India could be one of several new theatres targeted by al-Qaeda's newly-appointed chief to establish his authority over the jihadist group and its allies, intelligence sources say.
The appointment of Osama bin-Laden's long-standing lieutenant to lead al-Qaeda was made public on Thursday, in a three-page online communiqué, which announced “the undertaking of responsibility of the amir [supreme leader] of the group by Sheikh Dr. Abu Muhammad Ayman al-Zawahiri.”
Perceived by many within the jihadist leadership as aloof, even arrogant, the 1959-born former Egyptian surgeon is under intense pressure to demonstrate that al-Qaeda has survived bin-Laden's killing by the United States special forces last month.
Long-standing problems between the Egyptian jihadist circles led by al-Zawahiri and their Yemeni and Saudi counterparts, though, mean he could turn to Pakistani jihadists to execute his plans. Fakir Muhammad, a top jihadist commander who has repulsed multiple military campaigns to retake his strongholds in northwest Pakistan's Bajaur agency, is among al-Zawahiri's closest allies.
Hatred against India runs deep amongst Pakistan's Islamists, and targeting it could prove a means for leaders like Fakir Muhammad to win domestic legitimacy, as well as draw cadre away from organisations that have been reined in by Pakistan since the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Fears that al-Qaeda will choose India as a theatre to expand have been mounting since last summer, when al-Zawahiri's former deputy released an audiotape claiming responsibility for the 2009 bombing of a café in Pune.
“I bring you the good tidings,” al-Masri said in the audiotape, “that last February's India operation was against a Jewish locale in the west of the Indian capital [sic.].”
Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani jihadist, reported — but not proven —to have been killed in a drone strike earlier this year, was announced to have set up a special unit to stage the Pune bombing and future strikes.
Al-Zawahiri was among the first international jihadist leaders to mention India, writing in a manifesto published in 2001 that his cadre had “revived a religious duty of which the [Muslim] nation had long been deprived, by fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya.”
The theme was taken up by bin Laden himself in 1996, when he issued a declaration condemning “massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Pattani, Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
Later, in September 2003, al-Zawahiri again invoked India to warn Pakistanis that their President, General Pervez Musharraf, was plotting to “hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret accounts.”
Thursday's communiqué is believed by experts to have followed a meeting of al-Qaeda's 10-member General Command, though it is unclear whether its scattered members communicated through couriers or cast their votes online.
The statement also called on “the Muslim people to rise and continue resistance, sacrifice and persistence [until] full and anticipated change comes, which will not be achieved except by the Islamic nation's return to the law of its Lord.”