In April 2022, then al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video to incite Indian Muslims over the Karnataka hijab row (YouTube/India_Today, April 6; The Hindu, April 6). The video was released by al-Qaeda’s official media channel, al-Sahab, and called on India’s Muslims to oppose the Indian government. It was not simply routine propaganda, but also defused reports of al-Zawahiri’s death that had existed even before his actual death.
Al-Qaeda has long called for jihad to liberate Kashmir and other Islamic lands from the “enemies of Islam” and has from time to time focused on India. As early as 1996, for example, Osama bin Laden released a statement calling for the liberation of Kashmir and Assam (gilderlehrman.com, September 1996). Eventually, in 2014, the new leader al-Zawahiri began a new chapter by launching al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) under his watch.
AQIS’ goal has been to bring all the South Asian countries under the single rule of Islam through jihad. However, despite India being home to more than 200 million Muslims, AQIS has not found much traction and has failed to carry out any significant operations against India (Terrorism Monitor, April 17, 2020). Nevertheless, in 2021, AQIS released three videos titled “Don’t Sit Idly Grieving”, “Kashmir is Ours”, and “Initiator is the Aggressor” (Twitter/@thetruthin, October 17, 2021). As recently as June, AQIS also warned it would carry out attacks against India as revenge for the sacrilegious statement against Prophet Mohammed made by two members of India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party (The Hindu, June 8).
Now the big question is whether al-Qaeda will continue attempting to mobilize and recruit Indian Muslims after al-Zawahiri’s death.
The Future of al-Qaeda in India
There are several reasons why India will remain vigilant about al-Qaeda operations. First, al-Qaeda continues to have a safe haven in Afghanistan, as evidenced by al-Zawahiri’s stay in a fortified house owned by the Haqqani Network members and the fact that AQIS’ own leader, Asim Omar, was killed in Afghanistan in 2019 (Terrorism Monitor, October 23, 2019). According to the Afghanistan Liberation Movement (ALM), which is composed of former Afghan soldiers who worked with NATO and are now monitoring the Taliban, two prominent members of the Taliban met with al-Qaeda to discuss reconstructing the former hideouts in Tora Bora to expand recruitment and establish training centers there. If ALM is to be believed, then approximately 100 men have already registered for al-Qaeda training in Afghanistan (Twitter/@afghanistanint6, June 16).
Secondly, this year when al-Zawahiri appeared in a video addressing the Karnataka hijab controversy, the organization made it clear that it was once again trying to make inroads into India by inciting the Muslim community to stand against India’s government (India Today, April 6). Al-Qaeda is not only trying to gain sympathy and find support in India, but also attempting to revive the faltering franchise in the subcontinent. The organization can attempt to advance its operations through incipient proxies like Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind (AGH), The Resistance Front (TRF), People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF) and Kashmir Tigers (India Today, October 4: Terrorism Monitor, December 7, 2021).
Thirdly, India remains vulnerable because of its relations with Pakistan and hostilities from Pakistan-based militants. This has made it more pertinent for India to reflect on its strategy with Afghanistan and develop ties, albeit unofficially, with the Taliban (Terrorism Monitor, April 8). Soon after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, there was a surge of support from Lashkar e Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which are both based in Pakistan and have constantly been targeting India. As a result, India will stay on high alert to trace any activities of these groups on Afghan soil that are targeted against India. JeM, for example, has been reportedly running eight camps in Nangarhar Province, out of which three are supported by the Taliban, while LeT has three camps in Kunar province (News18, May 30). The fact that these bases are located in India’s neighborhood is a serious concern for India, although the severity of threats from these groups will likely depend on Taliban cooperation with India, or the lack thereof.
Although al-Zawahiri’s death came as transitory blow for al-Qaeda, its regional affiliates will continue to pursue jihad. This may lead the independent commands of the regional offshoots like AQIS to continue to exhort Muslim youth, including in South Asia, to jihad. Meanwhile, the present AQIS leader, Osama Mahmoud, and mastermind of propaganda, Tamim al- Adnani, are searching for an opportunity to take advantage of the ruling Hindu nationalist party’s policies in India to entrench itself and create communal Hindu-Muslims rift in society. Thus, the Indian intelligence agency’s role will be to reign in elements sympathetic to al-Qaeda to thwart al-Qaeda’s ambition of finally gaining a foothold in India.