New Delhi, Sept. 4: Al Qaida has claimed to have branched out to India and vowed to raise the “flag of jihad” across the subcontinent, prompting suggestions that the weakened terror group is trying to compete with the barbaric Islamic State for control of transnational militancy.
In a 55-minute video posted online, al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said the entity, Qaidat al-Jihad in the Indian subcontinent, would defend the “vulnerable in… Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Kashmir.…”
“Your brothers… did not forget you and that they are doing what they can to rescue you from injustice, oppression, persecution and suffering,” he added.
new entity represents the network’s fifth official branch and its first in Asia, adding to branches based in the Sahara region of Africa, in East Africa, in Yemen and in Syria.
Officials in New Delhi said they were treating the video message, which appears to have been posted on Wednesday, as authentic and had asked several state governments to be alert.
Zawahiri referred twice to Gujarat in the video at a time Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat when riots killed over 1,000 people in 2002, has become Prime Minister.
Analysts feel al Qaida’s ageing leaders are struggling to compete for recruits with the Islamic State, which has galvanised young followers around the world by carving out tracts of territory across the Iraq-Syria border.
Zawahiri referred to the Partition of 1947. He vowed to “crush the artificial borders established by the English occupiers to divide the Muslims”.
The video comes at a time reports have emerged that al Qaida’s emerging competitor, the Islamic State, has begun to recruit Indian youths.
Until now, there has been no evidence that al Qaida, the group responsible for the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001, has a presence in India. Some analysts played down the announcement’s significance because of al Qaida’s limited presence in India, where militant networks rely on local recruits.
But al Qaida is very much at home in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area because of influential contacts and a long presence there.
Zawahiri said it had taken more than two years “to gather the mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity”, but did not mention smaller groups that might be affiliated.
The timing and content of the video underscore the rivalry between al Qaida and its more vigorous rival, the Islamic State, which anecdotal evidence suggests is gathering support in South Asia.
“Al Qaida has seen its authority eroded by the fact that it is no longer able to independently carry out large-scale attacks anywhere in the world, and by the emergence of rival factions,” Omar Hamid, head of Asia analysis at security research firm IHS Country Risk, wrote in a report.
Al Qaida’s establishment of a local branch seeks to take advantage of the planned withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, which may lead to an influx of battle-hardened militants into India, Hamid added.
Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York security consulting firm, called the message “a serious counter-narrative to the IS expansion”.
“Al-Zawahiri is establishing an antithesis to IS and its ideology, a message to mujahideen to unify together, not kill Muslims and (not) kill each other, and keep the focus of the attacks on western powers,” Alkhouri said. “In other words, maintain the original al Qaida goals.”
Zawahiri’s statement did not mention the Islamic State or its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but it appeared to take a subtle dig at the group’s efforts at administering areas it has seized in Iraq and Syria. “You must not race for governance and leadership at the first opportunity,” he said.
The statement warned al Qaida’s new wing against oppressing local populations — a complaint levelled against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.