Al-Qaeda says it will expand into Indian subcontinent

Leader al-Zawahiri vows to carry fight to India, Burma and Bangladesh

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri announces the formation of an Indian branch of his militant group yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri announces the formation of an Indian branch of his militant group yesterday. Photograph: Reuters


Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has launched a new branch of his global Islamist extremist movement on the Indian subcontinent to wage jihad in a region that is home to perhaps the world’s largest number of Muslims.

In a 55-minute video spotted online by the Site terrorism monitoring group, Zawahiri vowed that al-Qaeda would carry its fight to India, Burma and Bangladesh, to “crush the artificial borders” dividing the regions Muslim population.

The subcontinent’s Muslim population is split between India, with the world’s second-largest population of over 140 million Muslims after Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with far smaller numbers in Burma, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

An Egyptian physician and theologian, Zawahiri said in his native Arabic that this new jihadist group recognised the overarching leadership of the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, reportedly hiding in Quetta in Pakistan.

Senior Pakistani militant Asim Umar would lead its day-to-day activities, the al-Qaeda leader

said. In an audio recording released alongside Zawahiri’s video, Umar warned that Jews and Hindus – whom he referred to as “apostates” – would see their own destruction. More than 80 per cent of India’s population of 1.25 billion are Hindus.

Decrying what he called the region’s “injustice toward Muslims”, Umar said in Urdu that their fighters would “storm your [Hindu] barricades with cars packed with gunpowder”.

After news of Zawahiri’s video emerged, India’s federal home minister Rajnath Singh met top security and intelligence officials to discuss the perceived threat. Local television stations said an alert had been sounded in at least three Indian states with large Muslim populations, although there was no significant mobilisation of security personnel.

A spokesman for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party said that although Zawahiri’s statement was a matter of concern, there was nothing to worry about. “We have a strong government at the federal level,” he said confidently.

Zawahiri said the new group was “the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen on the Indian subcontinent into a single entity”.

Security analysts said Zawahiri’s message seemed largely directed at raising al-Qaeda’s declining profile in the global jihad movement.

In recent weeks, the more ruthless Islamic State militant group that executed two American journalists had upstaged al-Qaeda.

Struggling for legitimacy

“Al-Qaeda is struggling for legitimacy in the eyes of the radicalised Muslim world,” Ajai Sahni of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi said.

Its leadership, including Osama bin Laden, had been eliminated by the US and it was fast losing its relevance among jihadist Muslims, he added.

Others fear that by launching the “Qaedat al-Jihad” or al-Qaeda-led jihad on the Indian subcontinent, Zawahiri could recapture some of the limelight by exploiting existing unrest in India’s Muslim-majority and disputed Kashmir region and among Burma’s Rohingya Muslims living along the Bangladeshi border.