Al-Qaeda Announces New Affiliate in India; A Response to ISIS?

By Patrick Goodenough | September 3, 2014 | 8:39 PM EDT

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. (AP Photo/IntelCenter, File)

( – In what may be its most significant response yet to the global attention being enjoyed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL), al-Qaeda has launched a new affiliate – on the Indian subcontinent.

The announcement came in the form of an video message by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, posted online Wednesday according to the SITE intelligence group.

The formation of “al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent” (AQIS) would “raise the flag of jihad” across the region, it said.

Zawahiri named Asim Umar, a Pakistani al-Qaeda propagandist also closely associated with the group known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the leader of AQIS.

The message identified target areas for AQIS as Kashmir – the Himalayan territory divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both – the Indian states of Assam and Gujarat, both of which boast large Muslim populations, as well as neighboring Bangladesh and Burma.

Although a majority Hindu country, India has the world’s third-largest Muslim population (after Indonesia and Pakistan). Bangladesh has the world’s fourth-biggest Muslim population.

(Burma, the other country identified by Zawahiri as a target for AQIS, has a far smaller Muslim population – about four percent of the total population, according to disputed government figures. But violence between Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims since 2012 has prompted calls for jihad there from various jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates.)

The video also featured Zawahiri renewing a pledge of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. This is significant because Zawahiri, like Osama bin Laden before him, recognized Omar as emir al muminin (“commander of the faithful”) – the same exalted title ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (“Caliph Ibrahim”) assumed when declaring a “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq and demanding that Muslims everywhere pledge allegiance to him.

ISIS, whose previous iteration was al-Qaeda in Iraq, split with Zawahiri after Baghdadi ignored his instruction last year to leave the jihad in Syria to the al-Nusra Front – the certified al-Qaeda affiliate in that country – and focus on Iraq.

Since then, the offshoot has consolidated its grip on parts of eastern Syria (warring openly with al-Nusra in the process), seized control of large swaths of northern and western Iraq, declared a caliphate, shocked the world with acts of brutality including beheadings of untold numbers of Syrians and Iraqis and two American journalists, and triggered grave fears about the threat posed to Western countries by radical Muslim citizens returning from the combat zone.

For months terrorism researchers have been monitoring al-Qaeda’s response to its rival’s advances, and the announcement of a new affiliate in the Indian subcontinent could fall in that category.

The subcontinent was on bin Laden’s radar from the outset of his global terror campaign. One of the five men who signed his 1998 fatwa announcing the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders was a Bangladeshi militant (the other four were bin Laden himself, Zawahiri, and militants from Egypt and Pakistan.)

In January 1999 Indian police foiled a complex al-Qaeda operation, led by a Bangladeshi and involving Indian and Arab terrorists, that aimed to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Delhi and U.S. consulates in two other Indian cities simultaneously – an attack that would have been similar to the deadly near-simultaneous bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania five months earlier.

Kashmir in particular has long been a rallying-cry for jihadists, including some with close al-Qaeda links, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e Toiba (LeT), both of which have also received support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) in their effort to end Indian control over Jammu and Kashmir state, as the Indian-ruled part of Kashmir is known.

An Indian group called Indian Mujahideen (IM), which has close ties to LeT and other al-Qaeda-linked groups in Pakistan, was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government in 2011.

Citing IM’s responsibility for dozens of bombings in India in which hundreds of people had been killed, the State Department said the group’s “stated goal is to carry out terrorist actions against non-Muslims in furtherance of its ultimate objective – an Islamic caliphate across South Asia.”

Last June al-Qaeda released a video entitled “War should continue, message to the Muslims of Kashmir,” in which Asim Umar – the man now named as leader of AQIS – urged violent jihad there, and invoked advances in the jihad elsewhere, including Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

Masked men display ISIS banners after end-of-Ramadan Eid prayers in the Indian-ruled part of divided Kashmir in late July. (Photo: Twitter)

ISIS inroads in India

Zawahiri’s announcement of AQIS comes at a time when a handful of Indian Muslims are reported to have traveled to Syria to join ISIS. There have been fears in India that the group’s perceived successes and the lure of the caliphate could turn the trickle into a flood.

On July 30, Indian media reported that ISIS banners had been seen – for the first time – waved by masked men, after end-of-Ramadan Eid prayers in Jammu and Kashmir. One of the banners included the letters ISJK, presumably referring to Islamic State in Jammu and Kashmir.

K.P.S. Gill, a former director-general of the Indian police and president of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, reported this week that a Pakistan-based IM breakaway faction has declared its intention to fly the ISIS banner over South Asia.

Gill, who is publisher of the South Asia Intelligence Review, also noted that a 66 year-old Indian Muslim group generally viewed as moderate, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, had recently published an editorial voicing support for the ISIS-declared caliphate.

“[I]it is very necessary to welcome the announcement of the establishment of Islamic caliphate by the ISIS because Islamic caliphate is the aspiration of every Muslim and there has never been a disagreement on the issue among the Muslims in any period of history,” the editorial said.

Moreover a leading Islamic religious leader in India, Salman Husaini Nadwi, wrote to ISIS leader Baghdadi during Ramadan, asking Allah to protect him and calling him emir al muminin.

In another recent development in South Asia that would be troubling to al-Qaeda, a prominent Afghan militant with Hezb-i-Islami, “Commander Mirwais,” told the BBC that his group was considering joining forces with ISIS.

Hezb-i-Islami, a group founded by veteran Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has longstanding ties with al-Qaeda, and is one of the three elements of the Taliban insurgency, the other two being the Omar-led group and the Haqqani network.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow