Pakistani authorities claim to have arrested one of the suspected commanders of Al Qaeda’s South Asia wing late Thursday evening. The man in question, Shahid Usman, a wealthy car-parts dealership owner, was found with 10 kg of explosives and several small arms in his Karachi residence. Al Qaeda formally founded a South Asia branch in September 2014, promising to expand its activities across the entire region, including India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Al Qaeda already operates extensively in Pakistan and regional intelligence agencies suspected that the organization’s leader would be found in Pakistan. The group’s highest profile attack since its formation in September — an attempt to seize the Pakistani frigate the PNS Zulfiqar — failed.
Pakistani police say that Usman was planning additional terrorist attacks in Karachi, and believe that he is close to Asim Umar, the chief of Al Qaeda in South Asia overall. “He is the Karachi chief of Al Qaeda’s newly formed wing working under the set up of Asim Umar, the South Asia chief of Al Qaeda,” a senior member of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism unit told Reuters. The same officer commented on Usman’s wealth, noting that his background does not fit the typical profile of an Al Qaeda militant: “Unlike the usual militant profile, Usman comes from an affluent background.”
According to Pakistani authorities, Usman was previously associated with the banned Harkatul Jihad-al-Islami militant group. The commander of that group was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. Usman also allegedly received training in Afghanistan, and is likely linked to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani police note.
Al Qaeda’s declaration of a South Asia wing was a worrying development ahead of the United States’ scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of this year. So far, the group hasn’t significantly ramped up the terror group’s activity within the region. The failed attack on the PNS Zulfiqar, however, demonstrated that regional authorities need to take the groups’ ambitions seriously. Recently, India’s naval chief remarked that India took the prospect of terrorism-at-sea more seriously after Al Qaeda attempted to seize a Pakistani naval ship to potentially attack Indian ship in open waters.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Usman was found with plans for an attack on the Karachi naval dockyard. The alleged attack would have been the second instance of an Al Qaeda assault on a Pakistani naval facility. Pakistani authorities are interrogating Usman and his associates for information on the extent of Al Qaeda’s activities in Pakistan — particularly, the extent to which members of the group or sympathizers have successfully penetrated the Pakistani navy.