, “we did not forget you in AQ and will liberate you form injustice and oppression”. The new branch, he says is in particular “a message that we did not forget you, our Muslim brothers in India”.
He says al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, “break all borders created by Britain in India”, and called on all Muslims in the region to “unite under the credo of the one god”.
The new organisation, named the Jamaat Qaidat al-jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya, or Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Sub-Continent, also released online manifestos written by al-Zawahiri, spokesperson Usama Mahmoud, and organisational chief Asim Umar.
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. Umar has issued several manifestos and articles on al-Qaeda platforms, critiquing democracy and calling for armed jihad.
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?” the al-Qaeda ideologue Asim Umar asked India’s Muslims last summer.
“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,” Mr. Umar demanded to know.
Experts note that 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 was intended to signal 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.
The manifesto thus casts Afghanistan, rather than West Asia, as the true heartland of the global jihadist struggle—and expresses loyalty to Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar, to whom it earlier swore an oath of loyalty.
Long in the making:
For Indian, though, the new organisation has more direct significance. It has long been evident that the gathering storm of violent Islamism in Pakistan would lash India, too. This summer, The Indian Express first reported a surge in Indian jihadists training abroad, with four Maharashtra men leaving to train with the Islamic State, and a separate corpus of former Indian Mujahideen operatives fighting alongside jihadists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.
From Internet chats between Karachi-based Indian Mujahideen chief Riyaz Shahbandri—also known as Riyaz Bhatkal and his alleged lieutenant Muhammad Ahmad Siddibapa, also known as Yasin Bhatkal, it is clear the Indian Mujahideen operatives left the organisation because they felt frustrated that Pakistan’s intelligence services were not allowing them to stage large-scale attacks against India.
The new organisation 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 against India and the regime in Islamabad.
Interestingly, Siddibapa is charged by the National Investigations Agency of having bombed the German Bakery in Pune. Mr. al-Masri’s message was wrong on several details of the operation, but the claim suggests at least some elements of the network were already in contact with al-Qaeda.
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.
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 al-Zawahiri’s speech refers to. Headley told the NIA that an ideological war broke out among Pakistan’s jihadis after the seige. In spite of efforts by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, 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.”
In turn, al-Qaeda became increasingly interested in India, as a means of competing for influence and legitimacy with traditional jihadi groups like the Lashkar, which were supportive of the Pakistani state. In the wake of 26/11, al-Masri himself released a statement warning India of attacks if it struck against Pakistan.
Hatred of India:
Al-Zawahiri was among the first international jihadist leaders to mention India, writing in a manifesto published in 2001 that his cadre had “revived a religious duty of which the [Muslim] nation had long been deprived, by fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya.”
The theme was taken up 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 again 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.”