By Bernard Haykel
September 11, 2014
Differences understood to be ideological and tactical acquire real urgency in the jihadi world when one group is perceived to be more successful in its strategy and propaganda. And here success is measured in terms of military victory, which ISIS has recently achieved whereas al-Qaeda has not
On September 3, al-Qaeda’s media arm, al-Sahab Media, released one of the strangest videos in the movement’s history, announcing the formation of a new branch of “al-Qaeda in the South Asian Subcontinent.” Strange, because of the panicked tone of the three separate statements in the video, and because its content has very little to do with South Asia. The first statement in the video is by al-Qaeda’s notably uncharismatic leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who essentially rehashes the virtues and importance of armed struggle (jihad) against the United States, which he labels “the global order of unbelief,” and reaffirms, repeatedly, loyalty to Mullah Umar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. The video betrays a deep anxiety among al-Qaeda’s original leadership about its future as the guiding movement in the global jihad.
Competition for Relevance
This anxiety is no doubt due to the stiff competition al-Qaeda now faces from the newly established Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a self-proclaimed caliphate occupying territory in Iraq and Syria and until recently notching up a series of spectacular military successes. One should not take al-Qaeda’s video’s claims at face value: it has little to do with India or even South Asia, and consists of a cheap propaganda effort to maintain relevance in the dynamic world of Jihadism and the competition for relevance, recruits and funding. More specifically, the video represents the latest salvo in a fierce conflict between Jihadi groups as to which of these is the true heir to Osama bin Laden’s political and ideological legacy. Is it to be the hyper-violent ISIS that deliberately targets fellow Muslims along with all others, or is it the older al-Qaeda movement with its branches, which assert that violence, must be measured and calculated and mostly directed at non-Muslims?
“For al-Qaeda, as for any fundamentalist religious movement, India’s diversity will always represent a bitter pill to swallow”
At nearly 56 minutes in length, the recent video release actually consists of three separate statements in two language versions — one in Arabic and one in Urdu — and both have been posted on YouTube.com, which is the main medium for their distribution. Aside from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the two other speakers are Ustad Usama Mahmud and Shaykh Asim Umar, respectively al-Qaeda in South Asia’s “official spokesman” and “military commander.” The latter two are South Asians, but little else is known about them other than that they master spoken classical Arabic, which indicates that they are seminary educated and have probably spent considerable time studying in the Arab world.
The video begins with a short speech by the late Osama bin Laden about al-Qaeda redrawing the map of the world with the aim of creating a unitary Islamic state under the caliphate — a Utopian political order that ceased to exist formally in 1258 when Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols. Bin Laden’s clip is intended to underscore that al-Zawahiri and his followers are indeed the true heirs of the global Jihadi movement, and not the upstart ISIS. The video then announces and celebrates the formation of a new branch: Al-Qaeda in South Asia (AQSA) whose full Arabic name translates literally as “The Base for Armed Struggle in the South Asian Subcontinent.” This is an odd name because the purist Jihadis prefer traditional geographical labels, such as al-Sham for Syria, Khorasan for Iran and Central Asia, Bilad al-Haramayn for Arabia, al-Hind or Hindustan for India, and not those of British vintage such as “the South Asian Subcontinent.” One suspects the choice has to do with the Jihadis not wanting to use anything that approximates the word Hindu, or a name that would offend radical Pakistani sensibilities, and thus opted for the British designation instead.
The Local Enemy
The competition between al-Qaeda and ISIS is not new. It dates back to at least 2005 when the precursor organisation to ISIS, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then headed by the murderous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (d. 2006), refused to abide by al-Qaeda’s command to stop the senseless and deliberate killing of ordinary Shiites and the indiscriminate use of suicide bombing in the Iraqi conflict. ISIS, as the heir to Zarqawi’s teachings, sees the enemy as first and foremost being the local people, including Muslims, who do not share its views, and not the more distant “imperialist” powers such as the U.S. or India. The fight against the latter is deferred for a time after the caliphate has been established in the central lands of Islam, or in other words West Asia. Although such differences can be understood to be ideological and tactical, these acquire real urgency in the Jihadi world when one group is perceived to be more successful in its strategy and propaganda.
And here success is measured in terms of military victory, which ISIS has recently achieved whereas al-Qaeda has not. Furthermore, there are real world implications to such accomplishments in terms of each movement’s propaganda appeal among the global Muslim audience, the capacity to recruit fighters and to raise funds for the cause. By each of these measures, al-Qaeda has been on a losing streak, and its leadership has been ineffective since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. One gauge of this failure is the meagre viewership of the recently released video on the formation of AQSA: the Arabic version has garnered 3,500 viewers and the Urdu less than 1,000 on YouTube as of this writing. Moreover, there has been relatively little discussion of, and commentary on, the formation of AQSA on the social media services Twitter and Facebook, which are the dominant forums today for political debate and discussion in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Clearly, much has changed in the world since 2005 and this can be further gleaned from the numerous Jihadi groups, in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere that are rallying to ISIS’ side and effectively abandoning al-Qaeda.
Returning to the content of the recently released al-Qaeda video, it is notable that there are few references, and almost no discussion of the events and dynamics in South Asia. A list of names is mentioned by the speakers by way of highlighting the forebears of the new branch of al-Qaeda in South Asia, including various dead Jihadis from Pakistan and most notably the historical 19th-century Muslim warriors, Sayyid Ahmad Shahid and Shah Ismail Shahid, who fought and were defeated by the Sikhs in the North-West Frontier Province in 1831. This rapid listing of names and the brief mention of Ahmedabad and Gujarat, Kashmir and even Assam and Myanmar appears gratuitous and insincere. However, the three speakers emphasise repeatedly their loyalty towards Mullah Umar, the Taliban leader in Afghanistan. It is as if al-Qaeda’s leadership is worried that its erstwhile ally might abandon it (perhaps in favour of ISIS) and then find itself without a protector on the Afghan-Pakistani frontier region.
Al-Qaeda could have said much more about Muslims and Islam in South Asia or even about the Hindus, who are only mentioned once in a shamefully derisive manner towards the very end of the video. Avoiding such topics is deliberate, not least because the historically dominant form of Islam in India, which is strongly inflected by Sufism and somewhat syncretistic, is inimical to al-Qaeda’s ideology and teachings. Even the Salafis in India, the otherwise named Ahl-e Hadees, among whom I have done extensive fieldwork research in such places as Batla House and in Old Delhi, are committed to an Indian nationalistic agenda, and readily participate in electoral politics. Indian Islam, in other words, does not fit the rigid categories that al-Qaeda would like to impose on the wider world of Muslim belief and practice. Hence, it is better for al-Qaeda not to delve into such matters for fear of losing further credibility and audience share. It is challenging enough to have to contend with the threat that ISIS poses, and it would be suicidal to have to argue also with the Barelvis, the Deobandis, the traditional Hanafis, the Ahl-e Hadees and the Sufis. For al-Qaeda, as for any fundamentalist religious movement, India’s diversity will always represent a bitter pill to swallow.
If it is careless, India can play a negative role in the outcome of this morbid competition between various Jihadi groups. Should New Delhi engage al-Qaeda by, for example, giving importance to statements such as those in this video release, it will give credence to al-Qaeda’s claims to being the true vanguard of the jihad against the unbelievers. Al-Qaeda’s central leadership desires nothing more than for India to react seriously to its statements, since nothing will burnish better its fading claims and designate it the standard-bearer of jihad. As such, it is important for India to proceed with careful deliberation and an understanding of what is at stake, namely that al-Qaeda is seeing its fortunes sink and that its heyday has long since past.
Bernard Haykel is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, U.S.