Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video earlier this week in which he announced the creation of an “official” Al-Qaeda branch in India, called Jamaʿat Qaedat al-Jihad fi Shibh al-Qarrah al-Hindiyah or, in English, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
Zawahiri claimed that the announcement was the culmination of a “two year” process of organizing smaller jihadi groups in India into a single unit, but the announcement seems peculiarly timed since it comes right on the heels of reports that the Islamic State has been recruiting among India’s Muslim community (how successfully is anybody’s guess, but Indian Muslims have never seemed particularly susceptible to terrorist recruiters). Despite the proximity of its home office in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region to India, Al-Qaeda has never put much serious effort into expanding its operations into India. As far as I know they’ve had a cooperative relationship with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmiri terror outfit that gets most of its support from Pakistan and that was behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, but LeT is very much its own thing and not an avowed AQ franchise like groups in Yemen (AQAP), Syria (Nusra), Algeria (AQIM), or Somalia (Shabaab). This announcement is probably an effort to get ahead of IS (Zawahiri doesn’t mention IS by name, but he does comment on the need for jihadi groups to focus on , or at least to catch up, and its practical implications are really unclear.
If Zawahiri’s announcement has some meat to it and isn’t just an attempt to one up IS in the marketplace, it is an interesting time to attempt something like this in India. India has its share of extremists, separatists, and terrorists, but for the most part they’ve always been local groups with local membership involved in local disputes (Kashmir separatists, for example, have always insisted that their cause has nothing to do with AQ’s global aims). The election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister may be changing the tone of Muslim resistance there. For one thing, Modi heads the hard right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won a majority in parliament for the first time in this year’s elections and which has a history of disdain or outright hostility toward India’s Muslim minority. For another thing, Modi himself was governor of Gujarat in 2002, when anti-Muslim riots there killed as many as 2000 Muslims, and he’s been accused of looking the other way while the violence happened, or even of encouraging the rioters. Faced with the current political climate, maybe India’s Muslims are more susceptible to the IS and/or AQ recruitment pitch than they have been in the past.
The other interesting part of Zawahiri’s announcement is that he didn’t stop with India and Kashmir. He declared that the new branch would also try to aid Muslims in Bangladesh and Myanmar as well. I have no idea what the issues are in Bangladesh, apart from the fact that the government is avowedly secular, but the plight of Muslims in Myanmar is pretty apparent, and that country would seem to be fertile ground for a group like Al-Qaeda, given the international community’s general indifference to the genocide happening there. I suspect, and I’m hoping to have more to say about this at some point, that the real prize in this move to the east, if it’s really happening, would be Xinjiang, the restive Chinese province that is home to the heavily mistreated Uighurs. There’s been speculation about Al-Qaeda moving in to Xinjiang, and thus China, for some time now, and Chinese media has been ringing alarm bells about IS potentially gaining a foothold there. If one or both of these groups makes real inroads into China, it will open up a major new front in global Islamic terrorism.