Explained: What Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing means for India
Over the past few months, Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s interference in India had increased. He released a video on the hijab controversy in Karnataka and recently gave a call to ‘go to Assam’, both seen as an attempt to radicalise Indian Muslims
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, the world’s No 1 terrorist and one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, was killed in a drone strike carried out by the United States in the Afghan capital Kabul.
US President Joe Biden said, “Justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more.”
After Osama Bin Laden was killed in a US raid on a compound in Pakistan’s Abbottabad in May 2011, Al-Qaeda proclaimed his right-hand man al-Zawahiri its paramount leader.
While Zawahri was crucial in turning the jihadi movement to target the United States, he had his eyes trained on the Indian subcontinent, especially India. He mentioned the country on numerous occasions, often talking about Kashmir, with the Al-Qaeda condemning “massacres” in the Valley and Assam.
Over the last few months, his interference in India’s matters had seen a rise. We take a look at the threats and why Zawahri's killing is important to the country.
The Karnatka hijab row
Most recently, Zawahiri caught the attention of Indian intelligence authorities amid the hijab row that erupted in Karnataka after students moved the high court, demanding that they be allowed to wear headscarves in school.
In the video, released on Al-Qaeda’s As-Sahab media, the terrorist, spoke on the hijab controversy and described Indian democracy as “pagan Hindu”. He praised Muskan Khan, the college student from Udupi, who hit headlines for shouting “Allahu Akbar” to take on a group of hecklers chanting “Jai Shree Ram”.
When a #hijabi student arrives at PES college in Mandya, India. She gets heckled by students cum goons. She raises her hand says #AllahuAkbar before being escorted by college staff. #Muskan #Sherni #Courageiscontagious #BanonHijab #HumanRightsviolations #Muslims #Islam pic.twitter.com/fjUa6z1w7H
— Alienstookit (@alienstookit) February 8, 2022
Hailing Khan, the Al-Qaeda chief said, “May Allah reward her for showing a moral lesson to sisters plagued by an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the decadent Western world.”
Zawahiri said that her “defiant slogan of takbeer” had “emboldened the spirit of jihad” and had reawakened the Muslim community. He accused “the pagan Hindu democracy of India” of seeking to “oppress Muslims”.
A message for Kashmir
In 2019, Zawahiri released a video, calling for the “mujahideen in Kashmir” to inflict “unrelenting blows” on the Indian Army and the government in Jammu and Kashmir.
His 14-minute speech also brought to light Pakistan’s involvement in fuelling cross-border terrorism in Kashmir in a message titled “Don’t forget Kashmir”.
Al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s latest video on Kashmir titled “Don’t forget Kashmir”. Asks “Mujahideen” in Kashmir to hit Indian army with “unrelenting blows”. Urges them to perform Jihad for Allah, not for the sake of “international criminals” (Pakistan) pic.twitter.com/oGesHaa79E
— Rahul Pandita (@rahulpandita) July 10, 2019
According to the American news website FDD’s Long War Journal, he said, “I am of the view that the mujahideen in Kashmir – at this stage at least – should single-mindedly focus on inflicting unrelenting blows on the Indian Army and government so as to bleed the Indian economy and make India suffer sustained losses in manpower and equipment. In doing so, the mujahideen must persevere patiently.”
Launching Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent
After taking charge of Al-Qaeda in 2011, Al Zawahiri wanted to build an outfit that would focus solely on the Indian subcontinent.
In 2014, he announced the creation of the Indian branch of the terror organisation to “raise the flag of jihad” across South Asia. In a 56-minute-long speech, he spoke of the formation of the Jamaat qaidat al-jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya, or Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Sub-Continent and said that Al- Qaeda had not forgotten its Muslim brothers in India. He vowed that the jihadist group will “break all borders created by Britain in India”, and called on the region’s Muslims to “unite under the credo of the one god”.
Zawahiri named Maulana Asim Omar as the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The India-born terrorist was killed in Afghanistan in 2019. But the AQIS has operations in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.
Operatives of the AQIS, who were trying to set up a training camp in the forests of Jharkhand, were arrested in Delhi in 2015. The group has been reaching out to Muslims in the country, attempting to draw their attention to the atrocities in Kashmir, India’s dominance in South Asia, undermining “Muslim values and culture” and its alliance with the United States and Russia, according to a report in The Diplomat.
After the controversial remarks about Prophet Muhammad by BJP’s Nupur Sharma hit international headlines, the AQIS threatened to launch suicide attacks in Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat to “fight for the honour of the Prophet”.
Issuing a warning to “Hindutva terrorists occupying India”, the AQIS said in the letter, “we should fight for the dignity of our Prophet, we should urge others to fight and die for the honour of our Prophet, we should kill those who affront our Prophet and we should bind explosives with our bodies and the bodies of our children to blow away the ranks of those who dare to dishonour our Prophet”.
What Zawahiri’s killing means for India
Over the past few months, Zawahiri and the AQIS’ increased focus on India had security agencies on alert.
Even as Al-Qaeda weakened and its affiliate in the Indian subcontinent has been restricted to “small-scale regional attacks”, Zawahiri’s message after the Karnataka hijab row appeared to be a call to Indian Muslims to join the jihadist movement.
It did not stop at that. Zawahiri continued to interfere in India. In Assam, police have bust modules of Ansar ul-Islam, a chapter of the AQIS. The state had recently termed Zawahiri’s appeal to do “hijrah” or migrate to Assam as “disturbing”, reports The Times of India.
Assam Police chief Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta said, “AQIS is showing interest to expand its network in the northeast.” He added that Zawahiri in a recent video appealed to jihadists to go to Assam, warning that another “disturbing” aspect was that AQIS’ quarterly magazine was being published in Bengali “which is dangerous”.
According to Mahanta, it “may be an attempt to radicalise young people”.
A United Nations report published in June pointed out that “Al Qaeda enjoyed great freedom” under the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The AQIS included fighters from “Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan and were located in Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Paktika and Zabul Provinces,” the report said.
India has been cautious in reaching out to the new regime in Afghanistan. While New Delhi may continue to help Afghanistan through humanitarian assistance, it has to keep its eyes open for terrorist activities aimed at India from Afghan soil, reports The Indian Express.
Zawahiri’s killing is an eye-opener on how the Taliban is providing a haven to terror organisations including the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), both Pakistan-based groups which have targeted India in the past.
Zawahiri is gone but New Delhi has every reason to be on alert.
With inputs from agencies
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