The word from his cave in Afghanistan (or just as likely, his bungalow in Pakistan) is that Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda, has launched the terrorist organization’s latest franchise, in the Indian subcontinent. The new Qaeda-let joins the global chain that already includes outposts in Yemen, Syria, North Africa, Pakistan, and Somalia.
The new operation is to be led by a Pakistani named Umar Asim, and its goal will be to “serve Muslims in Burma, Kashmir, Gujarat, Bangladesh, Ahmedabad and Assam.” The Indian government has issued an alert in response.
The announcement, made in an hour-long video, betrays more than Zawahiri’s poor grasp of South Asian geography (Ahmedabad is in Gujarat state, not separate from it); it emits a strong odor of desperation. Al-Qaeda Prime—the term counterterrorism experts now use for the core group around Zawahiri—is acutely aware that its brand name is fading. It has been overtaken by the Islamic State (IS), led by self-appointed ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It must rankle that IS was itself once an al-Qaeda franchise, before Baghdadi dismissed Zawahiri’s edicts and went his own way.
It’s worth noting that al-Qaeda is not even the second-most successful terrorist operation: that would be Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which has also been expanding the territory it controls while IS hogs the headlines.
Baghdadi’s successes in Syria and Iraq have attracted a flood of volunteers from all over the world, the kind of young men (and the occasional woman) who otherwise would have flocked to the al-Qaeda banner. Donors who once gave to Zawahiri and his franchises are now more likely to send their money to IS. That Baghdadi doesn’t really need outside contributions makes Zawahiri, who survives on donations, look that much more more pathetic.
And Zawahiri’s heart surely sinks when he hears other al-Qaeda leaders heap praise on Baghdadi.
So, sidelined in the Arab world, Osama bin Laden’s successor now turns his attention the a region that has rarely featured in his plans or his polemic, although he has lived there for more than two decades. Zawahiri has decided that the subcontinent, home to 500 million Muslims, is a place with great potential for mayhem—and, perhaps more importantly, for money.
The region certainly has its share of religious turmoil (inter as well as intra), but it is hard to see how al-Qaeda can “serve” Muslims caught up in the tensions. If anything, most of the local militant groups need the very things that Zawahiri wants them to give him: men and money.
The exceptions are in Pakistan, where Islamist militants are funded and organized relatively well, but they scarcely need al-Qaeda and have shown little inclination to share their resources with Arab exiles. Bangladesh’s internal turbulence tends to be political rather than religious, and the anti-Muslim pogroms in Burma have not become a rallying cry for Zawahiri’s brand of “jihad.”
While many of India’s 160 million Muslims have grievances the state, they are not automatically ripe for recruitment by al-Qaeda. In Kashmir, for instance, even those who seek separation from India have little time for Zawahiri’s vision of global jihad. And those who do subscribe to that vision are much more likely to join the throngs heading to Syria and Iraq than heed Zawahiri’s call. Some Indians have already signed up with IS, and one is reported to have died for Baghdadi’s cause in Mosul.
If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of gnashing teeth coming from that cave…. or bungalow.