By Dr. Theodore Karasik
7 September 2014
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s announcement of Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent (QJIS) is attracting attention from many analysts and pundits. All are arguing that Zawahiri is seeking to re-invigorate the terrorist organization in the wake of the ISIS’s strategic and tactical victories and economic and state building in the Levant. This analysis may be missing the mark: What may be occurring is the evolution of Sunni extremism and proto-state development into Pakistan and India while at the same time that the Islamic Caliphate is in its early stages of functioning. This activity is not to set up an epic competition and battle between the ISIS and al-Qaeda: Instead, the move is looking towards the next level of the concept of Caliphate construction in the coming years.
Al-Qaeda, of course, moved to a franchise system over the past few years, to include a long list of groups and indirect affiliates: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; al-Shabaab in Somalia; Egyptian Islamic Jihad; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; and al-Nusra Front in Syria. Associate groups are lengthy and split into several sub-groups or undergoing radical transitions—either in growth or decline: East Turkestan Islamic Movement; Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; Taliban; Caucasus Emirate; Fatah al-Islam; Lashkar-e-Taiba; Jaish-e-Mohammed; Jemaah Islamiyah; Abu Sayyaf, Islamic Jihad Union; Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa; Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and the al-Qaeda Kurdish Battalions. These groups span a wide geographical area and are deeply involved in creating the space necessary to launch from local and regional attacks to attempts at trans-continental terror. But according to an Arab official, while the mechanism of al-Qaeda franchises and associate groups may be different than the ISIS, their strategic target is the same: the Caliphate. I believe Zawahiri’s narrative of “Islamist revival” fits neatly into the ISIS’s future plans beyond 2019.
Zawahiri’s announcement of QJIS made clear that loyalty is to be to Taliban chief Mullah Omar whom is referred to as Amir ul-Momineen or commander of the faithful, a self-styled-caliph status. Mullah Omar, who thinks he himself is a caliph, lacks the credentials: He is not from the correct tribe, nor has the religious education, nor has a whole body which is all requirements to be a true Caliph. QJIS is led by a Pakistani commander of al-Qaeda named Asim Umar. Umar is a Pakistani ideologue who has produced a number of online calls to jihad: He has been worried why Indian Muslims were not being seen in the jihadist battlefields like Syria and Yemen and he also addressed Kashmiri Muslims, asking them “who snatched your Kalashnikovs and handed stones in your hands?” Al-Zawahiri also named Ustad Usama Mahmoud as the spokesperson for QJIS. The al-Qaeda leader stated that QJIS’s objective is to create a caliphate. He describes its mission as “to call the Ummah to unite round Tawhid (monotheism), to wage jihad against its enemies, to liberate its land, to restore its sovereignty, and to revive its Caliphate.”
Zawahiri Omitting ISIS?
What is highly significant about Zawahiri’s announcement is the lack of reference neither to the ISIS nor to Caliph Ibrahim/Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An Arab official blatantly pointed out that this omission is important: “This shows that Al-Zawahiri is thinking about the future of global jihad and the caliphate; he wants to hand over his mandate to Al-Baghdadi before he (Al-Zawahiri) dies. He literally wants to unify QJIS’s future Caliphate to the ISIS due to his declining health.” This idea of the Caliphate’s spread to India and Pakistan is spelled out in ISIS maps spread widely online.
Indeed, there seems to be merger ongoing between the ISIS and Pakistani groups that do not quite denote an outright competition with Al-Qaeda affiliates. The ISIS is making gains in Pakistan over the past few months in several different cases. In July, an affiliate of the Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-e-Khilafat, swore allegiance or bayat to the ISIS. In August, a splinter of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by Mullah Fazlullah, when the newly formed splinter group Jamaat ul Ahrar appeared and supported the ISIS. Indeed, the ISIS and Jamaat ul Ahrar share hatred for Shiites. Finally, a Hizb-e-Islami commander asserted that he is considering the idea of joining the ISIS. Other Taliban are enthusiastic about the ISIS due to the spread of ISIS propaganda. A West Point CTC report pointed out that ISIS materials and pro-ISIS graffiti and bumper stickers are appearing in Afghan refugee camps near Peshawar and on the Afghanistan side of the border with Pakistan in a clear attempt at recruitment. In addition, there are social media accounts associated with the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat Pakistan) avidly promoting the ISIS’s activities inside Iraq and Syria. Small groups of Pakistani jihadists have posted videos of themselves swearing allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The ties that bind the ISIS’s interest in Pakistan and QJIS’s future activity are both geo-political and economic: Kashmir, Gujarat and Assam are all identified with the goal of establishing a caliphate and imposing Sharia to include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. According to an Arab official, there are already several hundred Pakistani jihadists in the ISIS’s military machine. More are likely to join while others who already possess fighting experience will return to their home country where political crises are a norm and take advantage of the situation there and join back up with the newly formed pro-ISIS groups in Pakistan. But more importantly, is that both the ISIS’s Pakistani foot soldiers and QJIS are likely to seek to control the area around the Bay of Bengal where 70 percent of the world’s oil to East Asia passes. In addition, most Indians who work in the GCC come from this area which Pakistani terrorist groups with ISIS links and Al-Zawahiri is targeting which raises a number of key security and safety issues in terms of combating future terrorist threats by extremist Sunni groups, especially if there are future transitions and mergers. There may be defections at first, but there is definitely the trend line of future hybrids in order to spread the Caliphate.
Clearly, evolutionary Sunni extremist groups are going through a number of important stages of development. Simply put, first there was al-Qaeda, then the franchise and associate groups, followed by the appearance of the ISIS, which then leads to a hybrid and cross-fertilization towards a new, higher level and “state of being” of Sunni extremist state building. Instead of commenting now about QJIS appearance as a counter to the ISIS, it would be more useful to think ahead of where the Sunni extremist universe is going—and how to stop it.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D. in History from the University of California Los Angles.