Will Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Call for Indian Muslims to Join al-Qaeda Fall on Deaf Ears?
In a video released on April 5, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praised an Indian Muslim female student for defying a local ban on students wearing hijab to school. Calling on Muslims to “stop being deceived by the mirage of the pagan Hindu democracy of India,” al-Zawahiri pointed out that it was “the same scheme of deception that the West employed … the true nature of which was exposed by France, Holland, and Switzerland when they banned the hijab while allowing public nudity (The Hindu, April 6).” He called on Indian Muslims to fight the assault on Islam “intellectually using the media and weapons on the battlefield against the enemies of Islam” (Indian Express, April 7).
Global jihadist appeals have failed hitherto to resonate with Indian Muslims. Rather, local events, such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 and anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 and other violence targeting Muslims, have animated Indian Muslims and radicalized a portion of them. In this context, al-Zawahiri’s recent speech on the hijab row and India’s democracy must be seen as an appeal to Indian Muslims by drawing on local infringement on their way of life and culture. But, how successful is he likely to be in drawing Indian recruits to al-Qaeda?
Al-Qaeda, India, and the Hijab Ban Row
South Asian countries, including India, have figured in the speeches of jihadist leaders and their propaganda publications well before al-Zawahiri’s latest speech, which signals the importance of the region to their strategies (Times of India, August 7, 2007). While al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) have successfully established networks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, they have made few inroads into India, despite the country being home to around 200 million Muslims and disaffection among them growing in recent decades (Observer Research Foundation, August 21, 2020). In 2014, al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and appointed an Indian Muslim, Asim Omar, as its first emir in the hope that it would boost Indian Muslim recruitment into AQIS’ ranks. However, it did not have the desired impact (Militant Leadership Monitor, October 2019).
These trends may now be changing, especially since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which espouses Hindutva,  came to power in 2014 and was re-elected with an even larger mandate in 2019. Muslims, their homes and businesses, places of worship and way of life have come under increasingly severe pressure from Hindutva groups in recent years. Among the assaults on their religious and cultural values that have triggered much anger among the Muslim community is the row over Muslims wearing hijab to schools, which al-Zawahiri referred to in his video message.
The row erupted in late December last year when authorities of a government-run pre-university college in the southern Indian state of Karnataka’s Udupi district prevented six students from wearing the hijab inside the classroom. They were stopped from entering the school (The Hindu, February 9). The issue soon snowballed and pro- and anti-hijab demonstrations spread to several other districts in the state. Among the districts that were roiled in unrest was Mandya, where 19-year-old Muskan Khan was harassed by several dozen Hindu male students, wearing saffron (a color associated with Hinduism and Hindutva groups) scarves (DNAIndiaNews, February 11). The men heckled Khan for wearing a hijab by chanting the Hindutva slogan, Jai Shri Ram (“Victory to Lord Ram,” a Hindu deity). In response, Muskan raised her fist defiantly and shouted Allahu Akbar (India Today, February 8).
This made Khan the unwitting symbol of Muslim resistance to Hindutva groups, which caught the attention of the al-Qaeda leader. By challenging “a mob of Hindu polytheists” with a “defiant slogan of takbeer (Allah is great),” she “emboldened the spirit of Jihad” and reinvigorated the Muslim community, al-Zawahiri claimed in the video (Indian Express, April 7).
Al-Zawahiri’s video message was widely reported in the Indian media. It prompted security officials to state that they would monitor Khan and her family to probe if they had links to jihadists (New Indian Express, April 7). Indeed, al-Zawahiri’s showering of praise on Khan brought her family the unwanted attention of security officials, although her father strongly condemned al-Qaeda and sought to distance his family from the al-Qaeda chief’s message (Times of India, April 7).
What has been the impact of al-Zawahiri’s recent call to Indian Muslim youth to fight the “enemies of Islam”? Has it prompted them to join jihadist groups? According to an official in the Intelligence Bureau (IB), there has been “no noticeable rise in recruitment by jihadist groups active in India in the wake of the release of the al-Qaeda video.” However the hijab row seems to have prompted a “rising number” of Muslim students to “join mass Islamic organizations like the People’s Front of India and its student’s wing, the Campus Front of India,” the official said. According to the official, Muslim radicalization has “surged over the past three to four years especially in response to the lynching of Muslims and the rising instances of Hindutva leaders calling for genocide of Muslims over the past year.”  Hindutva leaders like Yati Narsinghanand Giri, for example, reportedly called for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims at a religious conclave like the one that took place in Haridwar from December 17-19, 2021 (The Wire, December 22, 2021).
Muslim disaffection may not be driving youth to join global jihadist groups in large numbers, but the harassment of Muslims in India like Khan has deepened disillusionment with democratic processes, which could in turn push them to form local radical groups. Groups like the Indian Mujahideen had emerged in the 2000s in response to the demolition of the Babri masjid and the Gujarat pogrom (Economic Times, June 20, 2013). Similar groups with local goals and recruits could emerge again.
While al-Zawahiri’s video may not lead directly to a rise in Muslim recruitment into jihadist ranks, it has increased state surveillance of Muslims, given the perceived threat of their responding to al-Zawahiri’s call. Jihadist leaders’ speeches referring to India and its Muslims, in fact, tend to only make Muslims vulnerable to state action. Such speeches can indirectly prompt radicalization of Indian Muslims if security officials more robustly surveil and indulge in the mass arrest of Muslims for possible links to jihadist groups. India, therefore, must be cautious to avoid driving Muslims toward sympathy for jihadist groups, rather than jihadist leaders doing the job themselves.
 Hindutva is a political ideology that views India as a Hindu nation and defines Indian culture in terms of Hindu cultural values. Its goal is to make India a Hindu state. See Sudha Ramachandran, “Hindutva Violence in India: Trends and Implications,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, vol. 12, no. 4 (June 2020), pp. 15-20. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26918077?seq=1
 Author’s Interview, Intelligence Bureau official based in Mangalore, Karnataka, India on May 2, 2022.