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Explained: 4 reasons why Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing is important for India

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had resurfaced earlier this summer and indicated efforts at recruiting cadres in India. His presence in Afghanistan, however, shows that the new Taliban regime has continued to maintain its links with al-Qaeda, and the terrorist infrastructure in that country remains intact

In this 1998 photo, Ayman al-Zawahri poses for a photograph in Khost, Afghanistan. (AP/PTI Photo)

A US drone strike in Afghanistan over the weekend killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, who took over the leadership of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed, at an urban safe house in Afghanistan, the White House said on Monday night (in the wee hours of Tuesday (August 2) for India).

Al-Zawahiri had been on the radar of intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies for the last two decades. His killing is important for the global war on terror, as also for India. There are at least four clear reasons for this.

First, al-Zawahiri had resurfaced in April this year, and Indian intelligence agencies were concerned.

In a video, al-Zawahiri spoke on the hijab controversy in India and asked Muslims in the subcontinent to fight the perceived assault on Islam “intellectually, using the media and with weapons on the battlefield”. He referred to a live, hot-button issue that confirmed he was alive and able to follow developments in India. He showered praise on the young Indian student Muskan Khan, who he claimed had “emboldened the spirit of Jihad” by her defiant response to heckling by a mob of rightwing Hindu men.

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“She has unveiled the reality and unmasked the nature of the conflict between the chaste and pure Muslim Ummah and the degenerate and depraved polytheist and atheist enemies it confronts. …May Allah reward her greatly for imparting a practical lesson to Muslim sisters plagued by an inferiority complex vis a vis the decadent Western World. May Allah reward her for exposing the reality of Hindu India and the deception of its pagan democracy,” al-Zawahiri said.

He said Muskan’s action had inspired him to write a poem: “Her takbeers inspired me to write a few lines of poetry, in spite of the fact that I am not a poet. I hope that our honourable sister accepts this gift of words from me.”

Second, this video was seen by the Indian strategic establishment as al-Qaeda’s effort to recruit in India.

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In his earlier videos, al-Zawahiri had largely focused on Islam’s war against western powers and India has found only passing mention. He had spoken about Kashmir previously, but had never specifically referenced any incident.

With al-Qaeda greatly weakened around the world, and its regional franchises unable to carry out frequent spectacular terrorist acts, the video appeared to be an effort at issuing a rallying call to Indian Muslims, who have never been enthusiastic participants in the global jihadist project.

Osama bin Laden sits with his adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian linked to the al Qaeda network, during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir (not pictured) in an image supplied by Dawn newspaper November 10, 2001. (Hamid Mir/Editor/Ausaf Newspaper for Daily Dawn/Handout via Reuters)

He said: “We must stop being deceived by the mirage of Hindu democracy of India, which to begin with, was never more than a tool to oppress Islam. We must realise that in this real world there is no such thing as ‘human rights’ or ‘respect for the constitution’ or law or other such nonsensical conjectural ideas…

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“Our Muslim Ummah in the Indian subcontinent, our battle today is a battle of awareness, a battle of discerning illusion from reality. We must understand that the way out is by holding on to our Shariah, uniting as a single Ummah, from China to Islamic Maghreb, and from Caucasus to Somalia, a united Ummah waging a concerted war across several fronts. We must gather around the sincere scholars and fight our war ideologically. Intellectually… using the media… and with weapons on the battlefield against the enemies of Islam.”

Third, his killing in Kabul confirms the assessment of the relationship of al-Qaeda with the new Taliban regime.

A UN report in June this year said: “Al-Qaeda enjoys greater freedom under the new Afghan regime, but its operational capability is limited. It is unlikely to mount or direct attacks outside Afghanistan for the next year or two, owing to both a lack of capability and Taliban restraint. Going forward, al-Qaeda appears free to pursue its objectives, short of international attacks or other high-profile activity that could embarrass the Taliban or harm their interests.”

On al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the regional franchise of the terrorist organisation, the UN report said: AQIS “is reported to have 180 to 400 fighters, with Member State estimates inclining toward the lower figure. Fighters included nationals from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan and were located in Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Paktika and Zabul Provinces.”

Fourth, the killing shows that India needs to navigate its engagement with the Taliban carefully.

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India, which had been largely elbowed out of Afghanistan after the US left and the Taliban returned a year ago, has opened cautious outreach to the new regime in Kabul. But the killing of al-Zawahiri shows the terrorist infrastructure continues to be active in Afghanistan. And while India may continue to help Afghanistan through humanitarian assistance, it has to keep its eyes open for terrorist activities aimed at India from Afghan soil.

The UN report quoted above said that since the Taliban takeover in mid-August 2021, terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) — both Pakistan-based groups targetting India — are present in Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan where they run terror training camps and have deep links with the Taliban.

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A photo of Al Qaeda’s new leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, is seen in this still image taken from a video released on September 12, 2011. (SITE Monitoring Service/Handout via Reuters)

According to the report, JeM maintains eight training camps in Nangarhar, three of which are directly under Taliban control. LeT is reported to

maintain three camps in Kunar and Nangarhar and has provided finance and training expertise to Taliban operations earlier.

First published on: 02-08-2022 at 11:00:04 am
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