Al-Qaeda’s Newest Franchise

by Dish Staff

In a video released today, Al-Qaeda international leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that the organization was establishing a branch in South Asia to wage jihad in India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Ishaan Tharoor examines the logic behind the decision:

Al-Qaeda’s desire for operational expansion eastward makes sense: There are roughly as many Muslims in South Asia as there are in the Arab world; there are more Muslims outside the Middle East than inside it. The history of the Mughal Empire allows al-Qaeda ideologues to invoke a narrative of lost Muslim preeminence, waiting for redemption, even though some Mughal emperors would have abhorred the terrorist organization’s brand of Islam. … But it’s hard to see how al-Qaeda can capitalize in South Asia if it hasn’t already. For all the tensions and enmities that exist in this diverse, overcrowded region, it’s a part of the world steeped in traditions of pluralism and tolerance. Al-Qaeda’s puritanical zeal, incubated in places such as Saudi Arabia, is wholly alien to the Indian subcontinent. And South Asian governments, particularly in India and Bangladesh, have stepped up cooperation on issues of counterterrorism.

One interpretation is that Zawahiri is trying to recapture al-Qaeda’s relevance as it loses ground in the Islamic heartland to even more radical outfits like ISIS, but Dan Murphy doubts it will work:

Can Zawahiri turn the tide against the upstart jihadis? For now, it seems unlikely. The small percentage of Muslims that support such movements seem elated by Baghdadi’s caliphate declaration, and imagine they’re living in epoch-defining times that will see their dream of converting the whole world at the point of a sword realized. The old Al Qaeda approach – that world domination wasn’t possible until “far enemies” like the US were somehow destroyed – is being upended by the arguably more conventional ISIS approach of seizing territory. For the small group of misfits and loners and true-believers who view the chopping of heads and gunning down captives in their hundreds as heroic, rather than revolting, ISIS is the emerging brand name. When was the last time Joe Biden vowed to chase Al Qaeda to the gates of hell?

Andrew North observes that al-Qaeda has even been losing support in its traditional Af-Pak stronghold. He suggests the decision has something to do with that as well:

Several Pakistani-based militant groups previously allied to al-Qaeda have recently pledged allegiance to IS and its goal of an Islamic caliphate. The group has now reportedly launched a support and recruitment drive in border areas like Peshawar. Booklets in the name of the Dawlat-e-Islamia (Islamic State) have been circulating among the many Afghan refugees living there. Graffiti, or wall-talk, another guide to sentiments, is also going the group’s way, with pro-IS slogans now regularly appearing on Peshawar buildings. And while Zawahiri’s announcement seems primarily aimed at India, the man he named as the new leader of al-Qaeda’s South Asia wing, Asim Umar, is reportedly a Pakistani.

Katherine Zimmerman, on the other hand, argues that the video proves al-Qaeda is still alive and dangerous:

The split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State is very real, as is the contest for the global jihadist movement. The Islamic State’s unprecedented success in Iraq and Syria has energized the movement as a whole, which is why al Qaeda leaders have supported Sunni victories in Iraq. The Islamic State, and then al Qaeda, must both be defeated. Going after one and dismissing the other is short-sighted and leaves American interests vulnerable to attacks. Allying with so-called lesser enemies like Iran, or Syria, as Senator Rand Paul (and others) have suggested, to go after the Sunni threat is just as short-sighted. Just because the Islamic State and al Qaeda want to kill Americans doesn’t mean Assad and Khamenei don’t. Al Qaeda’s newest affiliate is proof of life for those who were questioning. There are still groups seeking to affiliate with al Qaeda, and some of them, such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group in the Sahel, have killed Americans. Al Qaeda is not dead. It is still a threat to the United States, and Ayman al Zawahiri wants us to know it.