Between al-Qaeda and history’s dead-letter archive, a few “good men” and a plan

Between al-Qaeda and history’s dead-letter archive, a few “good men” and a plan

Al-Qaeda seeks to stage operations against India and the wider region.

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Islamabad born Farouq was the second-in-command of al-Qaeda’s new Indian subcontinent unit.

“A good man,” al-Qaeda’s manager, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, called the young Pakistani who had just taken charge of the jihadist group’s Urdu-language propaganda, in a letter he sent to Osama Bin Laden on November 23, 2010. The letter, listing “brothers who are [being] prepared for responsibilities in the future,” gave a glowing account of Ahmed Farouq. He was, al-Rahman told the al-Qaeda chief, “strong willed” yet “cultured”; fluent in Arabic; an excellent manager.

Early this year, a Hellfire missile fired by a drone lurking high over the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands blew apart Farouq and his associates Qari Imran and United States-born jihad commander Adam Gadahn. Tragically, their hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, were also killed.

Farouq’s elimination has been advertised as evidence that the United States’ drone war can contain and degrade al-Qaeda even when its troops leave Afghanistan. Islamabad born Farooq—whose real name was Raja Muhammad Salman—was the second-in-command of al-Qaeda’s new Indian subcontinent unit at the time of his death.

The new al-Qaeda unit was key to the jihadist organisation’s survival and growth in South Asia. But since al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced unit’s formation in September, it has succeeded in staging just one operation of significance—an abortive attempt to hijack a Pakistan Navy missile frigate. Its leaders, moreover, are being picked off, one by one.


Inexorably, many intelligence experts assess, al-Qaeda is marching towards the dusty, grim archive in which the goddess of history stores dead letters.

The reality, though, is likely less comforting. Eschewing spectacular actions, al-Qaeda’s leadership is instead patiently laying the foundations for the organisation to survive and expand in South Asia’s changing strategic landscape. The United States’ diminished role in Afghanistan has already allowed jihadists to take control of significant swathes of the country. Pakistan’s army, tiring of the war of attrition with jihadists in the country’s north-west, is set to declare victory—and cut a quiet backroom peace deal.

For the first time since the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, thus, jihadists have the opportunity to wield real, on-ground power. Through a web of allies and affiliates like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, al-Qaeda wants to give shape to this new order.

The new al-Qaeda strategy places Pakistan at its core—seeking to create an independent base there for the region, just as it has wings in several West Asian countries. In his large body of pop-theological work, the head of al-Qaeda’s subcontinent wing, Indian-born cleric Asim Umar, propagates the notion of an apocalyptic war that would lead to the conquest of historic India, as a prelude to the day of judgment. The “caravan of jihad” that would wage this war, Umar has said, will arise in Pakistan—helped by Indian Muslims, who he casts as victims of a predatory, violent Hinduism.

For his part, al-Zawahiri made a first-ever reference the contested Islamic prophecy on which this idea is based, the Ghazwa al-Hind, in his speech proclaiming the birth of al-Qaeda’s subcontinent wing.

The message is a simple one: al-Qaeda promises a caliphate, just as the Islamic State does, but one founded on the experience of regional Islamic struggles over centuries. It is a message that the organisation’s leadership believes will resonate with regional Islamists, long after the showy successes of the Islamic State have disappeared from television screens.

Leaders like al-Zawahiri and Umar see al-Qaeda forming the ideological hub of Pakistan’s powerful, if fractured, Tehreek-e-Taliban factions. Even though some commentators have cast al-Qaeda as refugees sheltered by the Tehreek-e-Taliban, documents recovered from Osama Bin Laden’s Abbotabad home show the tail in fact wags the dog. Indeed, Tehreek-e-Taliban eulogies to Farouq showed he also controlled their propaganda wing, Umar Media—showing al-Qaeda actually has direct, day-by-day control of jihadist factions in Pakistan’s north-west.

In a December 3, 2010, letter, al-Rahman and his associate Abu Yahya al-Libi, in response to Taliban commander Hakeemullah Mehsud’s demands for authority over other factions. The letter assailed Mehsud for his behaviour, saying his claims rested on “clear legal and religious mistakes which might result in a negative deviation from the set path of the jihadist movement in Pakistan, which also are contrary to the objectives of jihad and to the efforts exerted by us.”

Mehsud also received a blunt threat: “we hope that you will take the necessary action to correct your actions and avoid these grave mistakes; otherwise we have to take decisive actions from our end.”

The threats paid off. Mehsud, the following year, submitted to the authority of the Shura-e-Murakeba, a counsel which brought together the four great factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban in North and South Waziristan, under the guidance of al-Qaeda and the jihadist warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani.

From the Abbotabad documents, it has also become clear that powerful elements within Pakistan’s political establishment and military are willing to cede space to al-Qaeda. In a June, 2010, letter, al-Rahman told Bin Laden that Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Shairf, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s brother, had Hakimullah Mehsud a message “indicating they wanted to negotiate with them, and they were ready to reestablish normal relations as long as they do no conduct operations in Punjab.”

The letter records, in addition, that “we received a messenger from them bringing us a letter from the Intelligence leaders including Shuja’ Shah, and others”— a possible reference to Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, then the head of the Inter Services Intelligence directorate.

In the secret peace negotiations, al-Rahman told Bin Laden, Pakistan was informed that “we are prepared to leave you be. Our battle is primarily against the Americans”.

Umar, and other al-Qaeda leaders, have long-standing relationships with the ISI, which they may hope to leverage in the future. Umar, for example, served for years in the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a client organisation of the ISI, training jihadists for fighting across the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Finally, al-Qaeda also seeks to position itself as the principal voice of the jihad inside Pakistan—sweeping aside old clients of the Pakistan army, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In a video released last summer, Asim Umar attacked the Pakistan army for scaling down its support for the jihad in Kashmir. Zawahiri, in turn, has repeatedly described the Pakistan army as an instrument of the United States.

To this end, al-Qaeda seeks to stage operations against India, and the wider region—supplanting the state-backed jihad’s core legitimacy. Said al-Masri, al-Qaeda’s third-in-command, claimed in a posthumous speech released after his death in a May 21, 2010, that Mehsud was already operating inside India.

“Last February’s India operation,” he said, in a reference to the Pune bombing that year, “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.”

From the interrogations of alleged Indian Mujahideen commander Muhammad Ahmad Siddibapa—alleged to have carried out the Pune bombing—it is known that parts of the jihadi group have long been in touch with al-Qaeda, seeking patronage for their operations. Riyaz Shahbandri, the Indian Mujahideen’s Karachi-based chief, according to Siddibapa’s interrogation records, met with senior al-Qaeda leaders.

Even though the Indian Mujahideen itself has been in retreat—and a new generation of Indian jihadists have chosen to cut their teeth fighting with the Islamic State in Syria, rather than al-Qaeda—the cadre now training with al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s north-west could give it a new lease of life.

Farooq’s death is a blow to al-Qaeda—but it isn’t evidence the organisation is falling apart. Al-Qaeda is, instead, entrenching itself in Pakistan’s jihadi landscape, preparing for battles still to come. The United States’ withdrawal from the region will just be punctuation in a long war al-Qaeda has waged, and is very far from ending.

(A shorter version of this column appeared in the print edition dated April 28, 2015)


Suggested Reading
Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, by C Christine Fair. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014
Web resource for all things terrorism and Pakistan,