Saffron Scare: al-Qaeda‘s Propaganda War in India

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 6

Of late, al-Qaeda’s South Asia branch has been proactive and forceful in its campaign against India and its neighbors. A “code of conduct,” released by the group in June 2017, signaled an expanded geographical scope by including Afghanistan and Myanmar into its supposed domain of influence and operation, adding to its core focus on India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has since sought to augment this with a series of videos released at the end of last year that purport to depict anti-Muslim policies and atrocities committed by Hindu right wing groups, as well as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The films all employ the phrase “saffron terror,” an allusion to violent Hindu nationalism.

Propaganda Wave

In the 20 or so pages of its code of conduct, AQIS broadly laid out its future strategy in the region, especially its choice of targets and their priorities. Besides the traditional American and Israeli targets, AQIS singled out India as a priority target. The document claimed that India is promoting and defending secular values in every sphere in the region and specifically mentioned targeting Hindu political and religious leaders who AQIS alleges have been instrumental in anti-Muslim activities in the country and beyond.

Within four months of the document’s release, AQIS reiterated its jihadist campaign against Hindus with its saffron terror videos, in which it gave more specifics on Indian targets (SITE, November 26, 2017). Three videos were released between December 20 and December 29. [1] The group released a further video on December 29 entitled “How Do We Forget,” which focuses on Kashmir. It included footage from Kashmir and of India’s Prime Minster and BJP leader Narendra Modi. [2] On January 7, AQIS released another audio-visual message entitled “The History of Islamic India,” targeting Indian Muslims and depicting the “lost glory” of Islam. [3]

These releases have a direct connection with the so-called code of conduct in as much as AQIS is attempting to prioritize targets in India. However, unlike the code of conduct, the messages appear random and do not offer detailed guidance on achieving the group’s long-term goals either in India or in the South Asian region. Instead, they focus specifically on Indian Muslims and supposed Hindu atrocities against them.

The saffron terror messages have been published in different versions in Urdu, Bengali and English by different media arms of al-Qaeda, such as the hitherto unknown “1857 Media,” An-Nasr and the official media arm As-Sahab. They have been distributed through Telegram and other online channels. By publishing and distributing the messages in Urdu and Bengali, AQIS has ostensibly attempted to reach out to Muslims beyond India, in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

‘Saffron Terror’

AQIS’ adoption of the term “saffron terror” is a nod to Indian media and some political leaders sympathetic to Muslim causes. The color saffron (literally bhagwa or kesaria in Hindi) is considered to be a divine or godly color in Hinduism and has much religious significance. It is also used by Hindu right-wing political and religious groups, such as the BJP and RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh), and by another Hindu right-wing group, Abhinav Bharat, which has been accused of anti-Muslim violence.

The AQIS video messages are clearly aimed at vitiating the communal atmosphere in India as they contain clips of supposed anti-Muslim violence and purport to show acts of Hindu extremism.

One of the saffron terror videos depicts footage of Muslims forced to praise Hindu gods and denounce Islam. One example given is of an Indian supreme court’s ruling against the growing of beards by Muslim soldiers (The Hindu, December 15, 2016). The video is a blatant attempt by AQIS to evoke anger and resentment from Muslims serving in the Indian armed forces.

The last video in the series released on December 29 features mostly hate speeches from leaders of Hindu groups such as RSS and Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The video, just over six minutes long, emphasizes Hindu nationalist fervor and instances of hate speech against Indian Muslims. It opens with Modi’s image followed by nationalist leaders who are mostly known for anti-Muslim hate speech, including Varun Gandhi and Sakhshi Maharaj, both of whom are BJP lawmakers. It also depicts T Raja Singh of Shri Ram Yuva Sena (Telengana), Pravin Togadia of VHP and Rajeshwar Singh, the leader of right-wing Hindu organization Dharam Jagaran Manch.

These groups and others depicted in the film are presently engaged in various pro-Hindu activities such as cow protection, construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and scaremongering within minority communities, including Christians and Muslims. In fact, one of the statements by a Hindu leader featured in the video calls for the complete annihilation of Christianity and Islam in India.

In the second saffron terror video, AQIS used somewhat older footage (from mid-2016) in which self-proclaimed Gau Rakshaks (cow protectors) are shown torturing and thrashing a Muslim man in Rajasthan, India. India’s majority Hindu community venerates cows as a divine animal. Over the last few years, there has been a noticeable spike in anti-Muslim violence in the name of cow protection, alongside efforts to prevent beef consumption. AQIS and other extremist Islamist groups have attempted to exploit this trend (The Wire, June 28, 2017).

Although the phase “saffron terror” was coined by the Indian media in the wake of the Gujarat Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, it became a rallying cry against the BJP and its affiliated groups (popularly known as Sangh Parivar) from about 2010. Several legislators from the Congress Party used the phrase to refer to anti-Muslim violence perpetrated by Hindu fringe groups (The Hindu, August 25, 2010; Hindustan Times, January 21, 2013). These groups are thought to be behind a number of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian violent incidents, including the bombings of the Malegaon mosque, the India-Pakistan Samjhouta train and Ajmer’s famed Sufi Mosque.

AQIS’ focus on Hindu groups is longstanding. In the past, the jihadist group’s emir, Asim Umar (a.k.a. Sana ul Haq), who is of Indian origin but based in Pakistan, plotted against Prime Minster Modi and other senior BJP functionaries. The interrogation of the detained AQIS militant Muhammad Asif revealed as much in December 2015 (Times of India, December 17, 2015).

In common with most of the Kashmir-centric Pakistani militant groups (such as Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba), AQIS often names Modi as its prime target, citing his Hindu right-wing credentials, as well as the 2002 communal riots, which happened on his watch as Gujarat’s chief minister. The pogroms followed an attack on the Sabarmati Express train on February 27, 2002. (Hindustan Times, October 9, 2017).  Part of the train was set on fire by a Muslim mob at Godhra station, killing nearly 60 people, most of them Hindu pilgrims.

Islamic militant groups attempt to portray subversive activities against the BJP and other Hindu-centric groups such as the RSS or VHP as retribution for acts against India’s Muslim community, including the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 or past violence by Hindu vigilantes.

In May 2015, Umar referenced Modi in a propaganda video entitled “From France to Bangladesh: The Dust Will Never Settle Down” (released by al-Sabab media) that portrayed the prime minister as an enemy of Islam. Again in July 2016, Umar released a statement that included a reference to a ban on the consumption of beef, and criticized the imposition of nationalistic values and chants such as the Vande Mataram (Praise to the Motherland- India) or Bharat Mata ki Jai (Glory to Mother India).

This steady release of video propaganda taking aim at India’s majority Hindu population is aimed at creating a communal rift and enticing Indian and neighboring Bangladeshi (Bengali-speaking) Muslims to join al-Qaeda’s jihad.

 

NOTES

 

[1] “Saffron Terror, Part -3″, Jihadology, December 26, 2017, http://jihadology.net/2017/12/26/new-video-message-from-al-qaidah-in-the-indian-subcontinent-saffron-terror-part-3/

[2]Al-Qā’idah in the Indian Subcontinent, ”Shaykh Asim Umar: How Do We Forget?”, Jihadology, December 29, 2017, http://jihadology.net/2017/12/29/new-video-message-from-al-qaidah-in-the-indian-subcontinents-shaykh-a%e1%b9%a3im-umar-how-do-we-forget/

[3]Al-Qā’idah in the Indian Subcontinent: “History of Islamic India”, Jihadology, January 7, 2018, http://jihadology.net/2018/01/07/new-video-message-from-al-qaidah-in-the-indian-subcontinent-history-of-islamic-india/