In recent years, India has been frequently mentioned in Al-Qaeda’s literature, but a September 30 statement by a senior militant in Pakistan indicates that the terror group is evolving its strategy on the Myanmar-Assam region. In the statement, Ustad Ahmad Farooq, who was appointed as Al-Qaeda’s head of preaching and media department for Pakistan in 2009, warned that the recent killings of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam “provide impetus for us to hasten our advance towards Delhi”. He noted: “I warn the Indian government that after Kashmir, Gujarat… you may add Assam to the long list of your evil deeds.”
Al-Qaeda’s emerging thinking on the Myanmar-Assam region is consistent with its new jihadi framework on South Asia. From 2008 onwards, after Al-Qaeda militants were tortured in Pakistani prisons, it produced academic research, arguing that the Pakistan Army is an apostate force and eligible to be annihilated for supporting the United States war on terror. The Pakistan Army has been involved in killing Muslims — Al-Qaeda argued in videos and statements — through the past three centuries: notably as part of Indian units of the British colonial force in 1757 war, against Mughal rulers in 1857 and during British military expeditions to Baghdad and Jerusalem before the second world war; and after 1947, in the 1971 Bangladesh war, in toppling the Taliban regime in 2001 and in the Pakistani tribal region and Balochistan recently. To advance its jihadi framework, Al-Qaeda relies on an Islamist interpretation that a Muslim ‘assisting infidels even partly’ has left Islam and is therefore liable to be killed.
Another factor injecting an element of India perspective into Al-Qaeda’s strategic thinking is its recruitment of Pakistani militants to top operational and organisational positions, for example Ilyas Kashmir and Mansoor Badr, both of whom were killed in US drone strikes. Ustad Farooq, the first Pakistani national to be promoted to a leadership position in Al-Qaeda, has emerged as its sole spokesman on South Asia. Early this year, Farman Ali Shinwari, a key militant commander, was appointed as head of Al-Qaeda’s Pakistani branch, replacing Mansoor Badr. According to Pakistani author Amir Mir, Shinwari’s three brothers were involved in Kashmir jihad during the 1990s. Although Al-Qaeda has been led by Arab fighters, its recruitment of local militants means that the group has a ready historical-jihadi framework on India, where it sees a large presence of disaffected Muslims.
Following the killing of Osama bin Laden, the US has given an impression that Al-Qaeda has been largely defeated. However, ground realities are otherwise: hordes of Al-Qaeda terrorists can be seen roaming publicly in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Egypt. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda videos emerging from Afghanistan and Pakistan on jihadi Internet forums reveal a similar pattern: in these videos, militants are not seen hiding in caves and mountains, but they appear in droves and pass through villages led by their commanders.
In recent months, Afghan soldiers defecting to the Taliban were garlanded at public ceremonies in remote villages where presence of children was visible. Some US analysts have sought to present Mullah Mohammad Omar as leader of the Taliban whose focus is limited to Afghanistan. In reality, all jihadist groups in the Middle East and the Caucasus have offered, like Osama bin Laden did, their bai’yah (oath of allegiance) to Mullah Omar, who is deemed as Emir-ul-Momineen, leader of the faithful, leading the global jihad.
In Pakistan, there is a worrying pattern in counter insurgency: while several Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants have been killed in US drone strikes, the Pakistani military operations have invariably avoided killing or capturing any top Taliban commander — except for two Taliban spokesmen, Maulvi Omar and Muslim Khan, who were detained. Pakistan does not need to kill thousands of militants to win this war and curb Islamic extremism: it merely needs to kill or arrest the top 25 commanders, including Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Maulana Masood Azhar. However, this is unlikely to occur, as the Pakistan Army, once a strong force, is too weak now to confront them. Currently, the Taliban militants are recuperating and strengthening their fighters in the hope of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 and for a new era of jihad to begin.
In his statement, Ustad Farooq mentioned the issue of Muslim minorities in Thailand, Burma, India and Sri Lanka, and in a bid to recruit Pakistani soldiers to Al-Qaeda’s cause, argued that Muslims who had been supporting Pakistan migrated to Assam and Burma due to Pakistani Army’s failure to win the 1971 Bangladesh war. The lower ranks of Pakistan Army remain influenced by the jihadi message. Over the past three decades, soldiers recruited into Pakistani Army were influenced by a jihadi culture and into the next three decades they will be moving into decision-making positions in the military.
Notwithstanding India’s unilateral drive to better relations with Pakistan, it is unlikely that the Pakistani military’s jihadi impulse will permit democratic forces to assert control in Islamabad. This complicates the scenario in South Asia, as Al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan is known to have worked with and without the support of the jihadi forces in Pakistani military.
In addition to the India-specific threat, Ustad Farooq also warned Buddhists in Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Urging Islamic scholars in Bangladesh “to step forward and help the oppressed Muslims living in their neighbourhood”, he also warned the Burmese government: “Don’t think that the blood of Muslims will continue to flow like this.”
The September 30 statement is also perhaps the most detailed policy document to emerge from Al-Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan with regard to South Asia. On the 9/11 anniversary this year, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri vowed to liberate “occupied Muslim lands”, including India. In short, Al-Qaeda is developing its look-east policy for South and Southeast Asia. Amid a series of Indian intelligence failures over the recent decades such as those leading to the Kargil War and the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, India is totally unprepared to prevent terrorism on its soil.
Tufail Ahmad is Director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research institute, Washington DC