Counterterrorism experts in the U.S. who parsed the announcement of al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri that the terror group would be setting up a “wing” in the Indian subcontinent, suggested that while India’s pluralistic democracy would militate against their efforts the possibility of al Qaida tying up with Lashkar-e-Taiba could spell trouble for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On Thursday news emerged that Zawahiri, an Egyptian cleric who became the chief of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, promised in a video posted online, to spread Islamic rule and “raise the flag of jihad” across the “Indian subcontinent”.
Subsequently reports suggested that Indian officials were taking the matter “very seriously,” and an alert had been sounded, likely across key Indian states.
On the question is how successful al-Qaeda might be in making new inroads in states such as Gujarat, Kashmir, and Assam, Lisa Curtis, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and currently a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told The Hindu , “There are several reasons to doubt al-Qaeda’s ability to have a significant presence in these regions: India is an open society with a robust democracy, free media, and pluralistic values [and] the al-Qaeda message is unlikely to resonate with most Indians.”
Ms. Curtis added that although in some cases state-level dissent may lead to disagreements with central government policies, for example in Kashmir, they were “unlikely to heed the call of al-Qaeda, [because] Kashmiris have a tradition of practicing Sufi Islam, which is anathema to the organisation’s austere and hardline Salafism.”
Juxtaposing Zawahiri’s remarks with global concerns surrounding the rise of Islamic State, the extremist group that now controls a significant part of Syria and Iraq, Ms. Curtis said that al-Qaeda plans for expansion into the Indian subcontinent were part of its efforts to “carve out its own territory as it competes for recruits, money, and ideological supremacy with [IS]”.
She added that the recent military gains by IS and its increasing efforts to recruit militants from South Asia “has created alarm among the al-Qaeda leadership that it will become second fiddle to IS.”
In this context it was noteworthy that Zawahiri reiterated al-Qaeda’s loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and refrained from attacking Pakistan as al-Qaeda has in the past, she said, suggesting that this may reflect the group’s interest in demonstrating that its nexus with the Taliban was alive and well, and it still hoped to be able to use Pakistan’s tribal border areas as a safe haven for its jihadist activities.
Bruce Riedel, also a former CIA officer and currently Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an email to The Hindu that Zawahiri's statement was “very worrisome,” particularly as, “It may also indicate closer cooperation between al-Qaeda and its long-time ally LeT, which was behind the attack on India's consulate in Herat in Afghanistan in June.”
Mr. Riedel said that more generally Zawahiri’s statement suggests that group’s priority would be to support efforts to terrorise India and carry out mass causality attacks, and in that context the priority of the Modi government ought to be “close cooperation with the U.S. and Afghanistan to keep pressure on al-Qaeda”.