Al Qaeda

Haunted by the Ghost of Osama

Tufail Ahmad writes on political Islam
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The latest jihadist threat to India is real because the new al Qaeda is a branch of Pakistan’s military
The nature of the jihadist threat to India is turning complex. In a video released on 3 September, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri a announced the establishment of al Qaeda’s new branch in the Indian Subcontinent. On TV channels, Indian analysts have mostly dismissed Al- Zawahiri’s announcement as a desperate bid by al Qaeda to renew its image following the murderous competition from the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is true that al Qaeda hasn’t mounted a spectacular 9/11-style attack recently, but then 9/11-type attacks do not happen every day.

Al Qaeda remains an agile terrorist network and its affiliates are executing attacks regularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. These attacks do not get global attention because Western targets are not involved. The world knows that American journalist James Foley was beheaded by jihadists, but there are no media reports that scores of other journalists have been killed in the Syrian conflict. For India’s security purposes, it will be meaningless to make a distinction between the jihad launched by the ISIS, which is attracting Muslims from India, and the jihad of al Qaeda, which is backed by sponsors operating from Pakistan.


The establishment of al Qaeda’s new branch, al Qaeda Jihad Organisation in South Asia, could have been forecast two years ago. In the wake of the anti-Muslim conflicts in Myanmar and Assam, al Qaeda’s central leadership based in Pakistan began evolving its ‘Look East’ policy from mid-2012 onwards. In a statement issued in September 2012, Ustad Ahmad Farooq, who is the head of al Qaeda’s Preaching and Media Department for Pakistan and has toured the West, including France, warned that the anti-Muslim riots ‘provide impetus for us to hasten our advance towards Delhi’. Sometime early this year, al Qaeda’s media arm As-Sahab established a media production unit for India called As-Sahab in South Asia.

While the establishment of al Qaeda’s new branch may not appear new, it does not mean that the threat to India is not strengthening. Al-Zawahiri’s announcement means only one thing: more information will be available over the next few months on the extent to which al Qaeda has succeeded in recruiting Indian Muslims. Just two days after Al-Zawahiri’s video, it emerged that 23 Muslim youths from Manipur left their homes to join this new branch of al Qaeda. These media reports, based on intelligence sources, cannot be dismissed as baseless. From mid-2013 onwards, a new jihadist organisation emerged in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region called Ansar Ut- Tawheed Fi Bilad Hind (‘Supporters of Islamic Monotheism in India’). Its videos of the past year show that about a dozen youths from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have been training somewhere in the Pakistan- Afghanistan region.

To say that al Qaeda’s jihadist message is not succeeding in India would be to live in denial, though it appears that Muslim youths from India might prefer ISIS to al Qaeda. There are footprints showing that Indian Muslims are responding to al Qaeda’s jihadist message. Over the past year and a half, Maulana Asim Umar, the emir (head) of al Qaeda’s new anti-India branch, released several videos urging Indian Muslims to join the global jihadist battlefields such as Yemen and Syria, and asked Kashmiris to abandon stones in favour of Kalashnikovs. So, regardless of whether the jihad call was from al Qaeda or ISIS, the consequence is that more than a hundred Muslims from India are fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. India is a huge country and one cannot expect Indian intelligence agents to be present everywhere all the time. The full extent of how many Indian Muslims have gone to these countries is unknown even to Indian intelligence agencies.

In the video, Al-Zawahiri clarifies that it took two years to establish the anti-India branch. “This is something what Pakistan always wanted to happen in emerging India,” says Pakistani journalist Asif Magsi, now on a media fellowship in Washington. He adds, “It’s now overt to the world that the ISI and Pakistan army have close ties with al Qaeda. The Pakistan army provided a safe haven to the former al Qaeda chief [Osama bin Laden] in its military backyard in Abbottabad. India and its allies must warn Islamabad for indirectly trying to sponsor terror in the region and India in general via al Qaeda and jihadi outfits.”

The Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is known for creating and nurturing terror groups to advance Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives. The timing of Al-Zawahiri’s video is also significant, as it came just days before the 9/11 anniversary.

As part of the video, there were two more speeches which have not been reported in the media: one is by Maulana Asim Umar and the other by Ustad Usama Mahmoud, who has been appointed as the new branch’s spokesman. Asim Umar traces the history of qital (fighting to kill) from the early Islamic era, cites a Quranic verse as per which Prophet Muhammad was asked by Allah to march for jihad alone if need be, without anybody else by his side, and goes on to narrate how Islam’s first caliph Abu Bakr Siddiq decided to wage jihad against those Muslims who wouldn’t pay their taxes. So, while Asim Umar’s speech traces the legacy of what he calls “1,400 years” of qital and its jihadist message to Muslims, Usama notes that the first objective of the new organisation is “to wage jihad against America and the international order of kufr [unbelief] under its patronage” and the second objective is the enforcement of Sharia through “every method”, noting that for this, Qital Fi Sabeelillah (fighting in the path of Allah) is the “topmost” method.

The jihadist thinking is that the second objective—of establishing Sharia rule and a caliphate—cannot be achieved unless the US-led international order is destabilised. In fact, in issue VI of the Taliban magazine Azan, released last August, the jihadists described the pre-9/11 strategy of al Qaeda as successful. In a cover story, the magazine was specific in advocating a policy of entangling America in wars initiated by jihadists so that American resources could be stretched far and wide. ‘We have to spread our attacks on American interests throughout the world,’ it urged its followers. The jihadists view democracy as antithetical to Islam and in their minds, India is thenew America and part of a US-led international order of democracies.


To some extent, India can indeed prevent and counter ISIS-led radicalisation, but as a state it needs to worry about the al Qaeda threat more than about self-motivated homegrown jihadists. A careful examination of the nature of al Qaeda reveals a worrying aspect. The Al-Zawahiri video has another timeline in its sight, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by end-2014, and is therefore aligned with the Pakistani military’s strategic objective aimed at reacquiring control over Afghanistan through the Taliban as the US leaves. This strategic objective is part of the ISI’s vision of a broader Islamic state. It is about time the Indian security establishment understood the nature of this security threat: al Qaeda is essentially a branch of the Pakistani military.

The facts on the ground are clear. Although it has been led by Arab militants, al Qaeda is a Pakistani organisation; it has been nurtured and sustained there. It is from Pakistan that it has spread to the Middle East and Africa. Its central leadership is housed there. It is now established beyond doubt that Osama bin Laden was comprehensively protected by the Pakistani military. Al Qaeda was founded on the watch of the ISI when it was controlling and executing the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. If you look at the nature of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, the two appear to have been planned by a single person; in the case of 9/11, they decided to launch airborne invasions of American cities, and on 26/11, they decided to mount seaborne attacks on Mumbai for its spectacular effect: in both cases, they used GPS technology to plan terror attacks in order to alter the course of international politics. In the case of 9/11, it was meant to damage the global economic system, and in Mumbai, the goal was to reshape India-Pakistan ties.

This argument that the 9/11 and 26/11 attacks were planned by a single person in the ISI is buttressed by the fact that several former ISI chiefs continue to work for the Pakistani intelligence, among them Lieutenant General Hamid Gul and Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha, both retired but the latter has been reportedly appointed as the Regional Chief of the UAE’s intelligence agency. Journalists working in Pakistan have reported in the international media that on many occasions when they went to meet Hamid Gul in recent years, he had gone to the Pakistani military headquarters. It should be noted that Gul was the ISI chief when al Qaeda was established in Peshawar in 1988. Pakistan’s Urdu press reported recently that former ISI chief Shuja Pasha was coordinating the minute details of the protest marches by cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan and Islamic scholar Maulana Tahirul Qadri. This indicates that the forces which protected Osama bin Laden are indeed thriving.

There is another dimension. At least theoretically, and in terms of strategic planning, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar is indeed the topmost al Qaeda leader. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri offered bai’yah (oath of fealty) to Mullah Omar as Emir-ul-Momineen, or the Leader of the Faithful Muslims. Mullah Omar is considered Emir-ul- Momineen by al Qaeda affiliates across the world and all Taliban factions. A few years ago, when the US threatened to launch drone attacks in Baluchistan, the ISI was so worried about Mullah Omar’s safety that it moved him from Quetta to Karachi. Much like Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar is also comprehensively protected by the ISI. Although al Qaeda’s many affiliates work in independent operational domains within their geographical area, there is no doubt that in the Indian Subcontinent, al Qaeda functions as a branch of the Pakistani military.

In an interview with Azan in May 2013, former Pakistan Air Force (PAF) engineer and now leading Taliban commander Adnan Rasheed noted the existence of a secret organisation in the Pakistani military called Idara-tul-Pakistan (‘the Institution of Pakistan’), whose purpose he pointed out is to nurture jihadist networks across Pakistan’s navy, army and air force. In the interview, Rasheed recounted a comment he made to his boss at Idara-tul-Pakistan while speaking about members of Jaish-e- Muhammad led by Maulana Masood Azhar: “We are soldiers in uniform and they are soldiers without uniform”, both reporting to the ISI. All Pakistani and foreign security analysts are of the view that the Pakistani military indeed has a jihadist bedrock to its strategic thinking. Former PAF chief Air Marshall Asghar Khan is on record that Pakistani initiated all four wars against India and lost them all. Amid this history of defeats, Pakistan appears to have lost hope of winning a conventional military conflict with India and is therefore working on a policy of bleeding India through jihadist organisations such as Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba and al Qaeda. At this time, the ISI may be specially inspired by the ISIS’s spectacular success in Iraq and in its scheme of things al Qaeda is a readily available resource.

In the video, Al-Zawahiri clarified that the purpose of the new organisation in the Indian Subcontinent is to erase the international borders demarcated by the British in 1947 so that a larger Islamic state could be established. For close observers of Pakistan, this objective of al Qaeda is essentially shared by the Pakistani military and its ISI, a jihadist organisation that doubles up as an intelligence agency but imagines itself as the ideological guardian of the Islamic state of Pakistan. It is relevant to know that Pakistan is described by Pakistani thinkers as ‘Medina-e-Sani’, or Second Medina, the first being the Islamic state established by Prophet Muhammad. At this point in time, by establishing a specialised terror machine aimed at India, al Qaeda is essentially advancing the ISI’s objectives in India and across South Asia.

It was always clear to close observers of Pakistan that the ISI would plan something for 2014-end, when US troops leave Afghanistan. In the video, Al-Zawahiri appears well fed and in robust health; and the task cut out for international intelligence agencies is to search for him in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistani military headquarters are situated, not in caves and mountains.


One must keep the jihadist threat in perspective: terrorists cannot take over our governments and countries. At most, they will mount some attacks like those in Jammu & Kashmir or those undertaken by the Indian Mujahideen in several parts of India, or the occasional spectacular attack like 26/11. However, one point is obvious: the current generation of jihadists is ideologically motivated and they are not hiding in caves, mountains and jungles. There is nothing surprising that Indian Muslims are attracted to them; it was always expected that a few Indians would be attracted to the ideology of jihad someday. However, there are ways to prevent and counter radicalisation among Muslims in India.

Indians must laud the Hyderabad parents who recently displayed exemplary courage, wisdom and foresight in alerting police officials that their sons were headed for Iraq to join the ISIS. Those youths were held in Kolkata and those parents must appreciate how this saved their sons. However, a wave of political correctness and denial is sweeping Indian society. On We the People, a TV show hosted by journalist Barkha Dutt and telecast on 7 September 2014, this writer had the opportunity to hear firsthand outright denials by both Hindu and Muslim analysts that there is an al Qaeda threat to India. Leading Islamic scholar Maulana Mahmood Madani presented the case of the youth who were stopped in Kolkata as if they had gone to play football, not for their onward journey to Iraq.

The fact that the police let them off after some questioning means that security officials are indeed handling such issues sensitively. Islamic scholars like Mahmood Madani and Maulana Salman Al-Husaini Nadwi of Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama, who wrote a congratulatory letter to ISIS chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, should take a lesson from the parents of these Hyderabadi youths. Notwithstanding the Muslim denial and secular political correctness associated with the issue of terror in India, and the excessive politicisation of India’s national debate on counter-extremism, the Indian security establishment must remain professionally alert to the emerging threat from jihadists. The global jihad has been seeping into Indian society for several years, but its symptoms are beginning to emerge only now. India’s task is already defined by Pakistan’s ISI, al Qaeda and the ISIS.

On priority, India needs to undertake the following measures: One, the Indian legal system is far behind the global jihadists, who are highly educated and are fully aware of political freedoms and legal limitations of free societies like the US, UK and India to prosecute them. India must enact a counter- radicalisation law. Authoritarian and theocratic states like China and Saudi Arabia can fight terrorists with the power of crude force. However, India is an open society and a thriving democracy. Its law-abiding citizens are determined to bring up their children in an environment of personal liberty. Most Indian citizens are youths. At least half of India’s 1.25 billion people are under the age of 25 years; 65 per cent of the population is below 35. This is an entirely new political population, which doesn’t connect with the emotional turmoil of Partition and can barely remember the effects of the Emergency. This young population has grown up essentially in a culture of liberty. Counter-radicalisation legislation will plug legal loopholes in the system, aid Indian citizens in defending their legitimate personal liberties, and vitally empower India’s security agencies.

Two, Indian security agencies can learn some lessons in counter- radicalisation from democratic countries. In the United States, counter-radicalisation got a boost through sting operations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). India must introduce FBI-style sting operations to prevent sleeper cells on our streets. But sting operations cannot succeed without strengthening India’s legal framework. Laws should also be in place to prosecute terrorist acts by Indian citizens outside the Indian soil. In the US, individuals trying to contact terrorists can be prosecuted; and in the UK, anyone other than counter- terrorism researchers can be jailed for downloading jihadist videos and literature. It is hard for investigating agencies in India or elsewhere to produce police evidence against terrorists, resulting in their acquittal by courts on technical grounds. Sting operations can go a long way in aiding intelligence and prosecution officials in collecting admissible evidence.

Three, intelligence agencies in India must keep in mind that fake encounters cannot be acceptable to the Indian republic, though it is also a fact that security officials will find themselves in situations of genuine encounters. There are additional reasons: fake encounters morally corrode police forces and intelligence agencies from within; they destroy the moral fibre of our societies to fight back against the menace of terrorism; and in the long run they can destroy us as a nation with a moral purpose in the world. Fake encounters also alienate good-intentioned Muslim parents who want to save their sons from turning jihadist. Parents like the aforementioned in Hyderabad are the first line of defence against jihadism in society. Jihadist terror is also a moral challenge, and counter-terrorism measures must be accountable within India’s constitutional framework.