A welcome record of failure

Al-Qaeda’s move to create a South Asian wing should be viewed in the context of its patchy subcontinental record

Published - September 10, 2014 01:01 am IST

AN AL-QAEDA WAVE UNLIKELY: In recent years, al-Qaeda’s mobilisation of Indians has been feeble. Picture shows a sand sculpture of Osama bin Laden on a beach in Puri, Odisha, created after his death in May 2011. — PHOTO: REUTERS

AN AL-QAEDA WAVE UNLIKELY: In recent years, al-Qaeda’s mobilisation of Indians has been feeble. Picture shows a sand sculpture of Osama bin Laden on a beach in Puri, Odisha, created after his death in May 2011. — PHOTO: REUTERS

Al-Qaeda’s announcement of the creation of a South Asian wing, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), has garnered headlines around the world and alarm in India. This is precisely what the group sought to achieve, its appeal having been eclipsed by the remarkable successes of the rival Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria in recent months. But while a wounded al-Qaeda is a dangerous beast, its latest move should be viewed as the evolution of a threat rather than a drastic shift, and with its thin subcontinental record in mind.

Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, Kashmir would frequently crop up in the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and his associates. But don’t forget that it would usually be buried in a laundry list of allegedly occupied Muslim lands, including those as obscure as Pattani in Thailand and the Ogaden in Somalia.

Nor was there much concrete follow-up. Some have argued that al-Qaeda played a role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, pointing to the testimony given by detained jihadist Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari as well as alleged communication between Osama bin Laden and Hafiz Saeed. But there’s little reliable evidence. Al-Qaeda did claim responsibility for a 2010 bombing in Pune, but the bomb was placed by an Indian Mujahideen operative.

Nothing novel in the speech

What, then, is driving al-Qaeda to re-focus on South Asia beyond its host nation, Pakistan? It is true that the region has some theological resonance. In his founding announcement, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri explicitly invoked the concept of Ghazwa-e-Hind, an apocalyptic battle for India and a clutch of surrounding territory. But there’s nothing novel about this. Pakistan-based jihadists have been talking about it long before al-Qaeda showed up.

Then there’s the fact that al-Qaeda views India as a ripe opportunity — both as a source of recruits and as a target in its own right. India has a large and marginalised Muslim population; a history of periodic communal violence; and a weak state along its periphery. Myanmar has experienced its own serious anti-Muslim pogroms in recent years. But this, too, is old news. India’s vulnerabilities were far greater twenty years ago, when the situation in Kashmir was at its lowest ebb, or even a decade ago, just after the Gujarat riots.

In recent years, al-Qaeda’s mobilisation of Indians has been feeble. Only last year, the group broadcast a message complaining of Indian Muslims’ apathy towards the civil war in Syria, according to Bibhu Prasad Routray, former deputy director of India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). It included laments, harking back to the eighteenth century, such as: “the Muslims of southern India, it seems, have totally forgotten those words of the lion of Mysore” and “has the land of Bihar become so barren that it is unable to prepare even a single group of the like of the Mujahideen of Azimabad?”

Up to 80 Indians have reportedly joined jihadists in Syria and Iraq, but the figure is only slightly larger than that for tiny countries like Belgium, smaller than that for faraway Australia, and pales in comparison with the massive recruitment from countries like Britain and France. Over 6,000 Indian Muslims did apply for visas to Iraq but these were Indian Shias who wanted to fight against Sunni jihadists. While this throws up its own set of problems for India, given the prevalence of Iran-backed hard-line Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, it doesn’t help al-Qaeda.

“Zawahiri’s first public message in two years looks like a desperate gamble intended to help al-Qaeda keep up”

There are, however, three new factors at work.

First, the “Pakistanization” of the group, as pointed out by the American scholar Stephen Tankel. U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, which leapt upward between 2008 and 2010, though declining thereafter, decimated al-Qaeda’s largely Arab leadership and elevated Pakistanis into senior positions.

The result? Mr. Tankel observed that “a plurality of the recent videos produced by al-Qaeda’s media wing, as-Sahab, have focused on Pakistan and India” and that, last year, “Urdu displaced Arabic as the predominant language in al-Qaeda propaganda releases”.

Although Pakistani jihadists have had more than enough with which to occupy themselves inside Pakistan, it is hardly surprising that the leadership transition within al-Qaeda has also resulted in a heightened focus on India and its neighbours.

Second, al-Qaeda has undergone a sort of centrifugal shift in recent years. Last summer, Zawahiri appointed someone from outside the group’s ‘core’ as his deputy and presumed successor — Nasir al-Wuhayshi, leader of al-Qaeda’s potent Yemen branch.

Analyst Arif Rafiq has argued that al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) “provides a framework for al-Qaeda to remain active in South Asia” in a “post-Zawahiri” world, when its leadership might pass on to the Middle East. This is plausible, though AQIS may still struggle in comparison with its busy African and Middle Eastern counterparts.

Rise of the Islamic State

Third, al-Qaeda is not just being stretched out globally — it’s also being eclipsed by one of its own splinters, the Islamic State (IS).

IS was kicked out of al-Qaeda in February after it defied Zawahiri’s orders and tried to take over the Syrian rebellion. It responded by consolidating its grip on Syria, tearing through northern Iraq at a remarkable pace, and then declaring a caliphate.

For a long time, bin Laden and his colleagues had insisted that declaring a caliphate would bring nothing but trouble — and they may yet be proved correct, once U.S. airstrikes ramp up — but, for now, al-Qaeda looks sluggish, stale, and irrelevant.

IS has consequently caught the attention of many in India and in its neighbouring countries — for instance, IS flags and pro-IS graffiti have been popping up in Kashmir. Although al-Qaeda may well be telling the truth when it says that AQIS has been in the works for two years, the fact that this is Zawahiri’s first public message in two years certainly makes it look like a desperate gamble, intended to help al-Qaeda keep up. It seems unlikely that the timing of the message was not shaped by events.

These factors notwithstanding, there is no room for complacency. Al-Qaeda is an organised, intelligent, and patient group. Competitive dynamics between terrorist groups can be dangerous. Also, India is now a far more attractive target than it was when Osama bin Laden first appeared on the scene. It is a rising economic and military power with global resonance, a major partner of the United States, and an increasingly connected, porous nation.

Old wine in a new bottle

If al-Qaeda devotes greater attention and resources to South Asia, this presents very real risks to Delhi, Dhaka, and Nay Pyi Taw. But the new group is likely to be, in practice, an amalgamation and reinvigoration of existing and longstanding jihadist networks, drawing on known groups in Pakistan and India — in other words, an old wine in a new bottle, albeit given a good shake.

India has struggled to get to grips with this longstanding threat. Its counterterrorism institutions have evolved slowly and haltingly. Regional intelligence cooperation, including that among nations in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), remains embryonic and uneven. Indian police forces remain woefully under-resourced. This is one reason why Ajit Doval, a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief with extensive counterterrorism experience, was appointed to the post of National Security Advisor (NSA). These efforts must continue, but at the same time Indians should remember that al-Qaeda has a long and welcome record of failure in this new battleground.

(Shashank Joshi is senior research fellow, Royal United Services Institute, London, and PhD candidate, Department of Government, Harvard University)

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