By Brig Anil Gupta
The most sensational headline-making activity of the Al-Qaeda after 9/11 has been the formation of a South Asia wing – Qaedat-al-Jihad or Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). This sensational announcement was made in a video released by the terrorist organisation, by its chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The wing has been formed with the sinister aim of extending its reach into South Asia with particular focus on India.
Zawahiri said, “This is to help raise the flag of Jihad and the return of the Islamic rule in the subcontinent, which one day used to be part of the land of the Muslims until the infidel enemy took it over and divided it.” He further described the raising of AQIS for rescuing the Muslims of Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Kashmir. Zawahiri also appointed Maulana Asim Umar, a Pakistani, as head of the South Asia wing.
Al Qaeda is known world over to operate through its region specific branches or franchise. It has long list of wings and indirect affiliates: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Shabaab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, al Nusra Front in Syria, Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Its affiliates include; Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Caucasus Emirate, East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Taliban, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Fatah al Islam, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and a few more in Africa. By forming AQIS, it has now extended its global reach in order to raise the flag of Jihad in the Indian subcontinent as well.
Another global terror and jihadi organisation ISIS or Islamic State (IS) for short is also making inroads in India. Though much younger and newer as compared to Al Qaeda it is spreading its wings rapidly. Its rapid and sensational victory in Syria and Iraq leading to declaration of a Caliphate has motivated many young minds all over the globe to join global jihad. It is exploiting the social media to scare the opponents, radicalise young minds and invite bloodthirsty new recruits from all over the world. Abu al Baghdadi alias Caliph Ibrahim views India as a fertile ground for recruitment.
An ISIS recruitment video, sub-titled in three Indian languages namely Urdu, Hindi and Tamil, is already very active on the social media. The photos of young men waving the IS flag in Kashmir and Tamil Nadu have also been posted on social media. The content of the letter written by a young jihadist from Mumbai who was recently killed in an air strike in Mosul, Iraq, is also indicative of the impact of social media in radicalising the youth.
While explaining the reasons for his move from the comfort of his home to Iraq to fight alongside the ISIS the young man wrote: “It is a blessed journey for me because I don’t want to live in this sinful country.” The efforts of dreaded terrorist-cum-underworld don Dawood Ibrahim to facilitate the entry of Boko Haram to India have also been reported in the media. Boko Haram is a Nigeria-based Salafi-jihadi terror group and is an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb. The threat from home-grown jihadists who have international links is also looming large.
Many pundits and analysts have dismissed the announcement of al Zawahiri as a desperate attempt by Al Qaeda to raise the sagging morale of its fast-dwindling cadre and ensure that it is not marginalised by the rapidly growing, stronger and richer Islamic State. While IS is attracting foreign jihadists, Al Qaeda’s ranks as well as coffers are drying up. Analysts also feel that it hurts al Zawahiri’s ego when other jihadist leaders heap praises on Abu al Baghdadi, who has declared himself as Caliph over Mullah Omar of Taliban and demanded allegiance from Muslims all over the world.
They see it as a turf war between the two siblings till very recently. It is also argued that India is not a fragmented and unstable nation like Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria or Somalia where Al Qaeda has managed to make inroads. They also argue that their ideology of sectarianism and extreme violence will not be acceptable to Indian Muslims and would not work in India.
Is it a mere coincidence or part of a grand strategy that India found a mention in Abu al Baghdadi’s Ramadan message, Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin around the same time invited foreign jihadists to liberate Kashmir, Pakistan-based firebrand cleric Maulana Asim Umar released a video promising a “caravan” of “heroic martyrs” coming from Afghanistan to “liberate Kashmir”, India’s most wanted terrorist and hate-monger Hafiz Saeed went about making hate-India speeches in Lahore High Court and areas opposite Rajasthan and Gujarat and Al Qaeda sounded the bugle of Ghazwa-e-Hind soon followed by the announcement of al Zawahiri.
India which till recently was merely a blip on the radar screen of global jihadist organisations has now become a major target. The global jihad is knocking at our doors.
There are many enlightened and forward looking Indian Muslims who believe in moderate mainstream Islam and want to be equal partners in enjoying the fruits of a growing economy and a modern developed India. They abhor barbaric jihadists groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram.
But there are a few misguided individuals who have been radicalised and are believers of Wahhabi-Salafi and Takfiri ideology-cum-philosophy. They have been enamoured by the acts like 9/11, Mumbai terror attacks and the sensational rise of IS. They are waiting in the wings to join the jihad when time arrives. They regularly visit the jihadist sites on social media to draw inspiration. Thus, the threat of global jihad cannot be dismissed outright or taken lightly.
While the various terrorist outfits may have varying tactics and approach to jihad, their strategy and strategic objective is common. They also have a common enemy in USA. The regional groups provide enough space and launch pads for waging jihad to achieve the strategic objective of establishing the Caliphate. It is also interesting to note that al Zawahiri did not make any mention of al Baghdadi or ISIS in his announcement.
The point I am trying to make is that despite their differences all terrorist outfits are united where establishment of Caliphate is concerned. The timing of the announcement is also worth noting. The announcement has come at a time when India-Pakistan relations are not at their very best, elections are due in Jammu and Kashmir, a new nationalist government is at the helm of affairs in New Delhi, the Indian economy is on the upswing, Indian citizens are eagerly awaiting the ensuing festival season, the USA is preparing to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the drawdown of allied troops from Afghanistan is nearing.
Isn’t this an ideal time for a sensational terror act like 9/11, a landmark of global jihad? It would be suicidal to ignore the threat; instead we must put together our heads to evolve a counter-strategy to meet the challenge posed by Sunni extremism in the name of global jihad.
Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) may be the mastermind of the entire game plan. Buoyed by its success in stalling India-Pakistan talks, the ISI has been emboldened but is still hesitant to openly defy India. It hopes that the threat of global jihad may force India to have a re-think of its Pakistan policy and may agree to discuss the “K” issue. It would certainly exploit the withdrawal of allied troops from Afghanistan as it did after the Soviet withdrawal by re-orienting the jihadists to India to beef up its proxy war. The vacuum created in Al Qaeda by the exodus of Arab fighters and other foreign jihadists has been filled by the Pakistanis.
That the leader of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is a Pakistani and a former ISI favourite is also not a coincidence. It may well be the coming together of ISI, Al Qaeda and other global jihadist outfits to achieve the common strategic objective. By putting the Al Qaeda in the forefront, Pakistan can claim to remain clear of providing support to jihadists to avoid condemnation by the international community.
Let us not fall prey to the counsel of our fears but resolve to catch the bull by the horns. We must act and act fast, and pro-actively. First and foremost, the government machinery must gear up to prevent further radicalisation of our Muslim population. Organisations like Tabligh Jammat that spread Wahhabism, the most violent, political and radical Islamic school of thought, need to be banned. Next, India must have a common civil code like the Western nations where one law for all the citizens is a hallmark of secularism.
Terrorism can no more be treated as a mere law and order problem but is a threat to national security. Despite our federal structure the threat to the nation’s security cannot be viewed with the myopic lens of centre-state relations. There is a need for a national counter-terror policy backed by a national counter-terror force. Our intelligence services need to be expanded and modernised. An integrated approach to fight terror is the need of the hour. Narrow political loyalties should not deter a strong and unified response to any act of terror.
With the threat of terror looming large and the ongoing proxy war, a very thin line exists between internal and external security threats. Our internal security has a very potent external dimension.
Thus, internal security should not remain the sole prerogative of the states and the state police to handle. The Centre’s role no longer can remain confined to providing intelligence inputs and reinforcements in form of central armed police forces. An integrated approach to thwart the challenge of global jihad is the need of the hour. The threat of global jihad is ominous and without mincing words we need to call a spade a spade.
(Brig (Retd) Anil Gupta is a political commentator, security and strategic analyst. He can be contacted at [email protected])