Screen shot of Ayman al-Zawahiri announcing the expansion of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. Photo: Courtesy YouTube

A new video released by the al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri seeking more attacks in Kashmir, India, late on July 10, reveals a deep frustration within militant ranks acting in the region, several experts told Asia Times. The call by Zawahiri, that was first published by known al-Qaeda channels, saw him attacking the Indians and the Pakistanis, a first of its kind message from him.

Al-Qaeda is not new to the South Asian subcontinent and in September 2014, he released a video message declaring the formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). In his speech, Zawahiri said that this was not a new development, but a process that started in 2012 to bring all the “Mujahideen” (holy warriors) together. His announcement was soon followed by a similar announcement by ISIS that they were also setting up a dedicated group for the subcontinent.

“It is widely known that ISIS came out of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] after major differences between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with [Osama bin] Laden and Zawahiri. This has followed into the Indian subcontinent,” a senior Indian intelligence analyst told Asia Times. “However, their major ideological differences as well as lack of support from Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI, has limited their growth in the region,” he said.

Officially, the Indian government dismissed Zawahiri’s bluster on video. “We hear these kinds of threats on a daily basis. I don’t think we need to take them seriously,” Raveesh Kumar, the official spokesperson of the Indian foreign office said. Indian security forces, he said, were well equipped to take care of any threat that the al-Qaeda might pose to Kashmir.

A fratricidal war in Kashmir

Since 2014, after al-Qaeda made its formal announcement, sharp differences broke out between the various militant groups operating in the Kashmir valley. The local and Pakistan-supported groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) and Lashkar-e-Toiba refused to work with what they term as “global jihadi groups”. According to senior Indian intelligence officials, there was a lot of distrust between the “Pakistan-sponsored groups” and the new entrants.

“In June this year, when Zakir Musa, the al-Qaeda chief in Kashmir, was killed, we believe that the tip-off came from the Hizbul Mujahideen. They did not want them to expand, and Musa was trying to cash in on the popularity of another Hizbul leader, Burhan Wani, who had been killed a few years ago. This led to a lot of friction between the groups on the ground,” another intelligence official said.

Lieutenant-General D S Hooda, who commanded India’s Northern Army Command, which operated in Kashmir until recently, agreed with this assessment. “Our understanding was that the presence of al-Qaeda was limited, but it was not due to their want of trying. The local groups were inimical to them,” Hooda said. “In 2016, when they announced setting up the AQIS we were cautious. But we soon saw that the Pakistan ISI-based groups were against them on the ground.”

Musa was killed by Indian security forces in June and the al-Qaeda announced Abdul Hameed Lelhari as the new chief of the outfit in India. Based out of Kashmir, Lelhari was also seen as a threat by the other Kashmir-based militant groups. “Among the other issues raised by Zawahiri, he also targets the Pakistan army. That shows there is growing frustration with the fact that the Pakistan-sponsored groups are not letting them grow,” Hooda said.

Rana Banerji, a former career intelligence official who is also recognized as one of the foremost experts on Pakistan, agreed. “The first inference I can draw from the latest video is that Zawahiri is no longer in Pakistan and he is comfortable enough to attack the Pakistani army,” Banerji said.

According to investigative author Adrian Levy, Zawahiri was in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan for years. In his book The Exile he says that Zawahiri married into a tribal family and fathered several children until he was whisked out. “We believe that he was very unhappy that the Pakistanis did not stand up to the US after Osama bin Laden was killed and started becoming vocal,” Banerji said. In his book, Levy claimed that Zawahiri moved to Iran and continues to operate from there. However, there is no independent confirmation of his current whereabouts.

A fresh threat

While Indian intelligence and security officials are not particularly concerned about the fresh video, they are aware that al-Qaeda has less self-imposed restrictions than the Kashmiri and Pakistan-based militant groups active in the region. “We have seen that the local and Pakistan-sponsored groups would ensure that there were no religious or civilian targets,” Hooda said. “They understand that any attack, like one on the Amarnath Hindu pilgrimage that passes through Kashmir, is rarely targeted, if at all. They know this will have devastating consequences for the local population and the economy,” he said.

This raises a legitimate concern about a group keen to establish a name in a very crowded region, to do some kind of attack that has not been attempted before. “As we saw in the Pulwama attack, that claimed the lives of 40 Indian policemen, it does not take too many men or too much logistics to carry out a major attack. Just a few men could do this, and that is why al-Qaeda and ISIS in Kashmir is a very different threat than the ones already there,” Hooda said. “All it takes is good planning, technique and they have both,” Hooda said.

Local police officials in Kashmir also believe that the motivation for Zawahiri to once again exhort his cadres to attack, should not be dismissed. “We have seen that they are in touch with groups in Afghanistan and will have willing cadres to carry out attacks,” a senior Kashmir police officer said. “This means we will have to expand out networks to try and keep tabs and prevent any such attacks they could be planning. So far, we have successfully tackled the local groups. But this competitive jihad is a new element for us and means redirecting scarce resources to track them.”

Hooda believes that at the federal level India’s vast security apparatus needs to come together. “We need dedicated task forces to deal with ISIS and al-Qaeda. People have to be drawn in from different intelligence agencies and share intelligence and develop insights. Unless we do that, we will not have the bandwidth to deal with these emerging threats. We have seen what happened in Sri Lanka earlier this year and we know that despite actionable intelligence, the attackers slipped through.”

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