Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent: Another Harbinger of Transformation in the Global Salafi Jihadi Movement?

In early September 2014, Al-Qaeda’s amir Ayman al-Zawahiri launched a branch of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). In a 55-minute video, the Al-Qaeda chief proclaimed the AQIS branch would focus, not solely on the Afghan-Pakistan area that has provided the Al-Qaeda sanctuary, but that it would expand and prove “good news” for oppressed Muslims in Burma, Bangladesh, and in Indian States such as Assam, Gujurat, and Kashmir.

In the diatribe, Zawahiri reaffirmed Al-Qaeda’s ’bayaa to Mullah Omar, before it was revealed by the Taliban that he was already dead. Al-Zawahiri mixed his Arabic with Urdu, and most analysts decried the effort as a pathetic attempt to reject ISIS’s claim of having reestablished the caliphate and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s subsequent rejection of the Taliban’s legitimacy.

Now, nearly three years later, AQIS is gaining some headwinds. A flurry of propaganda activity related to the region, and in line with Al Qaeda’s methods and labors elsewhere, documents the terrorist group’s push to reclaim supremacy over the global salafi jihadi movement.

While AQIS has in no way blossomed, there remains sufficient reason for concern. Were AQIS to gain momentum, the Al-Qaeda branch would pose a dangerous threat over the short and long-term. This is particularly pertinent in a context where the U.S. and NATO face stalemate in Afghanistan, in the wake of the Islamic State’s decline, and where Al-Qaeda seems to embed itself in popular insurgency while also developing cells that continue to plot and plan foreign operations in the West. This new wave of AQIS-related propaganda highlights at least a chance of success.

On July 27th, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), an Al-Qaeda affiliated propaganda outlet, announced that it would open a front in Kashmir. The announcement represents the first time the Al-Qaeda has operated openly in Kashmir. To be certain, it is not the onset of Al-Qaeda’s influence in the contentious valley. In the 1990’s, Al-Qaeda ran training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan where between 70,000 and 120,000 Muslims were dispatched to fight all over the world. Pakistan’s ISI transported many of these Al-Qaeda trained youth to the Kashmiri border. Foreign fighters, many of them aligned with bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, once represented forty percent of the fighting force in the Kashmiri valley. Overtime, Kashmiris effectively reclaimed their “struggle” as an indigenous and nationalist one, but the announcement of the new Al-Qaeda front threatens to convert Kashmiris to the salafi jihadi vision of global jihad.

The new outfit is named Ansar Ghawzat-Ul-Hind. The Global Islamic Media Front’s statement read, “After the martyrdom of heroic Mujahid Burhan Wani the Jihad in Kashmir has entered a stage of awakening, as the Muslim Nation of Kashmir has committed to carry the flag of Jihad to repel the aggression of tyrant Indian invaders, and through Jihad, and with the aid of Allah only, we will liberate our homeland Kashmir. For this goal, a new movement of Jihad has been founded by the companions of martyr Burhan Wani under the leadership of Mujahid Zakir Musa.”

Burhan Wani was the commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, a popular Kashmiri-based militant organization. He skillfully utilized social media to generate a large following before he was killed in an encounter with Indian security forces in July 2016. While never officially aligning his outfit with Al-Qaeda, he certainly was no nationalist. His announcement included calls for a “caliphate to be established in Kashmir” for example.

After Wani’s death, Zakir Musa was announced as his successor in the Hizb. He quickly pronounced that Kashmiris should refrain from “falling for nationalism.” The fight in the region should “not be for the sake of Kashmir. It should be exclusively for Islam so that shariah is established,” he emphasized. It was a blatant departure from the traditional Kashmiri worldview.

Wani and Musa resemble a broader shift in a millenarian generation in Muslim-majority countries that is growing more militant by way of an ideological shift that transitions away from nationalism and bends toward the jihadist pro-caliphate worldview. It is obvious that Al-Zawahiri is attempting to tap into that sentiment. Al-Zawahiri has increased the use of the 28 year-old son of Osama bin-Laden, Hamza. Zakir Musa is but 23. Al-Qaeda is appealing to broad support for resistance in Kashmir and attempting to guarantee its existence for at least another generation.  Musa’s official alignment with al-Qaida was denounced by older separatist leaders in Kashmir. However, in the event Musa’s new AQIS-aligned unit can produce, it would offer a widespread appeal to people in the region generally.

The announcement of the founding of Ghawzat-Ul-Hind, was followed a week later on August 5th with a new As-Sahab video featuring Ayman Al-Zawahiri. In it, al-Zawahiri paid tribute to As-Sahab, the organization’s primary media wing. It was clearly an endorsement intended to encourage an increases in propaganda output as Al-Qaeda makes its push to reclaim the ‘soul of the global jihad’ from the Islamic State.

Al-Zawahir’s video was the fifth installment of a series, ‘Carrying the Weapons of the Martyr.’ This episode meant to eulogize two ‘Martyrs of Waziristan.’ It is no coincidence that one of those “martyrs,” Abu Dujana al-Pasha was credited for launching AQIS. Through his account, Al-Zawahiri gave AQIS a historical narrative that crafted a framework for additional propaganda and recruitment.

Abu Dujana is Al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law, and the video framed AQIS as Abu Dujana’s life legacy in a sense.. Al-Zawahiri explained Abu Dujana’s background, as a hardened fighter and scholar or ‘sheikh. Abu Dujana traveled to Waziristan where he coordinated outreach with Abu Yahya al-Libi and Attiya Abdi-Rahman; alongside these two Al-Qaeda ideologues he laid the foundation for AQIS.  Al-Zawahiri celebrated Abu Dujana’s leadership and insight. As-Sahab then insert a segment of an Abu Dujana lecture that warned of infighting in Syria, criticized the excessive violence of jihadists there at a time when ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s relationship was fracturing, and that encouraged sustained support for the Taliban. It was in Waziristan, al-Zawahiri claims that Abu Dujana founded AQIS. Al-Zawahiri elaborated,

“Allah guided him to avail his old relationships that had been formed with the Mujahideen of the Subcontinent in training camps and fronts. Allah had given him popularity amongst them, so he directed his efforts to unite these different groups in a single organization, and thus, with the blessing and favor of Allah, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was formed, under the banner of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan”

Al-Zawahiri’s eulogy of Abu Dujana Pasha was directly related to another important propaganda piece released in late June of this year. That 20-page document, entitled ‘Code of Conduct,’ outlined a scope that “spans the entire region of the Subcontinent, including Burma, and especially the three large countries Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.” Entire sections are dedicated to Kashmir and reaffirming obedience to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The document is replete with new vantages meant to enhance an ability to gain broader public support.

The document puts forth a scope for jihadi efforts that aims to reclaim the focal point of the global jihad as Afghanistan, led by the Taliban, with a description of al-Qaeda as holding loyal allegiance to Taliban leadership. The text reads in part that AQIS “invites the Muslims of the subcontinent to pledge their allegiance to the Islamic Emirate and to support it.” It then highlights what surprised counterterrorism officials back in 2016 that AQIS fighters, ”are present on the ground under the emirate’s flag, and are actively participating in battles against the enemies of sharia.”

The Code of Conduct seeks thereby to reassert Al-Qaeda’s role as a vanguard fighting on behalf of Muslims everywhere.  It emphasizes that only establishing the caliphate upon the methodology of the Prophet Muhammad can help the overall objective of “liberating all occupied Islamic lands and sanctuaries – including Bait al Maqdis (Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem) from control of the kuffar.” Such sentiment is akin to the reclaiming of Millenarian prophesy from ISIS. Not only has Al-Qaeda denounced ISIS as a ‘paper state,’ it has always portrayed itself as helping to fulfill a foretelling narration attributed to the Prophet Muhammad which claims, “The Black Flags will be raised in Afghanistan (Khurusan) and will not be stopped until they reach Jerusalem.”

Ostensibly, the Code of Conduct focuses on outlining methods and rules for groups operating under the AQIS umbrella and to, “prevent them from un-Islamic operations…to extend a sincere invitation to all mujahideen active in the battlefield of jihad to get on the same page and unite and synchronize their efforts…[and] to invite the masses to jihad after acquainting them of our objectives and our operating procedures.”

The Code of Conduct is an opportunistic propaganda tool with clear intent to continue improving Al-Qaeda’s image, to refocus on the American far-enemy strategy, to reclaim predominance over the Islamic State as it continues to wither, and to reestablish “the base” of global jihad in Afghanistan, expand into the surrounding region.

In fact, while ISIS has been the focus of attention, AQIS has been re-embedding with the Taliban at levels the counterterrorism community originally thought were drastically lower. In April 2016, the Afghan Defense Minister stated clearly that AQIS was keeping a low profile but that they were “very active.” “They are working behind other networks, giving them support and the experience they had in different places. And double their resources and recruitment and other things. That is how — they are not talking too much. They are not making press statements. It is a “big threat,” he said.

The release of the Code of Conduct represents a departure from that silence. It further proves that the whole time Al-Qaeda has consciously taken advantage of the primary focus on ISIS, and so it may benefit immensely from three years of quiet mobilization while the caliphate they decried was slowly dismantled.

The document fails to mention the Islamic State anywhere. However, it is replete with references that implicitly denounce ISIS’s theology and battlefield conduct. It emphasizes the necessity that AQIS-aligned groups refrain from making similar mistakes.

The document could easily be interpreted as part and parcel of a coherent counter-narrative campaign critical of ISIS affecting popular support for salafi jihadi groups throughout the world.  It repudiates “carrying out operations that are beyond the understanding of the Muslim masses, and repulses them from jihad.” It makes implicit reference to topics such as the taking as ‘ghaneemah’ (i.e.. Yazidi women) and emphasizes that the AQIS platform “forbids taking the wealth of an infidel whose wealth is permissible to capture in the shariah, but the person is poor and of an oppressed social class and taking his wealth could result in distorting the image of jihad.”

The document highlights the role of public perception management. It harkens back to a period when Al-Qaeda operatives were discussing the use of indiscriminate violence by groups like Tehreek-e- Taliban and al-Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS. The Code of Conduct emphasizes

“So, not only do we require the mujahideen associated with our organization to abide by this Code of Conduct, but we also request other sister organizations that we all come forward and fulfill our religious obligations in pursuing the objectives of jihad together, that we become supporters of each other in this blessed work, that together we close the doors to all matters that could harm the jihadi movement of this entire region.”

This recent flurry of AQIS-related propaganda is part of a broader rational strategy, mostly dissimilar to the eschatological approach to war taken by ISIS. Territory controlled by the Taliban has increased by 15 percent over the past year. As U.S. involvement surpasses sixteen years, and U.S. generals contemplate yet another increase in troop presence, this resilience is something Al-Qaeda seeks to exploit, something the Al-Qaeda parasite has always successfully achieved through its Taliban host. Thus Al-Qaeda-core is relying on the physical, political and religious sanctuary the Taliban has reliably provided, betting on a Taliban victory in the near-term, and a shift in sole focus on Iraq and Syria, dispersing new and dangerous front in the Subcontinent. “It is our conviction that the defeat of America and its agents would result in victory for the religious forces in this entire region,” the document stresses.

As concern for Al-Qaeda and its allies in the Indian Subcontinent resurfaces, early and appropriate countermeasures against these adjustments would help prevent its influence. The largest problem for counterterrorism professionals, governments, policymakers, and others will be to confront the reality that it seems Al-Qaeda has learned the biggest lesson of all, that terrorism hardly works and that at the core of all insurgency and counterinsurgency lies an ongoing ‘battle for hearts and minds.’

Terrorist organizations are social movements. The growth of any social movement is entirely dependent on its ability to generate popular support. It is why many originally predicted the fall of Al-Qaeda as ISIS rose to prominence. However, social movement theorists use the term ‘radical flank effect’ to describe the legitimacy more moderate groups (or less violent in the case of Al-Qaeda) gain when an alternative group poses a more radical platform. The recent burst of propaganda emanating from Al-Qaeda and particularly with regard to the Indian Subcontinent is concerning. Many experts are now turning their focus, away from solely-ISIS and back onto al-Zawahiri and his organization. Al-Qaeda has certainly played a decent long-term hand, but special concern should be placed on the possibility of something more current, something bigger, in the works.

When Al-Zawahiri’s originally announced AQIS’s establishment, it seemed a dismal failure within a few weeks. After the assassination of a senior officer in the Pakistani Army, AQIS operatives stormed a naval vessel in Karachi they thought was American, and a few days before their September 11th anniversary. It was to cause a wave of publicity and support. They found, instead, that it was a Pakistani frigate. The operatives were overwhelmed and inflicted no real damage. Three AQIS operatives were killed, four were captured and several more were arrested in ensuing days. Soon thereafter, the spokesman for AQIS was killed in a drone strike.

Other than the killing of several alleged “apostate-atheists” and pro-LGBT bloggers in Bangladesh, AQIS has achieved little since its inception in 2014. Even worse, AQIS’s establishment appeared a colossal failure in the context of ISIS’s rise to prominence. This time, al-Zawahiri will have to produce. The recent flurry of propaganda activity associated with AQIS suggests something bigger may be in the works. Not unlike the original announcement in 2014, it is likely something planned to coincide with September 11th this year.

Were AQIS to effectively carry out a large attack or assassination, Al-Qaeda at large would almost certainly ascend back into the limelight, return to its original position as the godfather of global jihad. Regardless, of whether or not that becomes the case, the outbreak of propaganda activity addressing the Indian Subcontinent should be concerning AQIS can only bring more misery to a region that continues to descend into an abyss. However, in the current context, the narrative will likely prove appealing to more youth and more leaders of Islamist movements than most believe.

All too often, counterterrorism efforts have been inserted into a conversation that has already shifted (i.e. attempting to thwart foreign fighters from traveling to the ISIS caliphate even after ideologues told followers to attack at home). In short, if we realize that ideological propaganda is a predominant driver of jihadist strategy, then we must stay ahead of the jihadist learning curve. We must remain as fluid as they are in altering our own discourse and strategy, coincident to developments on the ground. All those tasked with and interested in countering jihadist terrorism would do well take heed before such developments manifest.