In what seems an awful lot like a bid for continued relevance at a time when al-Qaida’s international prominence is being overshadowed by its erstwhile offshoot, ISIS, Ayman al-Zawahiri has announced a new regional expansion in the Indian subcontinent:
In a video spotted in online jihadist forums by the SITE terrorism monitoring group, Zawahiri said the new force would “crush the artificial borders” dividing Muslim populations in the region.
Al-Qaida is active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where its surviving leadership are thought to be hiding out, but Zawahiri said “Qaedat al-Jihad” would take the fight to India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.
“This entity was not established today but is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian sub-continent into a single entity,” he said.
Zawahiri has been conspicuously quiet since ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself leader of a new “caliphate” in July, directly threatening al-Qaida’s leadership position in the global jihadist movement. The language about “artificial borders” also seems a bit reminiscent of ISIS’s emphasis on erasing those borders imposed on the Middle East by outside powers.
Zawahiri’s influence had likely been waning even before ISIS came on the scene. Osama Bin Laden’s death and years of punishing drone strikes in Pakistan degraded his ability to lead the movement, and regional offshoots like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and Somalia’s al-Shabaab grew in prominence. The most prominent al-Qaida groups seem to be sticking with Zawahiri for now, though the BBC reported a few days ago that at least one Afghan Taliban group is considering joining up with ISIS. ISIS certainly seems to be winning in terms of international recruitment.
If Zawahiri is looking to expand into new territory, India makes some sense, particularly following the election of Narendra Modi, a leader with a controversial background as a Hindu nationalist who has been accused in the past of abetting violence against Muslims in his home state of Gujarat. Things have been fairly quiet on the religious front in India since Modi's election, but that could change. Indian authorities have issued a security alert in response to Zawahiri's message, and there are some concerns that al-Qaida may expand its relationship with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based group believed to have carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Al-Qaida central may not be the force it once was, but an international terror network with something to prove is certainly cause for concern.