With Islamic State’s advance in Iraq and Syria gripping the world’s attention, al-Qaeda has been left on the sidelines. That all changed on September 4, as al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri released a 55-minute video announcing a new al-Qaeda franchise: al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.
What this new franchise means for the future of al-Qaeda, or for the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (and beyond), remains to be seen – but it is clearly an attempt to save the reputation of the once-mighty organisation’s beleaguered head.
Zawahiri has had a shaky tenure at the al-Qaeda helm. By the time of Osama Bin Laden’s death, Western counterterrorism efforts had already taken a heavy toll on the group responsible for the world’s single most destructive terrorist attack, and the al-Qaeda he inherited was already weak and fragmented.
In the West at least, al-Qaeda has never regained the capacity to launch major 9/11-type attacks. It is now largely reliant on self-starters such as the Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in March 2012 and the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston in April 2013.
Zawahiri has also had to address scepticism amongst former affiliates over the mismatch between his undeniable skill as a public figure and his rather disastrous track record as the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which he had integrated into al-Qaeda in 1998.
To overcome these problems, he has tried to maintain al-Qaeda’s profile and reach by accelerating its expansion, increasingly franchising its name and brand to local Islamist terrorist organisations around the world. The formation of al-Qaeda on the Indian Subcontinent shows how confident in this model (or dependent on it) al-Qaeda’s leadership has become: the new branch will be the sixth new al-Qaeda franchise, and the third under Zawahiri’s leadership.
Mergers and acquisitions
Al-Qaeda on the Indian Subcontinent is novel for the top-down way it has been created, in contrast to the previous method of merging, absorbing and rebranding established independent groups.
In one of his first major successes as leader, a hard-line faction of Somalia’s al-Shabaab led by Ahmed Abi Godane – now confirmed to have been killed in a US missile attack on September 2 – ignored a call from other members to stay focused on local Somali issues, and pledged allegiance to Zawahiri in February 2012. A month earlier, a group of radical Syrian Islamists had announced the existence of the al-Nusra Front, which fights to replace the regime of Bashar al-Assad with an Islamic government – and which has since repeatedly reaffirmed its allegiance to Zawahiri.
These three newest additions to the global al-Qaeda family are the culmination of a long process, one that started in 2004 when Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi decided to rename his Iraqi Tawhid wa Jihad group to al-Qaeda in Iraq and pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden.
In Zarqawi’s wake, the North African Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat restyled itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007, while al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) came into existence in 2009 when al-Qaeda’s Saudi and Yemeni branches were merged.
Keeping the dream alive
The franchising model has obvious benefits. It allows al-Qaeda’s leaders to claim continuing success and relevance, even as the organisation which shocked the world’s superpower on September 11 2001 effectively no longer exists. Zawahiri has been unable to follow up his hyperbolic threats of revenge for the killing of Osama Bin Laden; instead, he has depended on local atrocities committed by regional branches to strike out at opponents.
Meanwhile, on a symbolic level, the spectacle of Islamist groups from North Africa to South Asia pledging their allegiance to a single central leadership flatters al-Qaeda’s favourite narrative: the idea that the world’s community of Muslims (ummah) is moving ever closer to unification in a cataclysmic anti-Western struggle, as envisioned by Bin Laden and radical Islamists before him.
But on the other hand, the bottom-up approach to terrorist franchising has also caused al-Qaeda serious problems.
Because many of the groups mentioned above long predated their nominal mergers with al-Qaeda, their local agendas are not always in line with the leadership’s pan-Islamic global vision.
For instance, Bin Laden and Zawahiri both felt compelled to criticise the deliberate targeting of fellow Muslims in attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. AQI’s large-scale anti-Shia terrorist attacks in Iraq, the brutal beheadings of American hostage Nicholas Berg and British hostage Kenneth Bigley, and the 2005 killing of Muslims in attacks on Western hotels in Jordan’s capital Amman all drove a dramatic drop in public support for al-Qaeda across the Arab world. That decline only steepened after Bin Laden’s death.
Al-Qaeda’s current weakness is highlighted in its inability to make more of the brutal post-Arab Spring crackdown on moderates such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Under normal circumstances, al-Qaeda’s vision should have received a major boost; developments from Egypt to Syria appear to corroborate Zawahiri’s warning that violence and not democratic participation is the only way to establish an Islamic society.
Instead, the relatively new Islamic State has actually managed to capture and hold territory, a feat never achieved by al-Qaeda apart from its alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The new caliphate declared in Iraq and Syria is now a powerful magnet for recruiting young and eager fighters from around the world.
While Islamic State continues to steal the headlines, Zawahiri can do little more than snipe, pointing out that the group has been unable to prise existing al-Qaeda franchises from their oaths of loyalty to him.
But still, the tightening competition among militants in the Muslim world’s Arab heartland means Muslim South Asia is a rich vein indeed for al-Qaeda.
The countries to be targeted by the new franchise are home to a huge swathe of the global Muslim population: India, with its 177m Muslims the world’s third largest Muslim country; Bangladesh, the fourth largest with 149m – and even Myanmar, with its still-substantial 2m.
The tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India and the suffering of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are rich fuel for al-Qaeda’s signature narrative – that Islam is “under siege”, demanding violent “resistance”. It’s no coincidence that in his announcement, Zawahiri referred to the Indian state of Gujarat, which witnessed religious violence and the deaths of hundreds of Muslims when India’s current premier Narendra Modi was its chief minister.
Additionally, Zawahiri is well aware of the strategic potential in the conflict over Kashmir. The regime in Islamabad will not appreciate the arrival of yet another organisation trying to outbid it in the region. Pakistan’s government knows that if a direct military confrontation with India is to be avoided, it must keep close control over groups operating in this area.
Logistically, the new Indian franchise will be able to benefit from links with groups such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani network Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the 2001 attacks on the Indian parliament and the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
With Pakistan warily eyeing Kashmir and the Indian government now rightly concerned the new franchise will use its massed extremist expertise to debut with a spectacular attack, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has the potential to wreak serious havoc in South Asia.
As Zawahiri clearly understands, that could help divert global attention away from its former affiliate and now competitor, Islamic State, and finally lift al-Qaeda out of its post-Bin Laden decline.