What should we make of this call by Zawahiri, of this loveless jihad? Why has he made this declaration, and why now? After all, al Qaeda has been in Afghanistan for years; and therefore in Pakistan; and therefore available, already, for anti-India jihad. Counterterrorism experts I spoke to were as one in pointing to the rise of ISIS in the Syria-Iraq theater as the main propulsion. ISIS has not merely stolen al Qaeda’s thunder; it is siphoning recruits away from the older organization, which has yet to recover from the catastrophic loss (in terms of charisma, and as a species of jihadi Lord Kitchener) of bin Laden. “Zawahiri wants you” doesn’t have quite the same impact on potential recruits as “Osama wants you.”
Gen. Ata Hasnain, a former Kashmir Corps commander in the Indian army, told me that before ISIS emerged as a jihadi force, al Qaeda “never felt the need to expand its ambit into South Asia. The anti-India terrorist groups in Pakistan were considered adequately motivated and organized, and al Qaeda preferred to remain only an inspiration for them, instead of overextending itself. Its prime battle was with Saudi Arabia and the U.S.” With the rise of ISIS, he said, al Qaeda has effectively been dwarfed. The avowal of jihad against India is its attempt to aggrandize itself anew.
The dwindling numbers of the Pakistani Taliban, partly thanks to the Syrian jihad drawing them away, could be another factor in the announcement of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent:
Just a few years ago, the Taliban was one of the two prime Islamist militant groups—the other being Al Qaida-aligned insurgents in Iraq—for foreign fighters around the world to enlist with. But with the self-proclaimed Islamic State on the warpath and new conflicts in North Africa, the Taliban has become less attractive. Specifically, the Pakistani Taliban. That’s the subject of a new report in CTC Sentinel, West Point’s counter-terrorism newsletter. As of July 2008, the Pakistani Taliban included around 8,000 foreign fighters, notes Raza Khan, a political analyst who authored the report. These fighters came from western Europe, the Middle East, China, Russia, India, and central Asian countries, particularly Uzbekistan. But today, only a few hundred remain.
But Arif Rafiq counsels against overstating the connection between ISIS and AQIS:
For the past few years, Al Qaeda has stepped up its outreach to Pakistanis. Its Urdu-language service is among its most active. Al-Zawahiri has also made a handful of statements addressing the plight of Muslims in Burma and India, and Islamic activists targeted by the state in Bangladesh. It’s been laying the groundwork for AQIS for some time. Indeed, more than beating out competition from IS, Al Qaeda is trying to fill a void in the South Asian jihadist community—the absence of a grand patron. While Pakistan’s intelligence services continue to support militant groups in the region, such as Lashkar-e Taiba, its support for militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir has remained low for much of the past decade. That’s why Umar, the AQIS chief, in another video released this summer, asked Kashmiri Muslims to join Al Qaeda’s ranks and accused Pakistan of selling them out.
“The success or failure of Zawahiri’s new initiative,” Nisid Hajari writes, “may rest on one man: India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi”:
The fastest way to increase Al Qaeda’s limited appeal in India would be for the authorities to overreact, as China has done with Uighurs in its restive Xinjiang province. This would not only alienate the best source of intelligence on homegrown radicals — the local Muslim community — it would rapidly burnish the appeal of radicals over more moderate voices. Any government scapegoating of Indian Muslims would be equally damaging. Modi’s association with the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat and the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh make him a lightning rod for many Muslims. He bears a special responsibility to endorse the loyalty of Indian Muslims and assure them they will not be targeted unfairly.
Probably the best way to ensure Zawahiri’s grand designs never come to fruition would be for Modi to push forward the stalled India-Pakistan peace process. As long as the wounds that divide the South Asian nations continue to fester, leaders on both sides will remain hostage to the actions of a few radicals: Any post-Mumbai terrorist plot in India that is traced back to Pakistan bears a high risk of setting off a wider conflagration.