Al-Qaeda Comes Out Of Cold to Call for Jihad in India
Al-Qaeda Declares New Front to Wage War on India, Calls for Jihad in the Subcontinent
By Praveen Swami
September 5, 2014
“Liberating the Muslim nation,” wrote Ayman Muhammad Rabi al-Zawahiri in Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, a digital manifesto released by al-Qaeda on the eve on 9/11, “confronting the enemies of Islam and launching a jihad against them, require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land, that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it”.
The quiet, bespectacled scholar also had careful words of warning: “Without achieving this goal, our actions will mean nothing more than mere, repeated disturbances.”
Ever since 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in a United States raid on his safehouse in Abbotabad, the man who leads al-Qaeda has been trying to extricate his organisation from the rubble of 9/11.
The ferocious US response to the attacks decimated the Islamic state Zawahiri understood held the keys to power — and the mantle has since been seized by a successor, the Dawlah Islamiyya, which has decimated al-Qaeda’s ranks in Iraq and Syria.
In the years he has led it, al-Qaeda has remained a fighting force, represented through powerful regional affiliates that have seized control of swathes of territory from Mali to Libya and Yemen — but none have come close to taking control of the state.
The formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent could prove a last throw of the dice, with domination of the global Islamist movement as its prize.
ROCKY ROAD TO TOP In the autumn of 1999, as al-Qaeda’s influence in Afghanistan reached its peak, Osama bin Laden emerged as a charismatic cult figure for Islamists across the region. That October, seven-year-old Gulrez Siddiqui was reported to have been trotted out in front of 20,000 cheering Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) supporters in Mumbai, to read this couplet: “Islam ka ghazi, butshikan/ Mera sher, Osama bin Laden” (Warrior for Islam, destroyer of idols/ My lion, Osama bin Laden)”. The men in the audience included several who would go on to become key figures in the Indian Mujahideen (IM) –among them, Riyaz Shahbandri, the group’s Karachi-based military commander, and Abdul Subhan Qureshi, a key lieutenant and ideologue. At another time, the men might have reached out to al-Qaeda — but its mind was firmly focussed on a far enemy, the United States of America. Bin Laden believed destroying the US was critical to the advance of Islamism — and ignored enemies who cautioned against acts that could lead the US to attack the Islamic emirate ruling Afghanistan. Following 9/11, much of al-Qaeda’s second-rung drifted away from Afghanistan, to head affiliates across West Asia. Men like Nasser al-Bahri, bin Laden’s bodyguard until the events of 9/11, published memoirs which included an unflattering assessment of al-Zawahiri. “Bin Laden,” al-Bahri argued, “is a born leader”. But Zawahiri had “generated a great deal of reserve, sometimes very harsh criticism,” he wrote. “I doubt he has sufficient authority for such a position, even with his well-known authoritarianism and his penchant for centralizing power in himself.” The Kuwaiti cleric turned al-Qaeda operative, Suleiman Abu Ghaith — who appeared in a video broadcast on al-Jazeera weeks after 9/11, proclaiming that “the storm of the planes will not stop” — last year published an online manifesto highly critical of bin Laden’s leadership. Ghaith lashed out at al-Qaeda for “taking decisions in haste which led to a big defeat”. The poor decision-making, he said, was a consequence of bin Laden being “encircled by a bunch of advisers who do not qualify to give advice”. He was also critical of al-Zawahiri’s politics, which had led to “isolation of yourself and the mujahideen from the mainstream Islamic movements”. There were many in al-Qaeda who thought the top job should have gone to Ibrahim Makkawi, also known as Saif al-Adel, part of a small caucus of top al-Qaeda commanders, including Saeed al-Masri and Mahfouz Ould al-Walid, who are said to have opposed the 9/11 attacks. BORN INTO CRISIS Born into a well-connected upper middle-class family from suburban Cairo, al-Zawahiri was very different from his his critics; an intellectual rather than a fighter. He is said to have excelled as a student, been drawn to poetry, and hated organised sports, seeing them as “inhumane”. Drawn to the teachings of the Islamist ideologue Syed Qutb as a teenager, al-Zawahiri joined the Muslim Brotherhood when he was just 14. Qutb, whose works ‘Milestones’ and ‘In the shade of the Quran’ are foundational texts for the global Islamist movement, was executed in 1966. In the years that followed, al-Zawahiri would train as a doctor and specialise as a surgeon. He married Cairo university philosophy student Azza Nowari in 1978; their wedding, held at the Continental Hotel, attracted attention in the liberal Cairo of the times: men were segregated from women, photographers and musicians were kept away, and joking banter was discouraged. Following the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Zawahiri was among hundreds arrested and tortured. Released after three years in prison, he fled the country, and began practising medicine in Saudi Arabia. There, he came into contact with Osama bin Laden. He first travelled to visit bin Laden-funded jihad facilities in Pakistan in 1985, a relationship that would slowly mature until 2001, when the Egyptian Islamic Jihad formally merged with al-Qaeda. The two men became inseparable: the intellectual, serious al-Zawahiri providing the perfect foil to the enthusiastic but politically immature bin Laden. Both men helped plan 9/11; it was to be al-Qaeda’s greatest moment: a spectacular gesture that would precipitate a civilisational cataclysm between Islam and the west, and signal that the power of the United States was illusory. Azza, al-Zawahiri’s wife, and his youngest daughter Aisha would both die in November 2001, pinned under the debris of an al-Qaeda guesthouse hit by American bombs in Afghanistan. Al-Zawahiri himself would spend the rest of his life trying to clear away the wreckage from around al-Qaeda. INDIA ON HIS MIND From 2001, even before 9/11 ignited in Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri’s mind turned increasingly to India — seeing jihad in the subcontinent as a means of destroying the Pakistani state, and expanding the Afghan emirate. His 2001 manifesto proclaimed “a religious duty of which the [Muslim] nation had long been deprived, by fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya”. From 2011, when he took charge of al-Qaeda, building a subcontinental front to wage jihad began to become an operational objective. The idea had been touched upon by bin Laden himself in 1996, when he issued a declaration condemning “massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Pattani, Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina”. Later, in September 2003, al-Zawahiri invoked India to warn Pakistanis that their President, General Pervez Musharraf, was plotting to “hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret accounts.” From that time on, al-Zawahiri expanded contacts with Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri, the leader of Brigade 313, a jihadist unit that draws its name from the number of soldiers who fought alongside the Prophet to defeat the numerically superior armies of pagan Mecca. Incensed at Musharraf’s betrayal of the Pakistan army’s long-standing jihadist allies, al-Zawahiri set up base in North Waziristan, and began waging war against the state. In 2010, evidence of Kashmiri’s global ambitions began to become evident. 26/11 perpetrator David Headley gave evidence of his plot to target the Jyllands Posten newspaper in Denmark. The following year, German nationals Shabab Dasti and E Bünyamnin, along with their French counterpart Naamen Meziche — all recruited from an Islamist-controlled Hamburg mosque once used by the 9/11 hijackers — were killed in a drone strike, while plotting attacks in Europe based on Kashmiri’s directions. Thursday’s declaration of a subcontinent-wide jihad comes after years of contact between elements of the Indian Mujahideen and al-Qaeda, first set up by Illyas Kashmiri. In recent years, National Investigation Agency officers who have questioned alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives say members of the group have met with al-Qaeda to discuss joint operations. There has also been at least one case of an Indian dying in combat with al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Afghanistan — Anwar Bhatkal, who died in an attack on an outpost in Kandahar last month, first reported in The Indian Express. It is impossible to say if al-Zawahiri’s plan for subcontinental jihad will bring al-Qaeda back to the Islamist centre-stage — but it is certain that blood will be spilt in the effort.
Al-Qaeda Comes Out Of Cold to Call for Jihad in India
By Praveen Swami
September 5, 2014
Four weeks after a Hellfire missile fired from a drone blew apart his body on May 21, 2010, al-Qaeda third-in-command Said al-Masri’s digital ghost appeared online. “I bring you good tidings,” the dead commander said.
“Last February’s India operation was against a Jewish locale in the west of the Indian capital [sic., throughout], in the area of the German bakeries — a fact that the enemy tried to hide — and close to 20 Jews were killed.”
Four years on, fears that al-Masri’s post mortem speech might be more than idle words have been confirmed. Early on Thursday morning, India time, fugitive al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a video announcing the formation of a new wing of the terrorist group dedicated to waging jihad in the Indian subcontinent.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh, sources told The Indian Express, was informed by the Intelligence Bureau at an emergency meeting on Thursday morning that the development would have direct consequences for India.
He was also told that persistent capacity deficits have made monitoring social-media based Jihadi recruitment and propaganda operations difficult.
Through the day, Singh held two rounds of meetings with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Intelligence Bureau (IB) director Syed Asif Ibrahim, R&AW chief Alok Joshi and Special Secretary (Internal Security) Prakash Mishra to discuss the implications of the video. Singh briefed Prime Minister Narendra Modi subsequently.
The Home Minister said the IB was working to verify the authenticity of the video, and would “handle the case”. A senior IB official said the video appeared to be genuine. The IB is expected to submit its report in a day or two.
The Home Ministry issued a nationwide alert, and advised state governments to especially watch “hot spots” that might be targeted by Jihadis for fresh recruitments. “The concerned states have been alerted and they are keeping a vigil,” a senior Ministry official said.
India on alert as al-Qaeda unveils plan for jihad in subcontinent
Plan for War
In the video, released on Twitter and Jihadi websites, al-Zawahiri promises the expansion of al-Qaeda operations throughout the Indian subcontinent.
“A new branch of al-Qaeda was established and is Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian subcontinent, seeking to raise the flag of jihad, bring back Islamic rule, and empower the Shari’a of Allah across the Indian subcontinent,” he says.
He adds that the group will defend the “vulnerable in the Indian subcontinent, in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir”, and tells Muslims in the region that “your brothers in Qaedat al-Jihad did not forget you and they are doing what they can to rescue you from injustice, oppression, persecution and suffering.”
Named the Jamaat Qaidat Al-Jihad Fi’shibhi Al-Qarrat Al-Hindiya, or Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent, the organisation also released online a manifesto written by its spokesperson Usama Mahmoud, and organisational chief Asim Umar.
“This entity was not established today, but it is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the Mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity to be with the main group, Qaedat al-Jihad, from the soldiers of the Islamic Emirate and its triumphant Emir, Allah permitting, Emir of the Believers, Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid,” al-Zawahiri goes on.
Last year, alleged terrorist Muhammad Ahmad Zarar Siddibapa, better known by the alias Yasin Bhatkal — who has been charged with the Pune bombing that al-Masri spoke of — is claimed to told the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that the Indian Mujahideen had made contact with al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s north-west.
“Riyaz [Shahbandri, a.k.a. Riyaz Bhatkal]”, Yasin Bhatkal said in videotaped testimony which, under Indian law, is not admissible for the purposes of his trial, “told that now we were with the Al Qaeda, and that they had also given some work, which he did not disclose fully to me then and said that the task of targeting Jews was the main [one]”.
In May 2013, Yasin informed Riyaz that he had visited Afghanistan, and completed discussions with the al-Qaeda leadership.
Little information is available on the men who lead the new organisation, but both are believed to be Pakistani nationals serving with al-Qaeda’s command in that country. Asim Umar has issued several manifestos and articles on al-Qaeda platforms, critiquing democracy and calling for armed jihad. He was earlier described in an al-Qaeda video as the organisation’s top Shari’a law expert.
Last year, Umar issued an appeal directed at Indian Muslims: “You who have ruled India for eight hundred years, you who lit the flame of the one true God in the darkness of polytheism: how can you remain in your slumber when the Muslims of the world are awakening?
“If the youth of the Muslim world have joined the battlefields with the slogan ‘Shari’a or Martyrdom’, and put their lives at stake to establish the Caliphate, how can you lag behind them? Why is there no storm in your ocean?” he demanded to know.
India on Radar
Though al-Zawahiri’s speech does not mention the “many groups” which have coalesced into the sub continental al-Qaeda, India’s intelligence services have long known that jihadists both in the country and Pakistan were looking to the transnational organisation.
“The organisation itself isn’t new,” said Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi. “It’s just got a new brand name.”
David Headley, the Pakistani-American Lashkar operative now serving a life term for his role in the 26/11 attacks, had told the NIA of an anti-India “Karachi project” linked to global Jihadi groups. Headley himself had begun working for slain jihadist Illyas Kashmiri’s Brigade 313, which in turn merged with al-Qaeda.
The development had its genesis in former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s 2007 siege of jihadists holed up inside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, an event that al-Zawahiri’s speech refers to. Headley told NIA that an ideological war had broken out among Pakistan’s Jihadis after the siege. In spite of efforts by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), he said, the “aggression and commitment shown to jihad by the several splinter groups influenced many committed fighters to leave Kashmir-centric outfits and join the Taliban”.
Over the last two months, The Indian Express has reported on the surge in Indian jihadists training abroad, with four Maharashtra men leaving to fight with the Islamic State (IS), and a separate corps of former Indian Mujahideen operatives fighting alongside jihadists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent could tap the wellsprings of discontent among young Islamists in India, giving them a platform — and drawing more to training camps in Pakistan, to fight both India and the regime in Islamabad.
Experts say al-Qaeda also hopes to use the India card as a means of competing for influence and legitimacy with traditional Jihadi groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba within Pakistan. In the wake of 26/11, al-Masri himself released a statement warning India of attacks if it struck against Pakistan, as a means of gathering public support.
The formation of AQIS comes at a time the organisation has seen significant reverses in West Asia, with the Dawlah Islamiyyah, or Islamic State, displacing its forces in large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The declaration of a Caliphate by the Islamic State signalled that it now claims leadership position of the global jihadist movement — a position long held by al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has also suffered losses in funding and legitimacy among financial backers of the global jihad, who now see the Islamic State as a more credible organisation.
“I believe al-Qaeda wants to wean away potential jihadists and financiers from ISIS, and to gather support in its heartlands, Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Sushant Sareen, an expert at the Vivekananda Foundation in New Delhi.
The manifesto thus casts Afghanistan, rather than West Asia, as the true heartland of the global jihadist struggle —and expresses loyalty to Taliban chief and self-proclaimed leader of all Muslims, Mullah Muhammad Omar, to whom it earlier swore an oath of loyalty.
Al-Qaeda Declares New Front to Wage War on India, Calls for Jihad in the Subcontinent
By Praveen Swami
September 4, 2014
“I bring you good tidings”, al-Qaeda’s third-in-command Said al-Masri said in a macabre speech that was released online four weeks after a Hellfire missile blew his body apart near Pakistan’s Miramshah on 21 May, 2010. “Last February’s India operation was against a Jewish locale in the west of the Indian capital [sic., throughout], in the area of the German bakeries—a fact that the enemy tried to hide—and close to 20 Jews were killed”.
Now, four years on, that disembodied, incoherent boast has turned out to be prophecy.
Early on Thursday morning, Indian time, fugitive al-Qaeda commander Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the formation of a new wing of the feared terrorist group dedicated to waging jihad in the Indian subcontinent. In the videotape—the first released by the al-Qaeda chief since August 2013—al-Zawaheri promises that al-Qaeda will now expand its operations throughout the region: “Our brothers in Burma, Kashmir, Islamabad, Bangladesh”, he says, “we did not forget you in AQ and will liberate you form injustice and oppression”. The new branch, he says is in particular “a message that we did not forget you, our Muslim brothers in India”. He says al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, “break all borders created by Britain in India”, and called on all Muslims in the region to “unite under the credo of the one god”. The new organisation, named the Jamaat Qaidat al-jihad Fi’shibhi Al-Qarrat Al-Hindiya, or Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Sub-Continent, also released online manifestos written by al-Zawahiri, spokesperson Usama Mahmoud, and organisational chief Asim Umar.
Little information is available on the men who lead the new organisation, but both are believed to be Pakistani nationals serving with al-Qaeda’s command in that country. Umar has issued several manifestos and articles on al-Qaeda platforms, critiquing democracy and calling for armed jihad. Last year, Umar issued an appeal directed at Indian Muslims: “You who have ruled India for eight hundred years, you who lit the flame of the one true God in the darkness of polytheism: how can you remain in your slumber when the Muslims of the world are awakening?” the al-Qaeda ideologue Asim Umar asked India’s Muslims last summer. “If the youth of the Muslim world have joined the battlefields with the slogan ‘Shari’a or Martyrdom,’ and put their lives at stake to establish the Caliphate, how can you lag behind them? Why is there no storm in your ocean,” Mr. Umar demanded to know. Experts note that the formation of AQIS comes at a time the organisation has seen significant reverses in West Asia, with the Dawlah Islamiyyah, or Islamic State, displacing its forces in large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The declaration of a Caliphate by the Islamic State was intended to signal that it now claims leadership position of the global jihadist movement—a position long held by al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has also suffered losses in funding and legitimacy among financial backers of the global jihad, who now see the Islamic State as a more credible organisation. The manifesto thus casts Afghanistan, rather than West Asia, as the true heartland of the global jihadist struggle—and expresses loyalty to Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar, to whom it earlier swore an oath of loyalty. Long in the making: For Indian, though, the new organisation has more direct significance. It has long been evident that the gathering storm of violent Islamism in Pakistan would lash India, too. This summer, The Indian Express first reported a surge in Indian jihadists training abroad, with four Maharashtra men leaving to train with the Islamic State, and a separate corpus of former Indian Mujahideen operatives fighting alongside jihadists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands. From Internet chats between Karachi-based Indian Mujahideen chief Riyaz Shahbandri—also known as Riyaz Bhatkal and his alleged lieutenant Muhammad Ahmad Siddibapa, also known as Yasin Bhatkal, it is clear the Indian Mujahideen operatives left the organisation because they felt frustrated that Pakistan’s intelligence services were not allowing them to stage large-scale attacks against India. The new organisation could tap the wellsprings of discontent among young Islamists in India, giving them a platform—and drawing more to training camps in Pakistan, to fight both against India and the regime in Islamabad. Interestingly, Siddibapa is charged by the National Investigations Agency of having bombed the German Bakery in Pune. Mr. al-Masri’s message was wrong on several details of the operation, but the claim suggests at least some elements of the network were already in contact with al-Qaeda. David Headley, the Pakistani-American Lashkar operative now serving a life term for his role in the 26/11 attacks, had told the NIA of an anti-India “Karachi project” linked to global Jihadi groups. The development had its genesis in former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf’s 2007 siege of jihadists holed up inside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid—an event al-Zawahiri’s speech refers to. Headley told the NIA that an ideological war broke out among Pakistan’s Jihadis after the seige. In spite of efforts by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, he said, the “aggression and commitment shown to jihad by the several splinter groups influenced many committed fighters to leave Kashmir-centric outfits and join the Taliban.” In turn, al-Qaeda became increasingly interested in India, as a means of competing for influence and legitimacy with traditional jihadi groups like the Lashkar, which were supportive of the Pakistani state. In the wake of 26/11, al-Masri himself released a statement warning India of attacks if it struck against Pakistan. Hatred of India: Al-Zawahiri was among the first international jihadist leaders to mention India, writing in a manifesto published in 2001 that his cadre had “revived a religious duty of which the [Muslim] nation had long been deprived, by fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya.” The theme was taken up by bin Laden himself in 1996, when he issued a declaration condemning “massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Pattani, Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Later, in September 2003, al-Zawahiri again invoked India to warn Pakistanis that their President, General Pervez Musharraf, was plotting to “hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret accounts.”