MS Risk Blog

AQ, ISIS Compete for South Asian Primacy

Posted on in Afghanistan, Asia, India, Pakistan title_rule

On 5 September, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video announcing the formation of a new South Asian branch of AQ, “Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent.” Zawahiri stated the group will “raise the flag of jihad” across the Indian subcontinent, as well as Myanmar and Bangladesh, and called upon Muslims “to wage jihad against its enemies, to liberate its land, to restore its sovereignty and to revive its caliphate.” Zawahiri states that a south Asian wing would benefit Muslims in Myanmar, Bangladesh and in the Indian states of Assam, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, who would be freed from “injustice and oppression.”

In his message, also Zawahiri also announced that Pakistani militant Asim Umar would be the emir of al Qaeda’s South Asian wing, entrusted with reviving the network in the area spanning from Afghanistan to Myanmar. Little is known of Umar: he is believed to be in his mid-forties and is perceived as an ideologist and intellectual rather than a fighter. He is thought have had a crucial role in creating radicalized seminaries and madrassas, and he is known to have strong connections with Islamic seminaries in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is believed that Umar organised Osama bin Laden’s move to a safe house in Abbottabad, where the 9/11 mastermind he lived for years prior to his capture by U.S. forces.

Zawahiri’s announcement signifies an attempt for AQ resurgence in south Asia, where the group was considerably weakened over a series of targeted attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the US and allied forces. While the core group was diminished, affiliates have gained momentum in the Middle East and Africa. The group took advantage of power vacuums created during the 2011 Arab uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa to spread their ideologies. Thus, while AQ central has become weaker, the group’s affiliates have gained strength in several places including Mali, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. In Africa, AQ has affiliates have gained in Somalia through al-Shabaab, which has spread chaos into Uganda and Kenya, and in Nigeria through Boko Haram, which has affected north-eastern Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger. These affiliates are now considerably stronger than the core AQ group. The announcement of a new AQ wing in South Asia indicates that the group has accepted this new ‘business model’ and seeks to reassert its relevance in the region by opening a new branch.

Following the release of Zawahiri’s 55 minute video message, India’s intelligence bureau issued security alerts across several provinces in the county. Zawahiri’s announcement came just hours after several news reports announced that the militant group ISIS was also conducting recruitment operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The news reports indicated that ISIS militants were distributing pamphlets in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region; the pamphlets called for the establishment of a caliphate in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Zawahiri’s speech appeared to emphasise that the formation of the branch was not in direct response to ISIS, but the culmination of a longer process. In his message, he said, “This entity was not established today but is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian sub-continent into a single entity.”

ISIS influence in India

Prior to the news reports on 5 September, ISIS was believed to focus its efforts on developing a ‘caliphate’ in areas the group had conquered in Iraq and Syria. In July, the group called for Muslims around the world to join them in establishing their new location. However it appears now that ISIS agents have been widening their efforts to recruit members of India’s Muslim community, the second largest in the world, with over 175 million Muslims.

In a speech on 5 July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ‘caliph’ of ISIS, made three specific references to India, first stating that Muslim rights in the nation were “forcibly seized”, then referencing atrocities committed against Muslims in Kashmir. Finally, he included India in a reference that the caliphate had “gathered the Caucasian, Indian, Chinese, Shami, Iraqi, Yemeni, Egyptian, Maghrabi, American, French, German and Australian” recruits. It is known that some Indians have already left their nation to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. On 25 August, Indian engineering student Arif Ejaz Majeed became the first Indian reported to be killed while fighting for ISIS in Iraq. He and three friends reportedly went missing in May, and made contact with their families in June to notify them that the quartet had travelled to Iraq to join the radical group.

ISIS does not have a physical presence in India, yet through social media, the group is seeking to develop a ‘fringe’ subculture amongst potential followers in the region. Like other extreme groups, ISIS has cultivated a message which exploits the emotions of socially or economically marginalised people while simultaneously issuing a welcome for Muslims into their caliphate. The tactic is intended to attract dissatisfied members of Indian Muslim community and encourage those disenchanted individuals to do the ‘heavy lifting’ to attract others. An example of this effort already taking shape is a group called al-Isabah Media Production. The media production group is under the umbrella of a new group called Ansar ut-Tawhid fi Bilad al-Hind (Supporters of Monotheism in the Land of India). This group translates ISIS propaganda into Hindu, Urdu and Tamil, and then delivers the messages through social media. While al-Isabah’s social media profiles on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were removed after discovery, they still spread information through online chat rooms and other forums. This shows that ISIS does not necessarily need a physical presence in order to gain momentum in the region. This momentum has been most visible in the highly disputed region of Kashmir, where reports emerged that ISIS flags were being raised by young Muslim protestors in Srinagar. During two instances in July, young men in black masks raised the ISIS flag during protests of the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. The incidents raised concerns in Kashmir, where Sunni and Shi’a Muslims have lived together harmoniously, that the introduction of ISIS ideology could create a sectarian divide. India has a very strong moderate Islamic core which is unlikely to allow space for ISIS or AQ, however, the instances where the militant groups have gained sympathy indicate that there are areas where troubles are significant enough for the groups to exploit by introducing an artificial identity crisis.

Competition or Unity


ISIS, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq, severed ties with AQ in early 2014. ISIS quickly gained prominence through masterful use of propaganda and their rapid advancement through Iraq and Syria. The divergent groups have since been competing for new recruits, but AQ has been left overshadowed by ISIL’s media savvy. In part, AQ has been consistently overshadowed because its leader, Zawahiri, has remained underground, while ISIS has brazenly announced is movements. It could be this distinction that drove Zawahiri into making his rare appearance last week.

In Zawahiri’s message, he states, “O mujahideen, unite and reject differences and discord, and hold firm to the rope of Allah and be not divided amongst yourselves.” These references to rejecting differences could be a veiled message to encourage the groups to unite. He adds, “This entity, Allah permitting, was established to unite with its mujahideen brothers and the Muslims all over the world, and to crush the artificial borders established by the English occupiers to divide the Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.”

It is possible that Zawahiri is desperate to reunite ISIS and AQ in order to form one organisation rather than competing for a market share of radicalised minds. There is no indication, however, that ISIS intends to reunite with AQ. On the contrary, ISIS has actively urged AQ affiliates to leave their branch and join the newer organization.

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