India steps up security as al-Qaeda announces local franchise


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India is said to have upped security after the leader of al-Qaeda announced he had established a branch of the militant network in the Indian sub-continent and sought to reach out to Muslims from Burma to Kashmir.

Speaking during a 55-minute video message, Ayman al Zawahiri, who became the leader of al-Qaeda after the US killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, said he wanted to “raise the flag of jihad” across South Asia.

“al-Qaeda is an entity that was formed to promulgate the call of the reviving imam, Sheikh Osama Bin Laden. May Allah have mercy upon him,” said the 63-year-old Zawahiri.

He urged the Muslim world to “wage jihad against its enemies, to liberate its land, to restore its sovereignty and to revive its caliphate”. He also re-pledged loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

Reports on Indian television said that at least three states with large Muslim populations had been put on alert, and that Home Minister Rajnath Singh has met with aides to discuss the video. Intelligence officials were said to be trying to confirm its authenticity.

India is no stranger to militant attacks. In 2008 the city of Mumbai was besieged for three days by Pakistani fighters linked to the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba group. More than 160 people were killed.


Over the years there have also been reports about the activities of the Indian Mujahideen, a shadowy, supposedly home-grown outfit that has been blamed by the media for various blasts and explosions in different cities across the country.

Yet experts said al-Qaeda has never managed to make much of an impression in India, which is home to the world’s second or third largest number of Muslims. 

“When I saw this news this morning, I turned the page,” said Vikram Sood, a former head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the country’s foreign intelligence agency. “They have been around for 10, 12, 15 years and they have not had any impact.”

Others are not no sanguine. Rana Banerji, another former senior intelligence official, said the message from Zawahri should be taken “very seriously”. He said it showed he was probably still most likely located in either Pakistan or Afghanistan.

“Recently there have been splits in the al-Qaeda franchise with younger elements getting more followers and funds,” he said. “So Zawahri needs to establish his ideological leadership, plus show some action.”

Many analysts saw the message from Zawahri as an attempt to counter the flurry of global attention recently paid to the Islamic State (IS). The IS, which has galvanised young followers around the world by seizing large swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, fell out with Zawahri in 2013 over its expansion into Syria.

Indeed, the lure of the IS has been felt in India as well. Last month a 21-year-old engineering student who lived near Mumbai, Areeb Majid, was reportedly killed after travelling to Iraq with three friends to join the militant group. He apparently left a note for his family saying he was deeply concerned about “sinning, smoking and watching TV”.

“They are under pressure,” former Indian diplomat KC Singh, said of al-Qaeda’s relationship with the IS. “There is a battle going on and they feel they have a better in chance in India than other places.”

In his video message, the Egyptian-born Zawahri, on whose head there is $25m (£15m) reward, offered his greetings to Muslims in “Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir” and said the new wing of his network would rescue Muslims there from injustice and oppression.

The message said the South Asian faction of al-Qaeda would be headed by Pakistani militant Asim Umar. Umar is known as an al-Qaeda propagandist and featured in a film by the militant network marking the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

In an audio recording also released with the video, Umar said that Jews and Hindus will “watch your destruction by your own eyes”. “Fighters will storm your barricades with cars packed with gunpowder,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

Sameer Patil, of the Indian Council on Foreign Relations, said al-Qaeda had previously tried to launch a faction in India under the oversight of militant Ilyas Kashmiri, who was killed in a drone strike in 2011. The effort had failed.

“al-Qaeda is a bigger threat to India’s interests than the IS – on the mainland and in Afghanistan - due to its linkages with Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Afghan Taliban, with which it renewed its allegiance in the current video,” he said.