Al-Qa'ida in the Indian Subcontinent: An Appraisal of the Threat in the Wake of the Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan.

AuthorHamming, Tore

"The victories of The Islamic Emirate are a model for mujahideen that the success of Jihad is embedded in unity and alliance. If there is no unity then a war you almost won can be stabbed in the back like in Iraq and Levant."--Asim Umar, emir of al-Qa'ida in the Indian Subcontinent, 2019 (1)

Although it was founded almost eight years ago, al-Qa'ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) remains the newest formal affiliate of the global al-Qa'ida network. It is also the least understood of al-Qa'ida's affiliates in terms of its structure and geographical scope, its overlap with al-Qa'ida Central, and its local embeddedness.

In the wake of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and the renewed motivation their victory has offered to jihadis worldwide, it is particularly relevant to take a closer look at the status of al-Qa'ida in South Asia and how the situation in Afghanistan may affect AQIS activities throughout the region. Although it is still too early to tell, it is most likely that al-Qa'ida, and particularly AQIS, is going to benefit from the Taliban takeover, both in Afghanistan and the region as a whole. (2)

In October 2019, the new AQIS emir, Usama Mahmoud, said that "the success of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and the defeat of all the Tawaghit [tyrants] against them foretells the future of this jihadi movement which is moving forth in the subcontinent." Yet, even now, almost eight years after its creation, AQIS does not stand out for its operational activities. The affiliate has only claimed a relatively small number of attacks throughout the region. Instead, its focus has been on uniting disparate militant groups in a cohesive structure, establishing an effective media apparatus, (a) and diffusing targeted ideological messages to recruit and mobilize sympathizers.

In recent years, AQIS has not been slow to comment on the situation in Afghanistan. Already in March 2020, in reaction to the peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban, AQIS issued a 135-page special issue of its Urdu-language magazine, Nawa-i Afghan Jihad (Voice of the Afghan Jihad), calling the deal a "magnificent victory" for the Taliban and for jihad. More importantly, the magazine also outlined plans to rename the magazine Nawa-i Ghazwatul Hind (Voice of the Battle for India), indicating a strategic shift of operational focus from the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) region to Kashmir and mainland India. (b) Two months later, in May 2020, AQIS' spokesman released another statement praising the Doha agreement and framing it as a "divine victory" resulting from the Taliban's steadfastness and persistence in jihad. Then in August 2021, shortly after the Taliban's complete takeover of Afghanistan, the group issued another statement congratulating the Taliban, saying:

The advice that all Muslims can take from this victory is that despite the volatility and fluctuation of the situation, it is not appropriate for a Muslim nation to retreat from protecting its religious values and national honor. The lesson for Muslims in this victory is that Muslims in any region cannot confront these plunderers, the enemies of Islam, and aggressive forces, except when they are ready to confront them as a nation, and when it is the whole Ummah, the mujahideen and the general public, together, united, and integrated. (3)

The Taliban takeover would have a direct impact on al-Qa'ida circumstances in the region, with the terrorist organization apparently judging even the capital to be secure enough for it to operate in. In the early part of 2022, al-Qa'ida's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was located by U.S. intelligence in Kabul, and on July 31, he was killed on his balcony by a U.S. missile strike. According to the White House, "senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri's presence in Kabul." (4) The Associated Press reported, "The house Al-Zawahri was in when he was killed was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official." (5)

This article begins with a brief overview of AQIS' origins, its ideology, and its organizational structure, and then takes a closer look at the various countries on which the affiliate is focused: Pakistan (the country in which the group emerged); Afghanistan; Kashmir and India; and Bangladesh and Myanmar. (c) It concludes with a discussion on how the Afghan context is likely to influence AQIS in the region at large.

Origins, Ideology, and Structure

When al-Qa'ida's now late emir Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of AQIS on September 3, 2014, in an hour-long video statement, it did not come as a major surprise. The AfPak region had for years been the heartland of al-Qa'ida's senior leadership, and with the growing pressure resulting from the Islamic State's caliphate declaration, the emerging fragmentation within a previously cohesive jihadi movement, and military infighting among jihadis, it was imperative for al-Qa'ida to secure a formal presence in the South Asia region. (6)

While AQIS was formally established in September 2014, the group has since noted that it began operating sometime in 2013. Shortly after the group's establishment, its then spokesman Usama Mahmoud explained that it started operating under one consultative committee prior to the September 2014 (7) declaration, and this aligns with al-Zawahiri's claim that the founding in September 2014 was preceded by two years of preparation. (d)

Although the late al-Qa'ida spokesman Adam Gadahn stated that the establishment of AQIS was finalized in mid-2013 and had nothing to do with the emerging rivalry between al-Qa'ida and the Islamic State, it is difficult not to interpret the creation within the context of the evolving militant landscape in the region and globally. (e) AQIS was presumably meant to ensure an al-Qa'ida structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan in case the senior al-Qa'ida leadership in the region was taken out, and to mobilize and unite a fragmented militant landscape in the region under a common banner in order to stem defections to the Islamic State.

AQIS is best understood as a regional umbrella organization that, on one hand, was formed with the intention to unite like-minded groups in the region that were already associated with al-Qa'ida and, on the other, to instigate local insurgencies under its banner. From its very inception, AQIS was framed as an effort to unite jihadis under the banner of al-Qa'ida and the ultimate authority of the Afghan Taliban to prevent fitna (discord). For al-Zawahiri, it was clearly of utmost importance to highlight that jihad in the region was under the auspices of the Taliban. (8) Hence, in his first statement as emir, Asim Umar pledged allegiance not only to al-Zawahiri but also to Mullah Omar, at a time when the latter was already dead. (9)

From the outset, analysts have had questions about AQIS' relationship to the AfPak-based al-Qa'ida leadership and the group's geographical coverage. Examining the leadership appointments, however, reveals just how embedded the new affiliate was within al-Qa'ida's core. Before becoming AQIS emir, Asim Umar headed al-Qa'ida's sharia committee in Pakistan while his deputy, Ahmad Farooq, used to manage al-Qa'ida's preaching and media efforts in the country. And according to the U.N. monitoring team tracking the global jihadi threat, both AQIS and al-Qa'ida Central leadership are present in the AfPak border area and work closely together, (10) and in July 2016, the U.N. monitoring team reported that al-Qa'ida supporters in Afghanistan had joined AQIS. (11)

In relation to AQIS' geographical focus, al-Zawahiri revealed in his founding statement that AQIS would fight for Muslims in "Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujurat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir," (12) yet within the first days of the affiliate's creation, there was speculation that the affiliate only covered India. To correct the misunderstanding, Usama Mahmoud issued a statement on Twitter explaining that AQIS also covered Pakistan. (13) What is striking about these early statements is the omission of Afghanistan, and although it quickly became apparent that AQIS had a substantial presence in the country, the group has consistently attempted to downplay it. As will be discussed later in this article, over the years AQIS would also establish some level of presence in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In the video announcing its formal establishment, Usama Mahmoud explained that the goals of AQIS could be divided into six points. The first was waging jihad against the United States and destroying the purported global system of disbelief opposing tawhid (monotheism). The second was the implementation of sharia and reviving the Muslim societies. The third was to liberate Muslim lands in the Indian subcontinent, and the fourth was to wage jihad to re-establish a caliphate on the prophetic methodology (al-manhaj al-nubuwwa). The fifth was to support the Taliban, and the sixth was to create a just Muslim society. Mahmoud stressed that AQIS viewed "defending the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" as "the worthiest of our duties, and with the strength of Allah, we will not wane in sacrifice so as to preserve it and support it with all that we possess." (14)

AQIS' code of conduct--issued in 2017, which it considers a hugely important document--reiterated this agenda. (15) Clarifying both AQIS' relationship to the Taliban and its geographical presence, the 2017 code of conduct stated that "one of the major objectives of the Jama'ah [group] is strengthening the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, defending it, and bringing stability to it. In pursuit of this objective, the Jama'ah engages the enemies of the Islamic Emirate outside Afghanistan, and also takes part in the battles inside it - fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the mujahideen of the emirate." (f)

Pakistan and the Forming of AQIS

Although AQIS claims to represent the entire Indian subcontinent, it is...

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