Earlier this week, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a video message, launched an al Qaeda wing in the Indian sub-continent to “raise the flag of jihad.” What does the Al Qaeda in South Asia (AQSA) mean to South Asian security? What are the significances of this branch and the timing of its launch? How will it impact the global terrorism environment?
Project Al Qaeda in South Asia: Towards an Understanding
Al-Zawahiri’s AQSA launch has already led to a slightly mistaken interpretation that the group is targeting only India. However, the launch has more to do with the developments on the international front than its long-sustained ambition to establish a stronger presence in India and other countries towards the east.
Following the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahiri took charge of operations, and in the face of the changing geopolitical environment – especially the Arab Awakening – decentralised operations, making the terror network a more franchisee-based model. With many allies viewing al-Zawahiri as a weak leader and ‘uncharismatic’ as compared to his predecessor, the localised jihadist groups – allies and affiliates of the al Qaeda – grew stronger in stature. Some became more ambitious, and one of them, the present-day Islamic State, began acting independently.
The rise of the IS has polarised the global jihadist community, with many viewing it as more effective that the al Qaeda.
When the IS unilaterally launched the ‘Islamic Caliphate’ and began administering towns they controlled – by collecting taxes, selling northern Syrian oil to Damascus etc, the al Qaeda felt the threat to their existence grow exponentially. The IS’s release of a map charting all the territories it wants under its ‘Caliphate’ only reinforced the threat. The map spread from West Asia to Southeast Asia, and explicitly identified Greater Khurasan – the historical geographical construct that includes parts of Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – the very region the al Qaeda basecamp is located in.
Although the al Qaeda always had plans for India, the potential jihadists’ reading of the IS as more effective, increased the immediacy in the al Qaeda’s need to act quickly. Essentially, the al Qaeda’s launch of its South Asian wing is its attempt to consolidate power in the region where it’s based in – in the face of international competition.
AQSA and South Asia: What Next?
South Asia is a volatile region, with two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – in turmoil of various kinds, and other countries – especially India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – that are vulnerable to an onslaught. The AQSA will tighten its existing terror network in the Af-Pak region. Although Indian states of Gujarat and Kashmir too remain vulnerable – as will Punjab given the geographical proximity to the Pakistan-based Punjabi Taliban – Assam is key for the al Qaeda to spread its activities east. Given the rising levels of fundamentalism in the subcontinent, thanks to Saudi Arabian petro-dollars that flow into the many madrassas that impart hard-line interpretations of the Quran in the region, the likelihood of terror networks allying and growing is very real.
The AQSA Cook to the Global Jihad Broth
Today, in several areas of South Asia, interpretation of the Quran is societally more fundamentalised than it was a decade ago. South and Southeast Asia are home to as many (or more) Muslims in West Asia. Adding to the already delicate situation is the perception of marginalisation among South Asian Muslims. The dastardly treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the rising intolerance towards Islamic ways of life in Sri Lanka, the increasing radicalism in the Maldivian polity, the disquiet over governance in Bangladesh, the politico-social flux in Pakistan, and the indecisiveness apparent in Afghanistan, provide for an excellent ground and timing for an entity like the AQSA to actually consolidate itself quickly. That al-Zawahiri spoke in a mix of Arabic and Urdu is telling. He is reaching out to his target audience by taking on their contours.
The countries of the region will have to beef up security, and communication between the al Qaeda and its regional allies, especially potential allies such as the recently-formed Arakan Mujahideen in Myanmar, will have to be meticulously tracked. It would also important would be to keep a close watch on Indonesia-based Mujahidin Indonesia Timur – an umbrella organisation consisting other groups such as the Jemaah Islamiah (of the Bali bombings) and the Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, and the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
There is a possibility that the al Qaeda’s generous funders sitting in Saudi Arabia might have egged al-Zawahiri on to ensure that the ground they hold now isn’t lost to the IS – that poses serious threats even to the Saudi state. The al Qaeda, in continuation with its desperate efforts to do damage-control/salvage its existence – which isn’t entirely undermined yet – will now move east, where the IS hasn’t spread its tentacles much. It will increase activities in Assam, use it as a bridge to spread to Bangladesh, and from there, to Myanmar, the increasingly radicalising Indonesia and Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei Darussalam.
Regardless of other motivations, the world is now witnessing a full-blown power-struggle between an established global leader of terror, and a fast-emerging entity that is vying for the top title.