Animesh Roul, executive director of the New Delhi-based policy research group Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict. He specializes in counterterrorism, radical Islam, terror financing, and armed conflict and violence in South Asia.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) — one of the most resilient regional affiliates of the transnational jihadist enterprise Al-Qaeda — issued multiple threats to carry out suicide bombings and other targeted attacks in India after controversial remarks about the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran were made by senior members of India’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The comments, which were made during a televised debate in late May 2022, sparked widespread condemnation in domestic and international forums and the BJP members were subsequently suspended from the party. Since then, both members have withdrawn their comments and apologized.
Avenging the Prophet
The expelled BJP leaders’ explicit apology notwithstanding, AQIS’ official As-Sahab Media (Subcontinent) issued a statement on 6 June 2022, entitled, “May our Mothers Be Bereaved of Us […]” threatening to carry out violent retaliation against anyone who insults Prophet Muhammad. The message further noted that members of the Hindu nationalist party BJP would be targeted in major cities like Delhi and Mumbai, as well as the states of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.
In an apparent attempt to appeal to Muslims in the country, the jihadist group essentially directed its propaganda machinery to capitalize on the polarized religious atmosphere. In fact, AQIS has a history of exploiting such situations in order to radicalize and incite Indian Muslims. The latest statement issued by the terrorist group appeals to the Muslim community (Ummah) to remain patient until the mythical Ghazwat-ul Hind (Islamic battle against India) brings death and destruction to Indian rulers and ultimate victory for Muslims in India. AQIS statement clearly mentioned in response to the Prophet controversy that “the hearts of Muslims all over the world are bleeding and are filled with feelings of revenge and retribution.”
For decades, Al-Qaeda has pushed these narratives that it is ‘defending’ Islam from blasphemy. The group made it amply clear in July 2021 with the audio-visual message, entitled, “An unpardonable crime”, about real or perceived insults against the Prophet. The message eulogized extremists like Mohammed Bouyeri for his fatal attack on Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in November 2004 and positioned his murder as the perfect example of avenging blasphemy in Western countries. The video message also recalls similar violence targeting “blasphemers”, such as the attack on the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for caricatures of the Prophet, and gloats about how it succeeded in instilling fear in people against insulting the Prophet.
Much as Al-Qaeda always has, AQIS justifies violence and killings on the basis that they serve as a deterrent against any derogatory comments directed at the Prophet. The recent AQIS call for violence came in tandem with other Islamist groups’ call for death in honor of the Prophet. On 28 June, a Hindu tailor, Kanhaiya Lal, in Rajasthan’s Udaipur city, a vocal supporter of BJP politician Nupur Sharma, was decapitated. In the weeks following, in July-August 2022, more such targeted attacks and killings came to light across India, either for supporting Nupur Sharma on social media or for raising voices against the slogans like “sar tan se juda” (a call to decapacitate as punishment for blasphemy). Investigations are ongoing to ascertain if any jihadist factions, such as AQIS, directly or indirectly influenced these acts.
AQIS, however, is using these events to garner grassroots support and gain followers by stirring Muslim sentiments. As a result, the number of threats against BJP politicians and their supporters, especially on the social media channels such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, have increased many times. The latest Nawai- Ghazwat e-Hind magazine of AQIS (in May -July 2022) highlighted several issues, including armed jihad in Kashmir and action to uphold the honor of the Prophet. It also prominently urged Indian Muslims to bring Nupur Sharma to “justice”.
Besides AQIS’s official output, several pro-Al-Qaeda channels have directed their attention towards India, with posters and chants (nasheeds) inciting jihad in India in the wake of the Prophet controversy. For example, the pro-Al-Qaeda media group, Al-Nafir, produced a song, “Time for the Epic Battle”, calling for war across India against Hindu ‘oppressors’ and urging fellow Muslims to carry out suicide attacks.
Another pro-Al-Qaeda propaganda translation unit, Islamic Translation Center (ITC), released a video urging for the killing of insulters of the Prophet on 5 June 2022. This video message was translated into several regional languages (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujurati) and circulated through message-sharing platforms such as RocketChat, Telegram, and Chripwire. Comparing the now suspended BJP members with “worms of hell”, the message ended with a call to find the Prophet’s blasphemers and kill them. The four-minute documentary-style video also featured older visuals and quotes from Osama bin Laden and AQIS’s founding leader, Asim Umar and Ustad Ahmad Farooq. On 22 June, the ITC issued another special message over the Prophet controversy, targeting the Hindu majority and pro-Hindutva politicians in India.
AQIS and pro-Al-Qaeda media houses issued similar messages during Ramadan of this year urging Indian Muslims to take up arms against Hindu atrocities and humiliations. These messages were aimed at instigating the Indian Muslim population by highlighting the so-called oppression and violence in Kashmir and elsewhere in India, which was, in the extremists’ view, pushing the Muslim community to the brink of a ‘genocide’. The controversy over the niqab (face veil) in schools and colleges in Karnataka is also featured in AQIS messaging to foment minority sentiment in India.
Radicalization and Threat Perception
This the not the first time the AQIS threat hovers over Indian cities. In September 2020, India’s elite anti-terror organization, the National Investigating Agency (NIA), uncovered a suspected Al-Qaeda plot to carry out attacks in several places in West Bengal, Delhi, and Kerala. At least 11 people, led by ringleader Murshid Hasan, were arrested.
Various AQIS propaganda literature has showcased what it deems to be legitimate targets, as well as strategies to achieve jihadist goals, since its inception as the youngest affiliate of Al-Qaeda in 2014. However, its “code of conduct” document in June 2017 listed targets in different countries in the subcontinent. It listed ‘blasphemers’ in Pakistan and Right-wing Hindu groups in India as prominent targets.
Though largely unsuccessful in carrying out any violent act in India until now, AQIS’s relentless promotion of violent jihad in the region, with the intent of establishing the supremacy of sharia law, may have found supporters in recent years. It also continues to present a significant threat in the Kashmir region by co-opting local jihadist factions. It may have also developed grassroots networks in mainland India that could stage targeted killings or bombings over the coming years.
Alarmingly, in March this year, security force personnel (Assam Police) arrested five AQIS operatives with Bangladeshi connections who were operating inside India and recruiting youth for Jihad under the garb of Arabic language classes at Dakhilapara mosque in Barpeta, Assam. NIA is currently investigating the case to find the network’s activities inside Indian territory. AQIS’ track record in neighboring Bangladesh — where it inspired fatal attacks against prominent individuals in the past — is still a matter of concern for Indian security agencies. Again in August 2022, Police unearthed several AQIS and its Bangladesh affiliate Ansarullah Bangla Team cells in the Dhubri district of Assam.
In Pakistan, AQIS carried out a targeted attack in April 2015 when Waheed-ur-Rehman, a Karachi University professor, was allegedly killed for blasphemy. Subsequently, AQIS chief Asim Umar claimed responsibility and threatened to kill anyone who insulted the Prophet and Quran. There is a legitimate apprehension that AQIS could employ similar tactics to target supporters of Right-wing political parties in India in the wake of the Prophet controversy.
AQIS after Zawahiri
Al-Qaeda central (AQC)’s leader Ayman-al- Zawahiri, who was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan on 31 July 2022, very often raised local issues such as anti-Muslim violence in India, controversy over the niqab, or the so-called blasphemy issues to foment jihadi sentiments. During his life in hiding under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or in secret safe havens in Pakistan, he seized every opportunity to exploit the perceived sufferings of Muslims in India for propaganda purposes, to foment sectarian schism and violence. Even though Al-Qaeda as a group faced a jolt with Zawahiri’s death, its regional affiliate in South Asia won’t be impacted much as the leadership hierarchy seems to be stable for the time being. Ideologues and propagandists are active on social media and elsewhere waging the so called ‘Al-Qaedaesque’ long and secret jihad.
The minimal direct impact of Zawahiri’s death notwithstanding, it might lead to the promotion of other powerful and influential AQIS ideologues, such as Tamim al-Adnani (Bangladesh), who may prove more effective in leadership positions for the group in the region. Al-Adnani has been prominent in to inciting and exhorting the Muslim “Ummah” in general and Bengali Muslim youths in particular to accept their “responsibilities” for defending Islam and its Prophet by waging armed jihad under the banner of AQIS.
The ongoing Prophet controversy in India gives yet another chance to AQIS to accuse the BJP-led Indian government of anti-Muslim policies and atrocities. Remarks by BJP officials in India disrespecting Prophet Muhammad, and issues like Kashmir and the niqab, give AQIS the opportunity to exploit such perceived persecution of Muslims in India and it uses such issues to rally incitement against Hindu nationalists. After Zawahiri’s death, AQIS, under the leadership of Osama Mahmoud, the present chief, and Al-Qaeda propagandist Tamim al-Adnani, continue and will never hesitate to exploit the policies of the BJP that many view as discriminatory against Muslims in its favor.
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