The Emergence of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent

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This article will analyse emergence of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS). It will begin with a discussion of the origins of the group, and the importance of the ongoing rivalry between al-Qaeda (AQ) and Da’ish. It will then outline some of the key figures in AQIS, before moving on to an analysis of the group’s strategy and tactics, particularly the new maritime element that it has introduced. Finally, this article will predict the dynamics of the group’s future trajectory, including how it will cope with the loss of leaders, the types of attacks it will carry out, and the role of indigenous jihadi forces. It will conclude by highlighting the importance of meaningful cooperation among regional states in countering the threat of AQIS.

Al-Qaeda and Da’ish

The creation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS) was announced in a 55 minute video in September 2014 by the al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The organisation intends to attack the ‘near enemy’ governments of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, as well as the ‘far enemy’, in the shape of American targets on the sub-continent.

The process for establishing AQIS was set in motion before the emergence of Da’ish as a global jihadi rival, and in fact this is not al-Qaeda’s first attempt to open a branch in South Asia.[i] Under senior operative Ilyas Kashmiri, the group had previously attempted to consolidate its South Asia operations, specifically to launch terrorist attacks on India, however this failed when Kashmiri was killed in a drone strike carried out by the United States (US) in 2011.[ii]

This renewed attempt, however, does seem to be a reaction to the fierce competition between AQ and Da’ish for recruits, influence, and attention on the global stage. Publicity and propaganda are AQ’s main operational tools, and it is likely that it is seeking to catch up to the extensive media coverage of Da’ish. Another significant factor is that Da’ish leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seems to be usurping Osama bin Laden’s charisma and legacy of global jihad in order to attract a significant number of new recruits; Al-Zawahiri cannot be unaware that he is not considered as charismatic as bin Laden, or even Baghdadi, who has stolen the limelight.[iii]

In this context, AQIS can be seen as a chance to revitalise AQ. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan removes the principal driver for jihad in the region, and so AQ needed to shift focus, which is why they are now issuing the call for ‘Ghazwa al-Hind’, or the ‘Battle to Reunite India’.[iv]

Significance of the Name

Although the name ‘al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent’ is ostensibly banal and functional, it does offer an important insight into the reasons for setting up the group. In light of rigorous US counter-terrorism efforts, and its ‘Global War on Terrorism’ (GWOT), any entity bearing anything close to the al-Qaeda name is essentially placing a death sentence upon itself. AQIS has already begun paying the price, as since its inception, US and Pakistani counter-terrorism operations have resulted in the death or arrest of at least ten senior leaders.[v] The interests of the group might have been better served by adopting a more innocuous name, which would allow it to fly under the radar and consolidate its position, while avoiding excess scrutiny. Despite this, the decision to use the al-Qaeda name, with all its associated risks, indicates that public image, and bolstering the al-Qaeda global brand, were equally, if not more important reasons for setting up AQIS than its actual operations, further reinforcing the notion that the competition with Da’ish is influencing decisions made by the core leadership.

Key Figures

Asim Umar: Emir of AQIS, former commander of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan

Asim Umar trained as a theologian in Karachi at Jamia Uloomul Islamia madrassa, which is known for producing jihadi commanders and leaders. He has been linked with various jihadi groups, including Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). Ideologically, while Umar has always been focused on the ‘near enemy’ of India, he also follows in the classic AQ vein of obsession with the far enemy, and in a video statement in 2013 he called for global jihad to topple the ‘collapsing edifice of America.’[vi]

The appointment of Umar (who is believed to be Indian) as Emir could indicate that al-Qaeda, whose senior members are traditionally Arab, are running out of suitable Arab leaders, many of whom have fallen prey to the GWOT, and thus are being forced to recruit local jihadis as leaders.[vii] The rising prominence of locals like Umar has drawn criticism from Da’ish – in its English language magazine Dabiq, a defector from AQ accused the likes of Umar of ‘corrupting’ AQ with Deobandism, which was used as a pejorative.[viii]

Osama Mahmoud: Spokesperson for AQIS

Very little is known about Mahmoud, who releases AQIS statements mainly through Twitter.

Atta ur Rahman

It is possible that Asim Umar is merely a figurehead, due to his characterisation as an ideologue, and his general popularity in jihadi circles. Security officials in Karachi believe that the Pakistani militant Atta ur Rahman, or Naeem Bukhari, is the real link between AQIS and AQ central.[ix]

Strategy and Tactics

The main aim of AQIS is the liberation of the Indian sub-continent from infidel ‘occupation’, and the restoration of a caliphate reminiscent of the Mughal Empire. Its strategy for achieving this objective is violent jihad, and it explicitly rejects the notion that an Islamic state can be achieved through democratic means. In the video launching AQIS, al-Zawahiri explicitly states that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible because of the concept of hakimiyya, in other words, that ultimate sovereignty lies with God, rather than with the electorate, arguing that ‘obedience in Islam is for the Shariah of Allah, whereas obedience in democracy is for the whims of the majority… Therefore it is not possible to establish an Islamic system through a democratic process’.[x]

Although the tactical approach displayed by AQIS includes the usual suspects of hijacking and suicide attacks, it has also revealed an interesting new maritime component. On 6 September 2014 AQIS operatives attempted to hijack the Pakistani Navy frigates PNS Zulfiqar and PNS Aslat at the Karachi dockyard (there is some dispute about this – in his press release AQIS spokesperson Mahmoud claimed that the hijacking occurred while the ships were at sea).[xi] According to Mahmoud, the main aim of the team aboard PNS Zulfiqar was ‘Destroying the oil tanker of the American Navy, USS Supply, as well as an accompanying frigate’, while the operatives on the PNS Aslat were to steer the ship towards Indian waters, and attack Indian warships. Most interestingly, both teams were to continue with their attacks ‘until attaining martyrdom’. [xii] This style of attack almost seems like a naval version of a fedayeen operation, which could indicate the involvement of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. This would also help explain how AQIS were able to recruit officers in the Pakistani navy (when addressing parliament the Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif revealed that the attackers would not have been able to breach security without inside help[xiii]). The maritime focus was further reinforced by Mahmoud in his press release, when he declared that ‘This operation is a reminder for Mujahideen all over the world to make Jihad on the seas one of their priorities.’

Future Trajectory

Loss of Leaders

Looking to the future, the emphasis on naval operations is likely to continue. In December 2014, Pakistani officials arrested Shahid Usman, the head of the Karachi division of AQIS, who was allegedly planning more attacks at the Karachi naval dockyard.[xiv] The incident also serves to highlight the success of counter-terrorism efforts against AQIS in terms of the consistent removal of leaders since the formation of the group. Sheikh Imran Ali Siddiqi was killed in October 2014, in addition to Dr Sarbaland and Adil Abdul Quoos. Sarbaland was an AQIS propagandist while Quoos was directly linked with Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, one of the chief architects of 9/11.[xv] In January the US killed two senior AQIS leaders – Ustad Ahmad Farooq, deputy Emir for AQIS, and Qari Imran, a member of the group’s shura council. The two men had also commanded al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, where they were killed by drone strikes.[xvi]

Unfortunately, the elimination of leaders is unlikely to seriously curb the efforts of the group. Despite the loss of the individuals listed above, in January Indian Coast Guard officials intercepted a suspicious Pakistani fishing boat near the India-Pakistan maritime boundary. After being pursued by the Indian Coast Guard for several hours, the crew on board the vessel ignited explosives, which destroyed the boat and killed all on board.[xvii] While AQIS haven’t officially claimed the attempted attack, it would seem to fit within the framework of their modus operandi. More significantly, on 13 April 2015 five AQIS militants were killed in a raid by the Pakistani Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD), including Karachi chief Noor-ul-Hassan, deputy commander Usman, and a third militant Ibrahim.[xviii] They were accompanied by two suicide bombers (who were also killed in the fray), and officials recovered explosives, chemicals, detonators, suicide jackets, laptops, and bomb-making manuals from their hide-out, indicating that the loss of leaders has done little, so far, to curb the operational planning of the group.

Spectacular Attacks

The most striking fact about AQIS’ attempted hijacking at Karachi was how ambitious it was, particularly for a first attack. This audaciousness, combined with the emergence of India as an ideological battleground for Da’ish and AQ, indicates that AQIS will continue to attempt spectacular attacks. These are likely to focus on military installations, state landmarks and public places, as well as targets symbolic of the West, such as tourist hotspots and luxury hotels.

The group will also look to target anything associated with the global oil market, such as oil tankers and refineries. In its English language magazine Resurgence, AQIS revealed future plans to attack oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, and in the attempted hijacking in September 2014, if the group aboard PNS Aslat failed to enter Indian waters, it was to target an American warship near the Strait of Hormuz.[xix] More generally, key jihadi texts like The Management of Savagery have identified the US dependence on oil as a crucial weakness, while an article in Resurgence observed that:

Critical sea lanes provide strategic opportunity for the militants to launch attacks on US naval ships and critical oil supplies on the West-bound oil shipments to create crisis and chaos in the international energy market.[xx]

Indigenous Jihadi Forces

It is likely that AQIS will also seek to agitate local jihadi groups like the Indian Mujahideen (IM).

After he was captured, senior LeT operative David Headley revealed what he called the Karachi Project – the effort by LeT and other groups to recruit, train, and support Indian jihadis who would be able to take aggressive action against the Indian state without incurring the same negative international reaction as Pakistani operatives.[xxi]

In the past, attacks like a series of coordinated bombings across various Indian cities in 1993, and bombings in Hyderabad in 1998, were carried out by indigenous jihadi groups who were helped by LeT.[xxii] This trend is likely to grow because relative economic deprivation and frustration with a sense of institutionalised discrimination are widespread in Indian Muslim communities, and can easily be sparked by violent communal conflict. With a Hindu nationalist party in power, and a Prime Minister with strong links to Hindu extremist groups, the relationship between Hindu and Muslim communities in India is on a knife-edge, and the frequent bursts of communal violence create an increasingly fertile recruiting ground for young jihadis.

Countering the Threat

The key to countering the threat of AQIS will be close cooperation between regional actors, in order to limit the relatively free mobility of these groups. Still in its early stages, AQIS will be reliant on established local radical groups like LeT, HuJI, and HuM who are dotted around the Indian sub-continent. India cannot hope to successfully uproot extremist groups when they can simply cross the border into a more lax environment.

While Pakistan’s relationship with extremist groups is complex, and beyond the scope of this paper, it is widely acknowledged that jihadi groups can operate there with impunity. Less well known is the potentially significant role of Bangladesh. The country has long had links with international terrorism, for example, when bin Laden issued his 1999 fatwa against the West, it was endorsed by a Bangladeshi religious leader, Fazlul Rahman. Moreover, Hambali, a key Jemaah Islamiyya leader and one of the men behind the Bali bombing, had decided to shift parts of JI to Bangladesh, because he considered it a ‘safe refuge’.[xxiii] Bangladesh is now seeing increasing levels of radicalisation – in September 2014 Abdullah al-Tasnim, leader of the Jamaat al-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was arrested for various offences, including looking to join foreign fighters in Syria, while in Dhaka a young British citizen of Bangladeshi origin was arrested for recruiting people to go to Syria.[xxiv] In many ways, it would be more productive for India to try and cooperate with Bangladeshi authorities to crackdown on jihadi groups, rather than looking to Pakistan, where civilian politicians have no control over the policy of the army, and so diplomatic efforts are unlikely to prevail in any meaningful sense.

India could also look towards Afghanistan, and take on a more active role in attempting to stabilise the country, for example, by setting up military field hospitals to help the Afghan Army, as it did to help UN forces during the Korean War.[xxv]

The steps taken over the next few years will be crucial because, ultimately, if the regional states fail to engage in meaningful, long-term cooperation on these issues, AQIS is likely to continue consolidating its position and taking advantage of the local jihadi networks that have proliferated over the last few decades.


[i] Ahmed S. Hashim, “The Impact of the Islamic State in Asia,” RSIS Policy Report, February 2015, 5, http://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/PR150211_The_Impact_of_the_Islamic_State_in_Asia.pdf.

[ii] Private correspondence with Sameer Patil, Associate Fellow, Gateway House, April 2015.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Abdul Basit, “Asim Umar – New Kid on the Block?,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis, RSIS, 6, no. 10 (November 2014): 11, http://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/CTTA-November14.pdf.

[v] This will be discussed in further detail below.

[vi] Basit, “Asim Umar – New Kid on the Block?,” 9.

[vii] Ibid., 8.

[viii] Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “US Killed AQIS Deputy Emir, Shura Member in January Drone Strikes,” The Long War Journal, April 12, 2015, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/04/us-killed-aqis-deputy-emir-shura-member-in-january-drone-strikes.php.

[ix] Saeed Shah and Syed Shoaib Hasan, “Pakistan Arrests Al-Qaeda Militants Ahead of Alleged Planned Raid on Naval Dockyard,” Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/pakistan-arrests-al-qaeda-operatives-ahead-of-planned-naval-dockyard-1418334599.

[x] “Full Text of Al-Qaeda Chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Audio Message,” n.d., http://www.thedailystar.net/sites/default/files/upload-2014/gallery/pdf/transcription-zawahiri-msg.pdf.

[xi] Usama Mahmoud, “Full Text of ’Press Release Regarding Targeting of American and Indian Navies 27 09 2014,”.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Syed Raza Hassan and Katharine Houreld, “In Al-Qaida Attack, Lines Blur between Pakistan’s Military, Militants – World,” Haaretz, accessed April 17, 2015, http://www.haaretz.com/news/world/1.618639.

[xiv] Shah and Hasan, “Pakistan Arrests Al-Qaeda Militants Ahead of Alleged Planned Raid on Naval Dockyard.”

[xv] Roggio and Joscelyn, “US Killed AQIS Deputy Emir, Shura Member in January Drone Strikes.”

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Vibhuti Agarwal, “How and Where the Indian Coast Guard Intercepted ‘Pakistani Boat,’” The Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2015, sec. India Realtime, http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2015/01/02/how-and-where-the-indian-coast-guard-intercepted-pakistani-boat/.

[xviii] Anonymous Correspondent, “Encounter in Karachi: Al Qaeda Commanders among Five Slain,” The Express Tribune, accessed April 16, 2015, http://tribune.com.pk/story/869537/encounter-in-karachi-al-qaeda-commanders-among-five-slain/.

[xix] Basit, “Asim Umar – New Kid on the Block?,” 11.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Stephen Tankel, “Indian Jihadism: The Evolving Threat,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37, no. 7 (2014): 574, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1057610X.2014.913120#abstract.

[xxii] Ibid., 572.

[xxiii] Sajjan M. Gohel, “Bangladesh: An Emerging Centre for Terrorism in Asia,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Terrorism Research Initiative, 8, no. 3 (2014): 87, http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/348/691.

[xxiv] Hashim, “The Impact of the Islamic State in Asia,” 5.

[xxv] Bruce Riedel, “Strengthening India-U.S. Counter Terrorism Cooperation Against Growing Turmoil,” The Brookings Institution, accessed April 16, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2015/01/20-strengthening-us-india-counterterrorism-cooperation-riedel.

Photo credit: Telegraph.uk 

About Author

Shreya Das

Shreya Das is a contributor at the International Security Observer. She holds a BSc in International Relations and History from the London School of Economics, and will return to LSE for an MSc in the History of International Relations. Shreya is currently an Events Intern at the European Council on Foreign Relations, previously working as Project Manager at the European Institute for Asian Studies, where she published a paper on the Sino-Indian border dispute. She is a native English speaker, with advanced proficiency in Spanish and conversational in French, Hindi, and Bengali.

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