Al Qaeda’s new branch in India

Fighters in Karachi. Image credit to AFP

Al Qaeda recently announced that they shall be creating a new branch of their franchise for the Indian Subcontinent. The countries that will be targeted by this new branch include India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The new head of this organization is Umar Asim, a commander of the Pakistani Taliban. AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (Arabic: جماعة قاعدة الجهاد في شبة القارة الهندية) literally Group (or Organization) of the base for Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent), according to Zarawahiri, is to essentially ‘liberate’ the Muslims in the aforementioned areas from injustice and oppression. By Zawahiri’s account, this new extension has been in the works for the last two years. Whether this is true or not, the formation of this group cannot be viewed in isolation.

The timing of this new branch, like most commentators have already discussed, is coming in a period where Al Qaeda has suffered a loss in credibility and prestige with the recent success of ISIS in the Middle East. Not only has ISIS controlled such a large area (along with governing it), it has also successfully held off Al Qaeda’s local franchise (Jabhat Al Nusra) as well as the Assad government. Indeed, with the death of Osama Bin Laden (a charismatic speaker) and its weakening franchises (like Al Shabaab), and other franchises declaring loyalty to ISIS (like AQAP), AQ needs a booster.

So what can Al Qaeda do? They focus on the one region where ISIS does not have strong connections. South Asia has a long history of jihadi terrorism as well as several issues that can appeal to Muslims in the subcontinent (like the fear of Buddhist and Hindu extremists). There is a fear that ISIS will make inroads into South Asia. ISIS pamphlets have already been seen distributed in Pakistan, has attracted some Indians to come fight (a rare thing as I briefly discussed here), and has proliferated multiple recruitment videos in South Asian languages, AQ has a real fear that ISIS will overtake them in a region where they currently have the advantage.

Yet AQIS is a threat to the subcontinent. Both India and Bangladesh are relatively weak states (in the sense they cannot properly implement the rule of law in all areas they control (more discussion about this in a future post)) that already have to worry about a well-established terrorist network in South Asia (established by groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba). There have also been indications that the fighters for the Indian Mujahideen have started to align themselves with Al Qaeda (thanks to the leadership of the organization having been captured). Although AQIS might not become the most powerful group in South Asia (an unfortunate honor that can arguably be given to LeT), it could gain the operational capability to threaten the region in the near future. Indeed, both the Indian and Bangladeshi governments have stated that they are taking the issue seriously.

But the importance of India to jihadis is often overstated. Although Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members made reference to India as a potential target (the Zionist-Crusader-Hindu alliance), it was actually never a serious threat. The previous mentions of India or Kashmir had usually been minor, especially compared to their statements against the United States. Even in the first instance Bin Laden mentioned the Zionist-Crusader-Hindu alliance, the country of Sudan was mentioned and criticized more than Hindus, India or Kashmir. Even in the ideology of many transnational jihadist groups (most based in the Middle East), the focus has been on America and Israel, as well as the so called secular Arab regimes. In fact, the addition of Hindu to the alliance was done by Pakistani groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba in order to try to integrate their objectives with the global jihadi movement. Indeed, LeT has aided Al Qaeda while it has been stationed in Pakistan, although LeT has enough power and its own objectives to be independent from the infamous terrorist organization. With the organization suffering a loss in prestige, it will attempt to try and appeal to Muslims in areas that ISIS has little to no influence. As a result, it would not be surprising if Al Qaeda will continue to integrate its ideology more with the current Pakistani jihadist beliefs.

It will take some time to see whether this group will turn out to be a serious threat or not. Although some Indian commentators have insinuated that China and Pakistan will support this group (both directly and indirectly), this is also unlikely.  Other authors have accused the ISI of supporting Al Qaeda, but much of this is based on circumstantial evidence. It is also very unlikely that China would support an Islamist group against India that could possibly turn to the Uighur problem next.

At this time, not enough information has been released about the group to get a clearer picture of this organization. As time goes on, we will become more acquainted with this new branch, although we should really hope not.

The Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Offensive

Zarb-e-Azb

 

According to Michael Kugelman at The Diplomat, the Pakistani military has given journalists some indications that it will go after the infamous Haqqani network. Yet Kugelman and Bill Roggio remain skeptical of the willingness of the Pakistani military in going after the Haqqani network. Indeed, if the Pakistani military decided to take action against their proxy, that would signal a major shift in the country’s security strategy towards Afghanistan, if not the region as a whole. If this is true, this would be a significant step to achieving regional stability. However, I happen to agree with Kugelman and Roggio that military action that would significantly affect the capabilities of the group is unlikely to be undertaken by the Pak military. Both authors give their reasons of why they remain skeptical of this new announcement (I will also list some of the reasons why I agree with them).

First, it is noteworthy to look at a similar time when the Pakistani government was forced to crackdown on its proxies. Shortly after the 9/11 and Indian parliament attacks, foreign governments put a great deal of pressure on having the Pakistani government (under Musharraf) to rein in the militants aligned with the military. While Musharraf did go after some of the militants, it was done very selectively. In what is best described as the good jihadi/bad jihadi policy, Musharraf tried to protect groups that he felt could still be utilized against India while cracking down on groups that refused to follow orders. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was the perfect example of this. Despite the fact that the group had participated in the parliament attacks, had aided Al Qaeda, and remained a dangerous and formidable terrorist organization, the group was given warning ahead of time to move their assets and change their name. So while it appeared that the Pakistani government was cracking down on multiple organizations, many of these groups were given a heads up about the crackdown, giving them time to transfer their assets to avoid a loss of capability. (On this case, see Stephen Tankel’s: Storming the World Stage (also one of the best books on LeT there is)).

Similarly, there have been complaints from US officials that the Haqqani Network had already been tipped off by the Pak military before the operation had began, similar to the case above. Roggio even noted in his article of the presence of a good Taliban/bad Taliban issue as even some of the military spokesmen tried to avoid saying that they were attacking like the Haqqani network.

The Haqqani Network today remains one of the best power projection tools that the Pakistani government has in Afghanistan today. Indeed, the group has never overtly attacked the state or has it ever attempted to turn on the state. While the Pak government statements of an inclusive military offensive against all organizations in North Waziristan might have been an attempt to quell Afghani perceptions of a selective crackdown, as well as evidence that the Haqqani Network has been helping both the Pakistani and Afghani Taliban, at the moment the pros outweigh the cons. Indeed, the Haqqani Network garnered a reputation as one of the most dangerous and sophisticated insurgent group operating in Afghanistan today. With the incoming U.S. withdrawal (something that has been making all countries in the region nervous), it would be wise and sensible for the Pakistani government to maintain a link to all their assets that could help them navigate the mess that might arise in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan. Lastly, the Pakistani state is currently under attack from many formerly aligned militant organizations as well as the Pakistani Taliban, creating a formidable and difficult domestic security situation that the country has to deal with. By going after the Haqqani Network, the Pak government will just have created yet another enemy that it will have to deal with in the short term. In that context, the refusal of the Pakistani military not to attack the Haqqani network in the short term future remains a rational decision, all contributing to the fact that any offensive in North Waziristan is unlikely to drastically affect the Haqqani Network.