India has stepped up security after al Qaeda announced the formation of a local wing.
In a video posted online, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced it had created an Indian branch and promised to spread Islamic rule and "raise the flag of jihad" across the "Indian subcontinent" and Myanmar. Indian authorities said they were taking the move seriously and put several states on high alert on September 4.
In the meantime, the announcement was hailed by a new breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) called Jamat-ul-Ahrar. "We believe that the branch will work hard for the achievement of the rights of Muslims in the subcontinent," the splinter group's spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, said in a message posted on Twitter and Facebook.
Analysts say al Qaeda has been increasingly overshadowed by 'Islamic State', a renegade offshoot of the terror group which has managed to capture vast territory in Syria and Iraq and inspired thousands of fighters to join its jihadist mission.
So far, terror threats In India have largely come from neighboring Pakistan and Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region. Gauri Khandekar, head of the Asia Program at the European think tank FRIDE, says in a DW interview that while there is no evidence of an al Qaeda presence in the subcontinent, the organization wants to take advantage of the large and young Muslim population in the region.
DW: How credible are the al Qaeda chief's claims of expansion and the creation of an Indian branch?
Gauri Khandekar: This is indeed worrisome. It has been said that al Qaeda (AQ) is trying to compete with IS for recruits and funding, but what has not been said is that the network is also differentiating itself from IS geographically. AQ does not want to compete with IS for territory, so it is trying to claim its own "territory of action" and channeling an undisclosed amount of its resources on the Indian subcontinent, especially as foreign troops prepare to leave Afghanistan though it was expected that terrorists and South Asian terror groups - who migrated to AQ during the Afghanistan war - would return to their original focus, which is Kashmir, India. Although AQ has been weakened, it could set off random attacks just to prove their claim is credible.
How have Indian authorities reacted to the video message?
India's Intelligence Bureau (IB) announced that the video was authentic. After meeting with top officials, the country's Home Minister Rajnath Singh issued an alert to all states and security agencies. The Home Ministry also asked the IB for an assessment report on AQ's presence in the country, which is set to be delivered in a day or two.
There is already a large presence of terrorists and militant groups in the region. On top of that, we have indications of a small yet growing number of radicalized Indian youth, some of whom have gone to Iraq and Syria to join IS, while others have been fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Is there any evidence that al Qaeda is being supported by any groups in India or has any operatives there?
Not until now despite the network's previous efforts. However, it is important to point out that AQ's focus on India is not new. While they were largely perceived as focusing on the United States, various threats to India were made following Osama bin Laden's declaration in 1996. AQ is said to have had links to terrorists and other extremist factions operating in Kashmir and elsewhere in India via Pakistan-based groups.
Furthermore, there are a number of established Islamic terror groups active in India such as the India-based Indian Mujahideen (IM), the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Hizbul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat-e-Mujahideen, Al Badr and others, who have their own agendas and leadership.
Some of these organizations were set up even before al Qaeda was founded and most have the Kashmir separatism issue at heart. The largest among them - IM and LeT - have also declared the same goals as AQ, namely the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in South Asia and the imposition of Sharia Law.
These groups normally claim responsibility for terror attacks in India, so it is unlikely that they would want to share the credit with al Qaeda or come under its branch, unless they receive major resources from AQ.
According to Indian security forces, AQ's India operations will be handled by an IM splinter group based in Pakistan. Pakistani top AQ operative Asim Umar was named as the operational commander of the branch. It is more likely that they will seek new recruits. So we can see the latest video more in the context of AQ announcing vacancies rather than launching a new branch.
The militant group promised to "storm your barricades with cars packed with gunpowder." Why would al Qaeda choose the Indian subcontinent as a target for terrorist acts?
There are several reasons for this. First, the South and Southeast Asia regions have three times more Muslims than the Middle East. India alone has around 175 million Muslims - 15 percent of its population - making it the third largest Muslim-populated country worldwide. AQ wants to take advantage of this and the fact that South Asia also has a largely young population.
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