A rare video has appeared of al-Qaida’s chief praising an Indian Muslim woman who in February defied a ban on hijab wearing, revealing the first proof in months that he is still alive.
Rumors of the death of Ayman al-Zawahri have persistently circulated, but in a video released Tuesday and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, the reclusive al-Qaida chief praises Muskan Khan, who defied a ban on the wearing of the hijab in schools in India’s southwestern state of Karnataka.
She shouted “God Is Great” as Hindu radical students jeered at her over the Islamic headscarf. In March the court in India’s Karnataka state upheld the ban, outraging civil activists and Muslim groups in India and elsewhere.
A previous video of Zawahri, which circulated on the anniversary last year of 9/11, did not reference the Taliban’s August takeover. It did mention the January 1, 2021 attack that targeted Russian troops on the edge of the northern Syrian city of Raqqa.
“He could still be dead, though if so, it would have been at some point in or after Jan 2021,” tweeted Rita Katz, SITE’s director, following Zawahri’s 9/11 anniversary video.
From Tuesday’s video there is no clear indication of Zawahri’s location. He is shown in a traditional white head scarf beside a poster praising “the noble woman of India.”
However, it raises the specter of al-Qaida having a presence in Afghanistan, and highlights concerns over the commitment of the ruling Taliban to fight terrorist groups and deny them space in Afghanistan.
Zawahri took over leadership of al-Qaida after the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs during a daring nighttime raid deep inside Pakistan where he was hiding. Bin Laden, who masterminded the 9/11 attacks in the United States, was found in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, barely 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the capital Islamabad.
Zawahri has been rumored to be in Afghanistan’s northwestern Kunar and Badakhshan provinces on the border with Pakistan. The border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is lined with inhospitable mountain ranges that have served as redoubts for a number of terrorist groups in the region.
Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies think tank, said that Zawahri was also rumored to be in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi, where many of the Taliban leaders long maintained homes during Afghanistan’s 20-year war.
“He was even rumored to have died in Karachi,” said Rana, adding that regardless of his location, Zawahri’s video is certain to cause headaches for the ruling Taliban with the international community.
Afghanistan’s Taliban were ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001 for harboring bin Laden. They returned to power in August last year after a chaotic end to the U.S. and NATO 20-year war in Afghanistan.
They say they’re adhering to an agreement they signed with the United States in 2020 — before taking power — in which they promised to fight terrorists. Since returning to power they have repeatedly said that Afghanistan would not be used as a launching pad for attacks against other countries.