In Recent Columns, MEMRI South Asia Studies Project Director Examines Multiplication Of Al-Qaeda’s Operational Nucleuses, The Jihadi Threat To India, And The Rise Of South Asian Islamists


In February 2013, an Al-Qaeda video showed three Muslim areas of India on which the British did not have full control during 1857-1947

In a series of recent columns, MEMRI South Asia Studies Project Director Tufail Ahmad examined the multiplication of Al-Qaeda’s operational nucleuses and decision-making capabilities, the jihadi threat to India, and the emergence of Islamist forces in South Asia in the run-up to the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Excerpts are given below from two columns – “The Growth of Al-Qaeda”[1] and “Al-Qaeda’s India Focus”[2] – which were published by The New Indian Express, a leading Indian daily, followed by excerpts from an article titled “The Rise of Islamists in Pakistan,[3] published by the liberal Pakistani website

Excerpts From Column “The Growth of Al-Qaeda”

“Despite The Al-Qaeda Central Damaged By Bin Laden’s Killing, Several Of Its Operational Nucleuses Appear Dangerous”; “The Jihadi Groups Share A Singular Goal: Establishment Of Shari’a Emirates In Their Operational Domains, Expected To Eventually Constitute A Global Islamic Caliphate”

“In July 2011, Leon Panetta, the U.S. Defence Secretary and former CIA chief on way to Kabul just weeks after bin Laden’s killing, predicted that the U.S. is ‘within reach of strategically defeating Al-Qaeda.’ However, the goal of Al-Qaeda’s strategic defeat appears thwarted by the diversification of its leadership at multiple levels. On 9/11, Al-Qaeda’s leadership was limited within Afghanistan; a decade later its organizational and decision-making capabilities have diversified across many countries.

“At a March 12, 2013, hearing of a U.S. Senate Committee, U.S. National Intelligence director James R. Clapper observed: ‘Terrorist threats are in a transition period as the global jihadi movement becomes increasingly decentralized… The dispersed and decentralized nature of the terrorist networks active in the (Middle Eastern) region highlights that the threat to U.S. and Western interests overseas is more likely to be unpredictable.’

“Today, Al-Qaeda remains a much more vibrant terrorist group than it was a decade ago, as more groups follow it. Last January, Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of Mali-based Ansar Al-Din, commented on how a group joins Al-Qaeda: ‘the extreme belligerent logic against Muslims and their just issues, which has become the hallmark of international policy, pushes everyone to adopt Al-Qaeda’s manhaj (approach).’

“Many Al-Qaeda affiliates do not get instructions and funding from Al-Zawahiri, but they share the jihadi objectives against the West. Despite the Al-Qaeda central damaged by bin Laden’s killing, several of its operational nucleuses appear dangerous.

“With a track record of lethal attacks, the following groups are more dangerous than the dented Al-Qaeda central: the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria, Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of North Africa, Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen in Somalia. Formally, only four groups are part of Al-Qaeda: ISI, AQIM, AQAP and Harkat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, but others work as allies. Some formidable allies include the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Mali-based Ansar al-Din, Boko Haram and Ansaru of Nigeria and like-minded groups in the Caucasus and Gaza. The jihadi groups share a singular goal: establishment of shari’a emirates in their operational domains, expected to eventually constitute a global Islamic caliphate. Western jihadis, including from the U.S., Canada and Europe, are in their ranks.”

“To Imagine How Al-Qaeda Will Look Like In Ten Years From Now, Consider These Battlefields [Of Syria, Iraq And Afghanistan] As Combat Training Grounds For Future Terrorist Commanders”; “Reports Indicate That… [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan] is Recruiting Jihadis From As Far As Fiji”

“Recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Jabhat Al-Nusra, which comprises over 7,000 fighters including Chechens in Syria, have carried out deadly attacks. Reports indicate that jihadis of Indian origin from the UK are also fighting in Syria. While Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen of Somalia has come under pressure from an African Union force, AQAP and AQIM pose major threats to Western interests. Also, each of these groups consists of, not hundreds, but thousands of fighters. Jihadi groups are also exercising varying degrees of control over territories in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. To imagine how Al-Qaeda will look like in ten years from now, consider these battlefields as combat training grounds for future terrorist commanders.

“In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the jihadi infrastructure remains unharmed. The Al-Qaeda central group continues to survive in Pakistan. In July 2011, General David Petraeus, days before he handed over his command of Afghanistan, said that 50 to 100 Al-Qaeda militants are hiding in Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. However, this figure is misleading as it refers only to foreign militants, generally Arabs and Chechens [and Uzbeks], and not the locals.

“The Haqqani Network is launching spectacular attacks in Kabul and other cities. U.S. officials have tried to depict the group as separate from the Afghan Taliban, but the Islamic Emirate led by Mullah Mohammad Omar has rejected such portrayals as U.S. propaganda aimed at dividing the Taliban. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the chief of Haqqani Network, has stressed that his group is part of the Islamic Emirate. According to U.S. officials, there are about 20,000 jihadi fighters in Afghanistan and about the same in Iraq, with no signs that the number is falling anywhere.

“The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, is dismissed as a Pakistani group, though its letterhead shows Mullah Omar as emir-ul-momineen, or leader of the faithful. It works alongside Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Party of Turkistan. Hakimullah Mehsud, its emir, was a member of the group that executed the bombing of CIA’s Khost base in 2009. Mehsud has reiterated that his group owes allegiance to Mullah Omar. Recently, he described the TTP as an international organisation. In May 2010, New York’s Times Square was attacked by a militant recruited by Mehsud.

“In early 2013, media reports indicate that the TTP is recruiting jihadis from as far as Fiji. In Pakistan, another group that works alongside the TTP and Al-Qaeda is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Protected by government leaders in Punjab, it is systematically killing Shi’ite Muslims, a goal shared by all jihadi groups. At his Senate testimony, James Clapper also warned that Lashkar-e-Taiba ‘will continue to be the most multifaceted and problematic of the Pakistani militant groups” and has the “long-term potential to evolve into a permanent… presence in Pakistan,’ like Hizbullah in Lebanon….”

Excerpts From Column “Al-Qaeda’s India Focus”

Al-Qaeda Official Ustad Ahmad Farooq: Killings Of Muslims In Myanmar And Assam State ‘Provide Impetus For Us To Hasten Our Advance Towards Delhi”: “[A] Factor Injecting An Element Of India Perspective Into Al-Qaeda’s Strategic Thinking Is Its Recruitment Of Pakistani Militants To Top Operational And Organizational Positions”

“In recent years, India has been frequently mentioned in Al-Qaeda’s literature, but a September 30 [2012] statement by a senior militant in Pakistan indicates that the terror group is evolving its strategy on the Myanmar-Assam region. In the statement, Ustad Ahmad Farooq, who was appointed as Al-Qaeda’s head of preaching and media department for Pakistan in 2009, warned that the recent killings of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam ‘provide impetus for us to hasten our advance towards Delhi’. He noted: ‘I warn the Indian government that after Kashmir, Gujarat… you may add Assam to the long list of your evil deeds.’

“Al-Qaeda’s emerging thinking on the Myanmar-Assam region is consistent with its new jihadi framework on South Asia. From 2008 onwards, after Al-Qaeda militants were tortured in Pakistani prisons, it produced academic research, arguing that the Pakistan Army is an apostate force and eligible to be annihilated for supporting the United States war on terror. The Pakistan Army has been involved in killing Muslims – Al-Qaeda argued in videos and statements – through the past three centuries: notably as part of Indian units of the British colonial force in 1757 war, against Mughal rulers in 1857 and during British military expeditions to Baghdad and Jerusalem before the second world war; and after 1947, in the 1971 Bangladesh war, in toppling the Taliban regime in 2001 and in the Pakistani tribal region and Baluchistan recently. To advance its jihadi framework, Al-Qaeda relies on an Islamist interpretation that a Muslim ‘assisting infidels even partly’ has left Islam and is therefore liable to be killed.

“Another factor injecting an element of India perspective into Al-Qaeda’s strategic thinking is its recruitment of Pakistani militants to top operational and organizational positions, for example Ilyas Kashmiri and Mansoor Badr, both of whom were killed in U.S. drone strikes. Ustad Farooq, the first Pakistani national to be promoted to a leadership position in Al-Qaeda, has emerged as its sole spokesman on South Asia. Early this year [in 2012], Farman Ali Shinwari, a key militant commander, was appointed as head of Al-Qaeda’s Pakistani branch, replacing Mansoor Badr. According to Pakistani author Amir Mir, Shinwari’s three brothers were involved in Kashmir jihad during the 1990s. Although Al-Qaeda has been led by Arab fighters, its recruitment of local militants means that the group has a ready historical-jihadi framework on India, where it sees a large presence of disaffected Muslims.

“Following the killing of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. has given an impression that Al-Qaeda has been largely defeated. However, ground realities are otherwise: hordes of Al-Qaeda terrorists can be seen roaming publicly in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Egypt. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda videos emerging from Afghanistan and Pakistan on jihadi Internet forums reveal a similar pattern: in these videos, militants are not seen hiding in caves and mountains, but they appear in droves and pass through villages led by their commanders.”

“In Pakistan, There Is A Worrying Pattern In Counter-Insurgency: While Several Taliban And Al-Qaeda Militants Have Been Killed In U.S. Drone Strikes, The Pakistani Military Operations Have Invariably Avoided Killing Or Capturing Any Top Taliban Commander”

“In recent months, Afghan soldiers defecting to the Taliban were garlanded at public ceremonies in remote villages, where the presence of children was visible. Some U.S. analysts have sought to present Mullah Mohammad Omar as leader of the Taliban whose focus is limited to Afghanistan. In reality, all jihadi groups in the Middle East and the Caucasus have offered, like Osama bin Laden did, their bai’yah (oath of allegiance) to Mullah Omar, who is deemed as Emir-ul-Momineen, leader of the faithful, leading the global jihad.

“In Pakistan, there is a worrying pattern in counter-insurgency: while several Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants have been killed in U.S. drone strikes, the Pakistani military operations have invariably avoided killing or capturing any top Taliban commander – except for two Taliban spokesmen, Maulvi Omar and Muslim Khan, who were detained. Pakistan does not need to kill thousands of militants to win this war and curb Islamic extremism; it merely needs to kill or arrest the top 25 commanders, including Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Maulana Masood Azhar. However, this is unlikely to occur, as the Pakistan Army, once a strong force, is too weak now to confront them. Currently, the Taliban militants are recuperating and strengthening their fighters in the hope of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 and for a new era of jihad to begin.

“In his statement, Ustad Farooq mentioned the issue of Muslim minorities in Thailand, Burma, India and Sri Lanka, and in a bid to recruit Pakistani soldiers to Al-Qaeda’s cause, argued that Muslims who had been supporting Pakistan migrated to Assam and Burma due to Pakistani Army’s failure to win the 1971 Bangladesh war. The lower ranks of Pakistan Army remain influenced by the jihadi message. Over the past three decades, soldiers recruited into Pakistani Army were influenced by a jihadi culture and into the next three decades they will be moving into decision-making positions in the military.

“Notwithstanding India’s unilateral drive to better relations with Pakistan, it is unlikely that the Pakistani military’s jihadi impulse will permit democratic forces to assert control in Islamabad. This complicates the scenario in South Asia, as Al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan is known to have worked with and without the support of the jihadi forces in Pakistani military.

“In addition to the India-specific threat, Ustad Farooq also warned Buddhists in Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Urging Islamic scholars in Bangladesh ‘to step forward and help the oppressed Muslims living in their neighborhood,’ he also warned the Burmese government: ‘Don’t think that the blood of Muslims will continue to flow like this.’

“The September 30 statement is also perhaps the most detailed policy document to emerge from Al-Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan with regard to South Asia. On the 9/11 anniversary this year [in 2012], Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri vowed to liberate ‘occupied Muslim lands,’ including India. In short, Al-Qaeda is developing its look-east policy for South and Southeast Asia. Amid a series of Indian intelligence failures over the recent decades such as those leading to the Kargil War and the 11/26 Mumbai attacks, India is totally unprepared to prevent terrorism on its soil.”

Excerpts From Column – “The Rise Of Islamists In Pakistan”

“Religious And Jihadi Forces In Pakistan And Its Neighborhood Are Taking A Leaf Out Of, Proverbially Speaking, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s Book On Islamism”; “The Islamists Also Note The Case Of Turkey Where An Islamist Government Has Been Slowly Removing Secular Influences From The Country’s Political And Cultural Life”

“It is becoming clear that religious and jihadi forces in Pakistan and its neighborhood are taking a leaf out of, proverbially speaking, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s book on Islamism. They sense a political opportunity emerging ahead of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 and nurse a dream of Islamic revival in South Asia in its wake. Pakistani religious scholar Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri’s so-called million-man march on Islamabad from January 14 [2013] and his failed bid to unseat the elected government through a mass uprising is rooted in this new thinking. He has millions of followers in Pakistan and India.

“In the past, Islamic scholars have sought to interpret Islamic literature in order to make Islam relevant to contemporary times. However, their hopes for Islamic revival have generally been unsuccessful. Their path to Islamic revival has also been complicated since America became the first democracy in 1776. Over the course of past centuries, democracy has gained currency in people’s minds throughout the world, making it difficult for Islamic scholars to come up with an interpretation of Islam’s conception of power that could also be acceptable to masses in current era. However, this is changing.

“Islamism was boosted by the 1979 Iranian revolution and since then the Islamic scholarship has closely studied the changing notions of power in modern times. The Islamists also note the case of Turkey where an Islamist government has been slowly removing secular influences from the country’s political and cultural life and significantly in a manner acceptable to the West. Morsi’s successful experiment with power in Egypt is revealing a new path for Islamists in other parts of the world, motivating them to use elections and other means of channelizing people’s energy to first capture power and begin a gradual enforcement of Islamic shari’a laws.

“Mistakenly however, the Islamists are equating elections with democracy, disregarding its key organizing principles, notably individual liberty and equal rights for minorities, human-enacted legislation, freedom of the press and belief, and right to form political parties. Qadri, who claims to have authored 1,000 books on Islam, is known for using people’s religious sentiments to advance his cause and is keenly aware of the dynamics of power in modern times, especially the use of people’s uprisings in the wake of Arab Spring to advance the religious cause. He is also a deeply orthodox figure. In a video address to his followers, Qadri sobs, cries and repeatedly wipes his tears as he delivers a lengthy interpretation of a dream in which Prophet Muhammad arrived in Pakistan and urged him to be his host and to set up his organization Minhaj-ul-Quran.”

“The Taliban Militants… Issued A Statement Saying That Afghans Will Start Living Under Islamic Rule From 2014 As The U.S. Leaves”; “In A January 6 Video, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan… Indicated That It Is Broadening The Jihadi Battlefield To Include Kashmir And India”

“Qadri adheres to the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam, whose followers express unconditional love of Prophet Muhammad. The Barelvis, who are present throughout India and Pakistan, are no less intolerant than the Taliban. In January 2011, a follower of the Barelvi group Dawat-e-Islami who was deployed as a member of an elite commando force to protect liberal Punjab governor Salman Taseer assassinated him for advocating reforms in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Videos of Qadri saying that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are not applicable on non-Muslims, and also of those in which he argues that Muslims or non-Muslims, Jews or Christians should be killed for blaspheming the prophet, are available on the internet. Qadri is also emboldened by his growing acceptance in the West after he issued a fatwa against suicide bombings in Pakistan in 2010.

“Qadri is not alone in sensing an emerging political opportunity. The jihadi forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan are also emboldened by Morsi’s success and are clamoring to fill in the vacuum emanating from the U.S. troop drawdown. In Afghanistan, militant commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has shown willingness to share power through elections to establish Islamic rule. Afghan Taliban representatives recently participated in talks in Chantilly, France, where they discussed a path to power if the Afghan constitution is rewritten to their Islamist taste. Recently, the Taliban militants also issued a statement saying that Afghans will start living under Islamic rule from 2014 as the U.S. leaves.

“In a January 6 video, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, indicated that it is broadening the jihadi battlefield to include Kashmir and India. Almost acting in tandem, the Pakistani military, whose Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) shares the Taliban’s jihadi objectives, entered a border conflict with India around the same time. In the same video, TTP emir Hakimullah Mehsud described his group as an international organization, offering aid to militants in the Arab world and stressing that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar is also the emir of Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, and that Omar’s policies after 2014 will be implemented by them. Significantly, Mehsud recently offered to hold talks with Pakistan and asked his fighters not to attack Pakistani security forces, showing willingness for an understanding with the Pakistani military.

“In the past, Pakistan’s military and judiciary have often removed elected governments. Qadri’s call that the military and the judiciary should have a say in an interim government in Islamabad reinforced the speculation that he was assisted by the ISI. Pakistani masses were not ready to support his call to remove the elected government just weeks before it … [was] set to complete, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, a full term. Inspired by the Islamists’ success in Egypt, Qadri thought he could turn Islamabad into a second Tahrir Square and transform Pakistan into an Egypt-like democracy with an Islamist face under a new constitution. Such a move was bound to fail, as his timing was wrong. As the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it is still possible that Qadri-like Islamists and jihadi forces may rise to destabilize Pakistan and extend their reach to Kashmir. For now, let’s hope that the ISI, their main backer which thinks of itself as the ideological guardian of the state of Pakistan, does not prop up Qadri-like forces.”


[1], March 21, 2013. The original English of all columns in this dispatch has been mildly edited for clarity and standardization.

[2], October 11, 2012 (October 12, 2012 print edition)

[3], January 24, 2013.

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