Osama bin Laden, the founding father of al-Qaeda, became the world’s most wanted terrorist primarily because of his zeal to wage “jihad against Jews (Israel) and Crusaders (America)”. In the process, he brought together disaffected Muslims across the Arab world, Central Asia, Chechnya, Xinjiang and Southeast Asia for jihad in their homelands. Ironically, despite his close links with the CIA in the 1980s, Laden’s primary target was the US, described by him as the “Great Satan”. ISI-backed terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed were Laden’s allies in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. When the US invasion following 9/11 dispersed but failed to destroy the terrorist networks in Afghanistan, Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri disappeared, till Laden was killed in Abbottabad in Pakistan, after living there for nearly a decade under benign ISI protection.
Zawahiri has now surfaced with a spectacular statement focusing not on the “Great Satan” the US, but spewing venom against India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The speculation, no doubt encouraged by the ISI, is that Laden is “hiding” in the tribal areas of Pakistan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This explanation is being given at a time when over 1.5 lakh Pakistan army and paramilitary personnel are hunting down “terrorists” in the same location, with heavy aerial bombardment. Given the massive military presence of the army and ISI in these areas over the past decade, there is little doubt that Afghan Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani and Zawahiri, like Laden earlier and Taliban leader Mullah Omar presently, are living comfortably in an ISI “safe house” in Pakistan.
It is striking that the Zawahiri diatribe is couched in language used by the Pakistani military establishment over the past six decades. He describes the creation of Bangladesh as a “conspiracy” by “agents” of India. He reflects Pakistani animosity towards the secular Bangladesh government of Sheikh Hasina, as enjoying “the blessings of both India and America” and calls on scholars in Bangladesh to “fulfil the role Islam has given them to fight against “secularists and atheists”. India is predictably called an “enemy of Islam”. He notes: “The events in Bangladesh and Burma are not too distant from the oppression and killings of Muslims in Kashmir, or the racial cleansing in Assam, Gujarat and Ahmadabad earlier”. Even Sri Lanka, which has cracked down on Pakistan-trained jihadis, faces Zawahiri’s ire.
The timing of the Zawahiri diatribe coincides with the replacement of al-Qaeda by the virulently anti-Shia ISIS as the leader of global jihad. Movements ranging from Somalia’s Al Shabab to Nigeria’s Boko Haram have virtually no links with today’s al-Qaeda. Zawahiri is a lonely figure, seeking contemporary relevance and global attention. He can achieve this only by joining forces with the ISI to fulfil its aims in South Asia. He predictably foresees that the “victory of Islamic Emirates (Mullah Omar) is near in Afghanistan”. Pakistan’s military would like to see the end of the American presence in Afghanistan. There are many in the US who would like to strike a deal with the Taliban to facilitate an “honourable exit”. Zawahiri’s message of al-Qaeda having been converted from a global terror outfit into a subcontinental player will encourage such thinking. Interestingly, Zawahiri makes no mention about the plight of Muslims in the Xinjiang province of Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” China. This, despite the al-Qaeda having been partners of the militant Xinjiang-based East Turkistan (Xinjiang) Islamic Movement.
While Zawahiri’s call may carry some weight in isolated sections of Muslim youth in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, the Al-Qaeda leadership in the Afpak region carries little influence globally compared to the well financed and highly motivated ISIS. The real challenges India faces are not from Zawahiri, but from the military establishment in Pakistan.
The writer is a former diplomat