In a video on September 3, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of its branch in the Indian subcontinent. Some analysts dismissed it as a desperate bid by al-Qaeda to salvage its reputation amid competition from the Islamic State led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In India, discussions on this global security issue of the contemporary era are highly politicised, with commentators portraying youth headed to join the jihadists as if they were going to play football in Kolkata.
Al-Qaeda may not have launched a spectacular 9/11-style attack, but its affiliates are on a killing spree in many countries. The threat from al-Qaeda is serious. For several years, it has been developing a response to anti-Muslim conflicts in Assam and Myanmar. In September 2012, Ustad Ahmad Farooq, head of al-Qaeda’s preaching and media department for Pakistan, warned that the riots in Assam “provide impetus for us to hasten our advance towards Delhi”. Al-Qaeda videos appealed to Indian Muslims to migrate to Syria and urged Kashmiris to abandon stones in favour of Kalashnikovs.
Several videos were issued by Maulana Asim Umar, now head of al-Qaeda’s new branch “Al-Qaeda Jihad Organisation in South Asia”. Asim Umar and Ustad Farooq are Pakistanis who have guided al-Qaeda’s Arab leadership to evolve a theoretical framework for South Asia. Indian Muslims are migrating to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. In the Muslim imagination, emigration for setting up an Islamic state has religious significance, since Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to found the first Islamic state in Medina. Jihadist videos often state hijrah (migration) as a religious duty, a reason youth from India, the US and Europe are migrating.
Whether it be the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, both networks have identical ideology and have declared India a key target. Al-Qaeda’s South Asia strategy is succeeding. Videos from mid-2103 showed nearly a dozen Muslims from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh training in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. Recently, jihadist accounts on Twitter released images of two Indians killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Roughly, 100 Indians are reportedly fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
Al-Zawahiri’s video came days before the 9/11 anniversary and is timed with the Pakistani military’s thinking aimed at controlling Afghanistan through jihadists around end-2014 as the US troops leave. Indians must grasp this security threat urgently: al-Qaeda is essentially a branch of the Pakistani military. Facts are obvious. Although it has been led by Arab terrorists, al-Qaeda is a Pakistani organisation; it was established in Pakistan and nurtured there. It is from Pakistan that it spread to the Middle East. Its leadership is housed there. It is established that Osama bin Laden was comprehensively protected by the Pakistani military and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Also, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is al-Qaeda’s topmost leader. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri offered bai’yah (oath of fealty) to Omar as Emir-ul-Momineen, or Leader of the Faithful Muslims. He is considered Emir-ul-Momineen by all al-Qaeda affiliates and Taliban factions. A few years ago, when the US threatened to launch drone attacks in Balochistan, the ISI got worried about Omar’s safety and moved him to Karachi from Quetta. Much like bin Laden, Mullah Omar is fully protected by the ISI. Although al-Qaeda’s affiliates work in separate operational domains, in the Indian subcontinent, al-Qaeda is effectively the ISI’s branch.
Al-Zawahiri clarified that the new anti-India branch would work to erase the borders demarcated by the British so that a larger Islamic state could be created. For close observers of Pakistan, this objective of al-Qaeda is essentially shared by the ISI, which imagines itself as the ideological guardian of the Islamic state of Pakistan, characterised by Pakistani thinkers as “Medina-e-Sani” or Second Medina, the first being the Islamic state set up by Prophet Muhammad.
By establishing an anti-India organisation, al-Qaeda is advancing the ISI’s objectives across South Asia. “This is something what Pakistan always wanted to happen in the emerging India,” says Pakistani journalist Asif Magsi, now on a media fellowship in Washington, adding: “It’s now overt to the world that ISI and Pakistan army have close ties with al-Qaeda.” In the video, al-Zawahiri appears in good health; the intelligence agencies must search for him in Rawalpindi, not in mountains. India must also act.
One, Indian laws are far behind the jihadists.Authoritarian states like China and Saudi Arabia can fight terrorists with crude force. However, India is an open society and a thriving democracy; its citizens are determined to bring up their children in an environment of liberties. India must enact a counter-radicalisation legislation, which will help citizens defend their individual freedoms and empower security agencies.
Two, al-Zawahiri’s announcement means that there is more than meets the eye. Two days after his video, it emerged that 23 Muslims from Manipur went to join al-Qaeda’s anti-India branch. Indian Muslims are being radicalised both by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. In the US, sting operations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have been successful. India must introduce FBI-style sting operations to curb radicalisation.
Three, sting operations can’t succeed without strengthening laws. Security agencies find it hard to collect evidence about terrorists, who are freed by courts on technical and procedural grounds. Sting operations can help in collecting evidence. In the US, individuals trying to contact terrorists can be prosecuted; in the UK, anyone other than counter-terrorism researchers can be jailed for downloading jihadist videos. Indian laws must also allow for prosecution of terror acts committed by Indian citizens on foreign soil.
Four, fake encounters cannot be acceptable. Fake encounters morally corrode intelligence and police agencies from within; they damage our society’s moral fibre to fight terrorism. They can destroy us as a nation with a moral purpose. They also prevent good-intentioned Muslims from reporting youth headed for jihad abroad. Indians must laud some parents in Hyderabad for alerting the police to help stop their sons in Kolkata from heading to Iraq. Such parents are the first line of defence against jihadism in our societies.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research
Institute, Washington DC. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org