In a video message released by al-Qaeda’s media arm, terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the creation of a new branch of the organization in South Asia. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent would “raise the flag of jihad” through Muslim lands it now deems “occupied” by nonbelievers. In the 55-minute video, Zawahiri designated Umar Asim, a militant with ties to the Pakistani Taliban, as the new al-Qaeda branch’s head.
Al-Qaeda has wings in North Africa (al-Qaeda in the Maghreb), Yemen (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and a network of affiliated militias from Somalia to Syria to the rugged tribal areas of Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda’s desire for operational expansion eastward makes sense: There are roughly as many Muslims in South Asia as there are in the Arab world; there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than inside it. The history of the Mughal Empire allows al-Qaeda ideologues to invoke a narrative of lost Muslim preeminence, waiting for redemption, even though some Mughal emperors would have abhorred the terrorist organization’s brand of Islam.
In the video, Zawahiri said the new branch will rally Muslims in “Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir.” The last four places mentioned are references to India: Assam is a vast forested state in the northeast; Gujarat, a western state, has a substantial Muslim minority and was the site of sectarian riots in 2002 in which hundreds of Muslims were killed; Ahmedabad is the largest city in Gujarat; and the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, on the border with Pakistan and China, has long attracted foreign jihadists.
Al-Qaeda’s narrative of Islamist revival in the region is hardly new. South Asia is home to a whole spectrum of Islamist organizations, including militant groups that have links to wider terrorist networks. After the attacks of Sept 11, 2001, Pakistan was an operational staging ground for al-Qaeda, where Osama bin Laden found sanctuary before his death in 2011.
Recent developments perhaps explain Zawahiri’s opportunism. Tensions between Bengali Muslims and indigenous tribals in Assam have flared into riots and violence, with tens of thousands still displaced. Some argue that the Muslims there are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, though many have been living on the Indian side of the border for generations.
Nearby in western Burma, Muslims from the beleaguered Rohingya minority group — who are treated as stateless interlopers by the Burmese government — face consistent discrimination and harassment. In Kashmir, a separatist movement blows hot and cold, while the local population lives under a form of martial law.
But it’s hard to see how al-Qaeda can capitalize in South Asia if it hasn’t already. For all the tensions and enmities that exist in this diverse, overcrowded region, it’s a part of the world steeped in traditions of pluralism and tolerance. Al-Qaeda’s puritanical zeal, incubated in places such as Saudi Arabia, is wholly alien to the Indian subcontinent. And South Asian governments, particularly in India and Bangladesh, have stepped up cooperation on issues of counterterrorism.
What probably drives the formation of this new al-Qaeda branch is a threat far closer to home. In the past year, al-Qaeda has lost ground to the Islamic State, an al-Qaeda splinter group that has surpassed it in both ruthless, jihadist savagery as well as strategic gains. The Islamic State commands real territory in Iraq and Syria and boasts a recruitment network and money-making operation that has thrust it into the forefront of world attention.
It also has been making inroads in South Asia. There are reports of Indian Muslims journeying to Syria to join the Islamic State. Recruitment videos in Urdu, Tamil and a number of other languages native to South Asia have proliferated.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Islamic State has been distributing pamphlets in Pashto and Dari. Some hard-core Taliban factions have offered allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled “caliph” of the Islamic State. Fighters from both countries have joined the Syrian conflict.