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Al Qaeda in India?

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezSeptember 5, 2014

India has stepped up security after al Qaeda announced the formation of a local wing. But as analyst Gauri Khandekar tells DW, the militant group is in reality seeking recruits rather than launching a new branch.

Aiman az-Zawahiri Videobotschaft - Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri announces the formation of an Indian branch of his militant group at an unknown location in this still image taken from an undated handout video provided by SITE on September 4, 2014. Zawahri on Wednesday announced the formation of an Indian branch of his militant group he said would spread Islamic rule and "raise the flag of jihad" across the subcontinent. In a 55-minute video posted online, Zawahri also renewed a longstanding vow of loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in an apparent snub to the Islamic State armed group challenging al Qaeda for leadership of transnational Islamist militancy. REUTERS/SITE via Reuters TV (POLITICS CONFLICT HEADSHOT) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Image: Reuters/SITE

In a video posted online, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced it had created an Indian branch and promised to spread Islamic rule and "raise the flag of jihad" across the "Indian subcontinent" and Myanmar. Indian authorities said they were taking the move seriously and put several states on high alert on September 4.

In the meantime, the announcement was hailed by a new breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) called Jamat-ul-Ahrar. "We believe that the branch will work hard for the achievement of the rights of Muslims in the subcontinent," the splinter group's spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, said in a message posted on Twitter and Facebook.

Analysts say al Qaeda has been increasingly overshadowed by 'Islamic State', a renegade offshoot of the terror group which has managed to capture vast territory in Syria and Iraq and inspired thousands of fighters to join its jihadist mission.

So far, terror threats In India have largely come from neighboring Pakistan and Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region. Gauri Khandekar, head of the Asia Program at the European think tank FRIDE, says in a DW interview that while there is no evidence of an al Qaeda presence in the subcontinent, the organization wants to take advantage of the large and young Muslim population in the region.

DW: How credible are the al Qaeda chief's claims of expansion and the creation of an Indian branch?

Gauri Khandekar: This is indeed worrisome. It has been said that al Qaeda (AQ) is trying to compete with IS for recruits and funding, but what has not been said is that the network is also differentiating itself from IS geographically. AQ does not want to compete with IS for territory, so it is trying to claim its own "territory of action" and channeling an undisclosed amount of its resources on the Indian subcontinent, especially as foreign troops prepare to leave Afghanistan.

This move is particularly worrying even though it was expected that terrorists and South Asian terror groups - who migrated to AQ during the Afghanistan war - would return to their original focus, which is Kashmir, India. Although AQ has been weakened, it could set off random attacks just to prove their claim is credible.

How have Indian authorities reacted to the video message?

India's Intelligence Bureau (IB) announced that the video was authentic. After meeting with top officials, the country's Home Minister Rajnath Singh issued an alert to all states and security agencies. The Home Ministry also asked the IB for an assessment report on AQ's presence in the country, which is set to be delivered in a day or two.

There is already a large presence of terrorists and militant groups in the region. On top of that, we have indications of a small yet growing number of radicalized Indian youth, some of whom have gone to Iraq and Syria to join IS, while others have been fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Is there any evidence that al Qaeda is being supported by any groups in India or has any operatives there?

Not until now despite the network's previous efforts. However, it is important to point out that AQ's focus on India is not new. While they were largely perceived as focusing on the United States, various threats to India were made following Osama bin Laden's declaration in 1996. AQ is said to have had links to terrorists and other extremist factions operating in Kashmir and elsewhere in India via Pakistan-based groups.

Furthermore, there are a number of established Islamic terror groups active in India such as the India-based Indian Mujahideen (IM), the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Hizbul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat-e-Mujahideen, Al Badr and others, who have their own agendas and leadership.

Gauri Khandekar FRIDE Brüssel - ***Achtung: grenzwertige Bildqualität!*** Gauri Khandekar is researcher at FRIDE's office in Brussels, as well head of Fride's Asia Programme: Agora Asia-Europe. Her research focuses on the spectrum of EU Strategic Partnerships and EU-Asia relations, specialising also on EU-India relations. Copyright. FRIDE
Khandekar says better coordination between different Indian states and security agencies is required to avert terror actsImage: FRIDE

Some of these organizations were set up even before al Qaeda was founded and most have the Kashmir separatism issue at heart. The largest among them - IM and LeT - have also declared the same goals as AQ, namely the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in South Asia and the imposition of Sharia Law.

These groups normally claim responsibility for terror attacks in India, so it is unlikely that they would want to share the credit with al Qaeda or come under its branch, unless they receive major resources from AQ.

According to Indian security forces, AQ's India operations will be handled by an IM splinter group based in Pakistan. Pakistani top AQ operative Asim Umar was named as the operational commander of the branch. It is more likely that they will seek new recruits. So we can see the latest video more in the context of AQ announcing vacancies rather than launching a new branch.

The militant group promised to "storm your barricades with cars packed with gunpowder." Why would al Qaeda choose the Indian subcontinent as a target for terrorist acts?

There are several reasons for this. First, the South and Southeast Asia regions have three times more Muslims than the Middle East. India alone has around 175 million Muslims - 15 percent of its population - making it the third largest Muslim-populated country worldwide. AQ wants to take advantage of this and the fact that South Asia also has a largely young population.

Second, tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India have existed ever since the country was partitioned in 1947 and Kashmir - a territory claimed by both Pakistan and India which became the center of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism - has been a major source of discontent ever since.

Third, Indian PM Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, was the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002 when more than 1000 people - many of them Muslims - were killed in communal riots reportedly incited by a Muslim terror group. Zawahiri made two references to Gujarat in the video message and Modi is likely one of the main targets for Islamists and AQ. There was a terror attack at one of his rallies during the election campaign.

Fourth, there have been communal tensions in the northeastern state of Assam - also mentioned in Zawahiri's video - where Muslims have been massacred by tribals over the past few years.

What can India do about the terror threat?

Indian security figures have long been on high alert given the country's proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, its violent history with Islamabad and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. India had been fighting terrorism for decades before the West woke up to the threat posed by Islamic terrorism.

New Delhi has gathered a lot of experience and intelligence on the matter, but has yet to disclose how it aims to deal with the latest announcement. Although there is no indication of AQ's presence on Indian soil, the terror group could gain vitality once foreign troops leave Afghanistan. Most Indian security officials I have interacted with have said this is to be expected, yet they believe that AQ or other networks would need some time to recuperate.

Most importantly, better coordination between different Indian states and security agencies is required. This is needed if authorities are to identify and break sleeper-cells. Second, cyber communications must be more closely monitored. Third, security has to be beefed up during religious festivals, particularly the upcoming Hindu festival of Diwali.

There is also a need to engage Pakistan's democratic leaders as a strengthened democracy in Pakistan would be able to better control its territory and military and intelligence services who are seen as operating independently.

Indien Wahlen Narendra Modi - Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Gujarat's chief minister, attends the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) national convention in New Delhi in this February 27, 2014 file photo. Narendra Modi's critics depict him as an autocratic Hindu supremacist who would tyrannize the country's minority Muslims if his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. Modi himself insists he is a moderate who will create a prosperous India for people of all creeds. Picture taken February 27, 2014. To match Special Report INDIA-MUSLIMS/ REUTERS/Stringer/Files (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY ELECTIONS)
Zawahiri made two references to Gujarat in the video message and Modi is likely one of the main targets for Islamists and AQ, says KhandekarImage: Reuters

India is regarded as having a badly underfunded security infrastructure. Would this help al Qaeda members operate in India?

AQ is not the only threat India faces. The country has a much bigger problem in the form of naxalism, and faces various other ongoing separatist movements. Indian security forces like their counterparts in Europe and the US regularly prevent a number of attacks from happening.

India's police and other security agencies have significant amount of expertise and intelligence. It is true that the country's security infrastructure is poor. But there have been efforts to remedy this situation since the 2008 terror attacks in the nation's commercial hub Mumbai, which have exposed India's weaknesses.

Still, there is much room for improvement, particularly in areas such as monitoring cyber communication. Furthermore, the new government, I believe, will focus significantly on security, especially after the posting of this video.

Gauri Khandekar is head of the Asia Program at the European think tank FRIDE.