Lawfare has an excellent essay up today, by South Asia expert and Georgetown professor C. Christine Fair, on the rise of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and what Ayman al-Zawahiri may be hoping to achieve with the new franchise’s launch. Obviously just by virtue of its long presence in the Pashtun tribal regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda has had a presence in South Asia for some time now, but Fair argues that this new effort is an attempt to compete with ISIS’s “caliphate” model by offering Indian Muslims a link back to a more recent past:
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent is weaving a new narrative of the future firmly rooted in the important past of Islam in South Asia. As is well known to Muslims of South Asia, by the sixteenth century much of what is now north India was under Muslim rule. In 1526, a new stint of Muslim governance began when Babar, a descendent of Genghis Khan, arrived in India. Babar defeated the last head of what was then known as the Delhi Sultanate and with that conquest founded the Mughal Empire in India. By 1707, the Mughal Empire included much of what are now India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. (It had no presence in contemporary Burma, Nepal, or Sri Lanka.) Mughal rule formally came to end in 1857 when the British dispensed with the remnants of the fledging political order. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire began to crumble, and by the close of that century had contracted to a few miles around Delhi.
However, for the Muslims of South Asia, it was the formal collapse of the Mughal Empire in 1857 that most poignantly signaled the decline of Muslim political and social standing. By harkening back to this longue durée of Muslim governance over the subcontinent, Zawahiri hopes to construct a differently imagined Muslim political order than that offered by al-Qaeda’s competition: the Islamic State (IS), which claims to have re-established the caliphate based in Iraq and Syria. Zawahiri’s AQIS is coming late to the party.
There may be something to this strategy, even though it seems clearly to be a reaction to ISIS rather than a proactive strategic move. Indian Muslim extremists have been historically difficult to recruit into transnational jihad movements, essentially because they’ve got enough to animate them at home. Between the ongoing violence in Kashmir and periodic anti-Muslim violence in places like Gujarat and lately Assam, it’s the struggle against the “near enemy” that animates Indian Islamists. In that sense they have more in common with ISIS, whose main targets are, for now, the governments of Iraq and Syria, than with Al Qaeda, which has mostly focused on the “far enemy” (i.e., us) in its history. But ISIS’s “near enemies,” Assad and the government in Baghdad, are not the “near enemy” of Indian Islamists (Indian Islamists themselves have never really been united in fighting one specific enemy), so there was an opening for Al Qaeda to create this new group that hearkens back not to the caliphate whose center was in those distant Arab lands (and for which the subcontinent was never anything more than a hinterland), but to the Mughal Empire that was centered in Delhi and is such an important part of the history of Islam in India itself.
The development of local Al Qaeda franchises, like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has led to AQIS’s formation. These groups pay allegiance to Al Qaeda Central but are mostly focused on regional battles (though AQAP has tried a few attacks on the US, and its leader is thought to be Zawahiri’s overall deputy). But both of those groups formed more organically than AQIS; AQIM grew out of an Algerian Islamist group that then declared itself allied to Al Qaeda, and AQAP was formed in 2009 when Al Qaeda merged its already existing Saudi and Yemeni operations. AQIS seems like something different, an attempt to birth a brand new franchise, although I’m sure it’s cannibalizing some already existing jihadi groups in the region in the process.
Fair also suggests that AQIS is meant to challenge Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba as much as ISIS:
The Islamic State is not the only competition that Zawahiri is likely eyeing. For years, the preeminent terror organization operating in South Asia has been Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Although LeT claims to be a transnational jihadi organization, for most intents and purposes, LeT restricts itself to India and Afghanistan. This is due to its long-standing ties with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. Despite the fact that LeT follows the Ahl-e-Hadis interpretative tradition of Islam, which shares some affinity with al-Qaeda’s Salafist orientation, LeT and al-Qaeda have not been collaborators as many like to suggest. If anything, they have been competitors for the hearts and minds of South Asia. While al-Qaeda neglected Kashmir and India’s Muslims, LeT made this population a mainstay of its activities. No other organization in South Asia—apart from al-Qaeda—can plan and execute complex and coordinated attacks like LeT, which garnered international fame for its November 2008 multi-day siege on India’s mega port city of Mumbai. While LeT’s literature speaks of global jihad, the organization has perforce restricted itself to the South Asian subcontinent. Unlike rival Deobandi militant groups, LeT has never conducted any attacks in Pakistan, likely owing to its deep alliance with the Pakistani state. LeT has even denounced such anti-state activity in its publications, which only strengthens its utility to Pakistan’s deep state.
She suggests that LeT fighters who are disenchanted with their organization’s unwillingness to attack Pakistan may be easily recruited away from LeT by AQIS, which has made it clear that it has no problem attacking inside Pakistan. Still, it’s far from clear that AQIS can unite Indian and Pakistani Islamists when those groups have never had any significant internal cohesion to begin with. There are so many ethno-linguistic groups in the region that it’s always been a challenge to get their extremists to come together under one umbrella. The appeal to their shared Mughal past might do the trick, particularly if it’s helped along by India’s Hindu nationalist government, but there’s no particular reason to start worrying about AQIS just yet. Their initial efforts haven’t exactly gone well.