Yesterday, I explored the question of whether the Islamic State would make any headway in South Asia. I determined that all things considered, there is little to worry about in the near term. Shortly after I published that piece, Al Qaeda released a video in which it announced the creation of its first official South Asia-based subsidiary. The timing was unfortunate, but hardly a coincidence. Given the Islamic State’s growing profile, not only are foreign policy analysts concerned about the spread of its influence into other regions of the world, but evidently so is Al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
In the video released on Wednesday, Al Qaeda on the Indian Subcontinent (or Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent) was proclaimed by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the video, he reveals the scope of Al Qaeda’s interest in South Asia. He refers to the group’s interest in the region’s large and diverse Muslim population, mentioning by name Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Indian states of Gujurat and Assam, the Indian city of Ahmedabad, and Kashmir. He tells the subcontinent’s Muslims that their Al Qaeda “brothers … did not forget you and that they are doing what they can to rescue you.” Zawahiri promises to raise the “flag of jihad” across the Indian subcontinent. Al Qaeda has several official wings, the most significant ones being Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab (a direct affiliate after pledging its allegiance to Al Qaeda), and the al-Nusra Front (which also goes by Al Qaeda in Syria).
It’s largely unclear if this expansion into the Indian subcontinent was precipitated by growing competition between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State or if the move had been part of the group’s long-term strategic plan for some time now. Recently, India-based Islamic extremists traveled to Iraq to join with and fight for the Islamic State. Homegrown Islamic terror in India has also recently taken a hit. Earlier this year, the Indian government confirmed that it had captured the “entire top leadership of the Indian Mujahideen in India,” an India-based terror group with links to Pakistan-based groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. According to NDTV, former members of the Indian Mujahideen have allegedly started affiliating with Al Qaeda. If this is true, then this new Al Qaeda branch in the subcontinent could represent a regrouping of the Indian Mujahideen under a new banner after most of their leadership was captured by the Indian government.
For the moment, the Indian government is taking the Al Qaeda threat seriously. Additionally, the state government of Gujarat is remaining vigilant, given that Zawahiri referred both to the state itself and to its largest city, Ahmedabad, by name in the video. Gujarat is also the home state of India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of the state in 2002 when deadly riots resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Muslims. Since 2002, Gujarat has been a target for Islamic extremist groups in India.
Elsewhere in South Asia, governments are also taking Zawahiri’s declaration at face value. The government of Bangladesh noted that it is “taking the matter seriously.” So far, the government of Myanmar has not reacted to the video or the declaration. Myanmar was in Al Qaeda’s sights as early as last year when an Al Qaeda-affiliated group released a statement noting that “a brigade of Mujahideen from Burma [Myanmar], Bangladesh, Indonesia and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan under the leadership of Abu Safiya and Abu Arif reached Burma.” Additionally, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, a Pakistan-based terror group with Al Qaeda links, operates in Myanmar. Violence between Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and minority Muslim Rohingya community has drawn the condemnation of extremist groups and placed Myanmar on Al Qaeda’s radar.
It remains to be seen if Al Qaeda’s move into South Asia will galvanize the Islamic States’ interest in the region further. IS has mostly focused its recruiting and propaganda efforts on Afghanistan and Pakistan.