AQIS: Rooting out al-Qaeda’s New Branch

Cover Story

Dr Shaul Shay insists that al-Qaeda 'emir' Ayman al Zawahiri’s announcement of the creation of a new branch of al-Qaeda for the Indian subcontinent to wage jihad in India, including in Kashmir, Gujarat and Assam, must be taken very seriously

The formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) was announced by al-Qaeda ‘emir’ Ayman al Zawahiri in a video released in September 2014. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, the group’s new chief, started the reorganisation of al-Qaeda, with its main focus on South Asia. Al-Qaeda does have close ties to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, meaning that it has a deep presence in South Asia. It may seek to broaden that reach as most of the US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan prepare to leave at the end of the year, freeing up fighters to move elsewhere.

The new umbrella organisation was formed by the congregation of several jihadi groups that have a long history in jihad and fighting in the region. Potential members of the new umbrella organisation are: Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and Brigade 313, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party and other groups based in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. All of these groups have had a close operational relationship in the past.1

AQIS joins AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Al Nusrah Front, and al-Shabaab as formal branches of al-Qaeda. The leaders of these five organisations have each publicly sworn bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s senior most leaders. AQIS is now al-Qaeda’s largest branch, comprising numerous groups and tens of thousands of members. In addition to these five formal branches, al-Qaeda also maintains unannounced ties with other jihadist organisations.

The New Emir: Maulana Asim Umar

In the video address, Zawahiri named Maulana Asim Umar as the ‘emir’ of the new branch of al-Qaeda. Little is known about the man whose thinking was shaped in radicalised seminaries and madrassas of Pakistan and who will now spearhead al-Qaeda’s activities from Afghanistan to Myanmar. Umar, thought to be in his mid-forties, has a reputation as an Islamist ideologue rather than a fighter, and is known in South and Central Asian Islamist circles as an intellectual and excellent orator. Zawahiri first caught sight of his talents around the time of Osama’s death in 2011. Umar’s current whereabouts are not known.

Audacious Attacks

Further, this newly-formed Indian subcontinent division of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for two terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The first attack occurred on September 2 near Sargodha in which Brigadier Fazal Zahoor, a serving Brigadier of Pakistan’s intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence, was killed. In a press release posted by AQIS spokesperson Usama Mahmood on September 10, the organisation claimed to have killed the brigadier for allegedly killing innocent people in Waziristan.

The spokesperson said that the attack served as a warning to the ‘slaves of America’ in the Pakistan Armed Forces to leave the US-backed ‘War on Terror’ or get ready to face the consequences.2

On September 6, AQIS operatives attempted to hijack a Pakistani naval vessel, PNS Zulfiqar, to launch missiles at US warships. The attack on the frigate was attempted in part by Pakistani Navy personnel recruited by al-Qaeda. The frigate was scheduled to join an international naval anti-terrorism force in the Indian Ocean. “It appears the officers on board were to be joined by other militants who were to arrive by boat from sea and then stow away onboard,” a Pakistani security official said. “The plan was to get close to US ships on the high seas, and then turn the shipboard weapon systems on the Americans.”3An AQIS statement maintained that the jihadists had taken over PNS Zulfiqar and were set to attack the American warship when Pakistani forces interceded. 4This terror attack has raised fears about terrorist infiltration of Pakistan’s military forces.5

India on High Alert

Until now there was no evidence of the group’s presence in India, home to around 175 million muslims. Muslim leaders in India rejected the latest declaration by Ayman al-Zawahiri and declared the organisation a ‘terrorist outfit working against the interest of India’s muslims.’ But al-Qaeda’s announcements prompted India to put several provinces on high alert and rattled nerves in a region already destabilised by persistent Taliban insurgency.

Indian security agencies have voiced concerns about the intention of Islamist extremists and AQIS to carry out terror attacks against Israeli tourists during the Jewish High Holiday season. The country’s Ministry of Home Affairs has advised Israelis to be alert when travelling both alone and in groups, as well as when taking part in gatherings in Indian cities and tourist sites. The ministry added that it would heighten security for Israelis travelling in India. Israeli authorities have been working together with Indian security forces to ensure that Israeli citizens are sufficiently protected during the High Holiday season.6

This warning from India’s MHA comes nearly six years after a series of attacks by members of a Pakistan-based terror group left 166 people dead in Mumbai, including six at the Mumbai Chabad House, which was targeted along with luxury hotels, a train station and a popular cafe.

In August 2014, the Chabad movement inaugurated a new centre at the rebuilt Nariman House, after years of moving between temporary homes. Security around Jewish and Israeli sites in India was intensified after the attacks. In 2012, a bomb exploded next to the car of an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi, injuring her and reigniting fears of terrorist attacks in the subcontinent.

Al-Qaeda, which has been weakened by military and economic pressure following the 9/11 attacks, has not traditionally recruited heavily in India or staged major attacks there. Instead, its ideological focus has been on driving out a ‘far enemy’ – the United States and its allies – from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. Zawahiri’s announcement was widely interpreted as an attempt to seize the initiative from the militant group – the Islamic State (IS) – a movement that has galvanised young followers around the world. IS has begun to make inroads into the region – its supporters have been spotted distributing leaflets in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and its flags have been seen fluttering at anti-India rallies in parts of Kashmir. The IS reportedly launched a media campaign in Pashto and Dari – the official languages of Afghanistan, in order to recruit new members and expand the group’s base of operations. Pamphlets were anonymously distributed to Afghan journalists earlier this month introducing IS to Afghans as Daulat-e-Islamia or the Islamic State. 7In recent months, IS has begun to recruit Indian muslims, and some analysts viewed the video announcement as a response.8

Zawahiri’s announcement of creation of a new branch of al-Qaeda for the Indian subcontinent to wage jihad in India (including in Kashmir, Gujarat and Assam), should be taken very seriously. From its base in Pakistan and with its close links to Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terror organisations, al-Qaeda poses a grave threat to India. India must upgrade its counter terror capabilities and form a regional and international coalition against the challenges of the AQIS and the IS, which are in competition to lead the Islamic terror in the region.

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Author

Dr Shaul Shay

Dr Shaul Shay is former deputy head of Israel National Security Council, and former head of the IDF military history department. He is a senior research fellow of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies and the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzeliya (IDC), Israel.

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    References

    1 Bill Roggio, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent Incorporates Regional Jihadist Groups, The Long War Journal, and September 5, 2014.

    2. http://www.terminalx.org/2014_09_01_archive.html#ixzz3DkwmwD5l

    3. 10 Killed in al-Qaida Attempt to Hijack Pakistani Ship,Military.com News, September 18, 2014.

    4. Thomas Joscelyn, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent claims 2 attacks in Pakistan, The Long War Journal ,September 13, 2014.

    5. 10 Killed in al-Qaida Attempt to Hijack Pakistani Ship,Military.com News, September 18, 2014.

    6. http://www.terminalx.org/2014_09_01_archive.html#ixzz3Dl2v1goR

    7. Praveen Swami, First claim by al-Qaeda subcontinent wing: Pakistan Navy men ours, The Indian Express, September 12, 2014.

    8. Ellen Barry, Al Qaeda Opens New Branch on Indian Subcontinent, The New York Times,September 4, 2014.

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