The impact of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death on terrorism and counter-terrorism in India

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In April 2022, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then leader of Al-Qaeda, released a video to incite Indian Muslims to compete for the hijab of Karnataka (YouTube/India_TodayApril 6; The Hindu, April 6). The video was published by the official Al-Qaeda media channel, al-Sahab, and called on Indian Muslims to oppose the Indian government. This was not just routine propaganda, but also defused reports of al-Zawahiri’s death that existed even before his actual death.

Al-Qaeda has long called for jihad to liberate Kashmir and other Islamic lands from “enemies of Islam” and has occasionally focused on India. As early as 1996, for example, Osama bin Laden issued a statement calling for the liberation of Kashmir and Assam (gilderlehrman.com, September 1996). Eventually, in 2014, new leader al-Zawahiri opened a new chapter by launching al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) under his leadership.

The goal of AQIS has been to bring all South Asian countries under the sole rule of Islam through jihad. However, despite India being home to over 200 million Muslims, AQIS did not find much traction and conducted no significant operations against India (Terrorism Monitor, April 17, 2020). Nevertheless, in 2021, AQIS published three videos entitled “Don’t Sit Idly Grieving”, “Kashmir is Ours” and “Initiator is the Aggressor” (Twitter/@thetruthin, October 17, 2021). As recently as June, AQIS also warned that it would carry out attacks against India in revenge for the sacrilegious statement against the Prophet Muhammad made by two members of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party (The HinduJune 8).

Now the big question is whether al-Qaeda will continue to attempt to mobilize and recruit Indian Muslims after al-Zawahiri’s death.

The Future of Al-Qaeda in India

There are several reasons why India will remain vigilant over al-Qaeda operations. First, al-Qaeda continues to have a safe haven in Afghanistan, as evidenced by al-Zawahiri’s stay in a fortified house belonging to members of the Haqqani network and the fact that AQIS’ own leader, Asim Omar, has was killed in Afghanistan in 2019 (Terrorism Monitor, October 23, 2019). According to the Afghanistan Liberation Movement (ALM), which is made up of former Afghan soldiers who worked with NATO and now monitor the Taliban, two senior members of the Taliban met with al-Qaeda to discuss rebuilding the old haunts of Tora Bora to expand recruitment and establish training centers there. According to ALM, about 100 men have already signed up for al-Qaeda training in Afghanistan (Twitter/@afghanistanint6June 16).

Second, this year when al-Zawahiri appeared in a video addressing the Karnataka hijab controversy, the organization made it clear that it was once again trying to make inroads in India by urging the Muslim community to to oppose the Indian government (India today, April 6). Al-Qaeda is not only trying to win sympathy and find support in India, but also trying to revive the failing franchise in the subcontinent. The organization may attempt to advance its operations through nascent proxies like Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind (AGH), The Resistance Front (TRF), People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), and Kashmir Tigers (India todayOctober 4: Terrorism MonitorDecember 7, 2021).

Third, India remains vulnerable due to its relationship with Pakistan and hostilities by Pakistan-based militants. This made it more relevant for India to reflect on its strategy with Afghanistan and to develop ties, albeit formal, with the Taliban (Terrorism Monitor, April 8). Shortly after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, there was an increase in support from Lashkar e Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), who are both based in Pakistan and have constantly targeted India. Accordingly, India will remain on high alert to trace all activities of these groups on Afghan soil that are targeted against India. JeM, for example, reportedly runs eight camps in Nangarhar province, three of which are backed by the Taliban, while LeT has three camps in Kunar province (News18, May 30). The fact that these bases are located in India’s neighborhood is a serious concern for India, although the severity of the threats from these groups will likely depend on Taliban cooperation with India, or lack thereof.

Conclusion

Although al-Zawahiri’s death was a transitory blow for al-Qaeda, its regional affiliates will continue to pursue jihad. This may lead independent commands of regional offshoots like AQIS to continue urging Muslim youth, including in South Asia, to jihad. Meanwhile, current AQIS leader Osama Mahmoud and propaganda mastermind Tamim al-Adnani are looking for an opportunity to take advantage of the policies of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party to put down roots and create a Hindu-Muslim communal divide in society. Thus, the role of the Indian intelligence agency will be to rule over sympathetic elements of al-Qaeda to thwart al-Qaeda’s ambition to finally gain a foothold in India.

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