Asim Umar, the Indian-born head of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks that killed several secular writers and intellectuals in Bangladesh and Pakistan, including Avijit Roy who was hacked to death on a Dhaka street in February.
“Like the companions of the Prophet who defended him with their lives,” Umar said in a statement that was released online over the weekend, “the mujahideen of al-Qaeda have despatched to hell many who blasphemed against God, and insulted the Prophet.”
In addition to Roy, Umar named slain Bangladeshi intellectual Ahmad Rajib Haidar and Rajshahi University scholar AKM Shaiful Islam as victims of al-Qaeda hit squads. His statement also claimed the killing of Karachi University Islamic Studies scholar Shakeel Auj, assassinated last year while on his way to a meeting with Iranian diplomats. Auj had been condemned by Islamist clerics in Karachi for is purportedly blasphemous views.
The statement also mentioned an Urdu blogger Aneeka Naz as a victim. Naz, an academic, was reported killed in a 2012 car traffic accident, in which her husband was injured. Naz is not known to have held contentious political views.
“From Waziristan to Charlie Hebdo, this war is one,” Umar said, “whether it is waged upon us with drones or with Charlie Hebdo’s pen, with the International Monetary Fund or World Bank’s policies, or with the satanic conspiracy of Kerry-Lugar bill, which sought to humiliate the believers, or whether it is waged with the hate-filled words of Narendra Modi, which call for Muslims to be burned live.”
“In France, Denmark, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries, enemies of the Prophet are slandering him with words which makes the hearts of the followers of Allah run cold, and the hearts of hypocrites glow.”
The statement by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent also referred to another statement by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, claiming responsibility for the killing of of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.
Bangladesh police investigators, The Indian Express had reported earlier this year, attributed the killings of Roy, Haider and Islam to an al-Qaeda affiliate known as the Ansarullah Bengali Team. Ansarullah’s death squad, alleged to be led by North-South University Student Redwanul Rana, is said to have compiled a list of 84 progressive intellectuals for assassination, eight of whom have been killed so far.
Late last year, an Ansarullah Bengali-language video, ‘Eradicate Democracy’, asked Bangaldesh’s “patriotic armed forces” to rise against the government and set up a Caliphate in Bangladesh.
Few details have become available on Ansarullah’s precise links to al-Qaeda, though video of its cadre training in Pakistan has been released in the past. Umar’s statement also eulogises a Bangladeshi jihadist it says has been killed in a drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, though he is identified only by a pseudonym.
The video also holds out tantalising clues to Umar’s Indian origins—notably his use of the word Sahukar for capitalists, a word rarely used by native Urdu or Punjabi speakers. Believed to be a graduate of the famous Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband, with family roots in both Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, Umar is thought by India’s intelligence services to have migrated to Pakistan in the 1990s.
In the following years, Umar studied at the Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia, a Karachi seminary that has produced several top jihadist leaders, including Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who headed the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil, the leader of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.
Umar, intelligence sources say , was mentored by Nizamuddin Shamzai, a cleric with close links to the Taliban, who once bragged about having been a “state guest” in Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Following studies in Karachi, Maulana Umar is believed to have joined Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil’s Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, teaching briefly at the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania seminary in Akhora Khattak, and serving at the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen’s training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
He emerged as major Islamist ideologue in Pakistan, producing several best-selling books propagating the idea that jihad would lead to an apoclyptic war that would, in turn, hasten the coming of judgment day.