Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, long barred from the United States over his role as chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots there, has begun his much-anticipated visit to Washington, the first since his election earlier this year. He and US President Barack Obama are likely to discuss a wide range of common security concerns, including the challenge of a newly assertive China, turmoil in the Middle East, and the future of Afghanistan as foreign troops depart.
On September 4, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, likely based in next-door Pakistan, added to the list of these shared headaches by announcing the creation of a new group, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The message, Zawahiri’s first in two years, sparked headlines around the world and alarm in India. Several Indian states were put on alert, an Indian newspaper warned of a “big bang” against nuclear plants and airports, and Modi even addressed the issue directly in his first televised interview as prime minister, with US journalist Fareed Zakaria.
But should this rank especially high on India’s hierarchy of threats? The evidence suggests that India should not panic – that AQIS is about much more than India, and that targeting India has never proved easy for al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda in South Asia
First, it is important to remember that AQIS is focused on South Asia as a whole, including smaller states like Myanmar and Bangladesh, rather than India in particular – and that India’s rival Pakistan, where al-Qaeda’s leadership has now been based for over a decade, will bear the brunt of the new group’s actions.
Indeed, AQIS’ very first operations have been within Pakistan: an attack on a Pakistani army officer, and then a botched attempt to hijack a Pakistani frigate from Karachi. Given that multiple Islamist groups have conducted untold bombings against civilian and military targets in Pakistan over the last decade, and that al-Qaeda has helped many of these groups, this is not a radically new challenge.
Although Zawahiri claimed that AQIS had been two years in the making, the timing of his announcement seems intended to keep al-Qaeda relevant in the rapidly changing environment of global jihad – both within South Asia, and globally.
Second, although India was indeed specified in al-Qaeda’s latest message, this is also an old practice. Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, the issue of Kashmir – a Muslim-majority territory mostly controlled by India, but claimed by Pakistan – would frequently appear in the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and his associates. But it would usually be buried in a laundry list of “occupied” Muslim lands, including places as globally obscure as Pattani in Thailand and the Ogaden in Somalia.
Third, al-Qaeda rarely followed up on these past threats. Although some argue that the group played a role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the evidence for this, like other connections, is extremely flimsy. Al-Qaeda did claim responsibility for a 2010 bombing in Pune, but the bomb was placed by an operative of a domestic group, the Indian Mujahedeen, and it’s unclear whether the claim was anything other than opportunism.
Fourth, while al-Qaeda has always portrayed the large pool of marginalised or persecuted Muslims in India (and in neighbouring countries, like Myanmar) as a ripe source of recruits, its record is feeble. Only last year, Bibhu Prasad Routray, former deputy director of India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), noted that al-Qaeda had broadcast a message lamenting Indian Muslims’ apathy towards the Syrian war, comparing them unfavourably to 18th century Indian jihadists. As Modi put it in his interview with Zakaria: “If anyone thinks Indian Muslims will dance to their tune, they are delusional.” The numbers suggest he is correct.
Nevertheless, these four factors do not mean that Modi can, or should, ignore the threat. American scholar Stephen Tankel has pointed to what he calls the “Pakistanisation” of al-Qaeda, referring to the way in which Pakistanis have replaced Arab leaders killed by drone strikes in recent years. These Pakistanis may be better placed to attack the Pakistani state itself, but they are also likely to retain an interest in targeting India.
In ISIL’s shadow
More recently, al-Qaeda finds itself in the shadow of its former ally, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has grabbed huge swaths of Iraq and Syria, declared a caliphate, and now successfully invited a US-led military intervention. Two weeks ago, two of al-Qaeda’s most powerful branches, those in Yemen and North Africa, even issued a statement calling on Muslims to unite against intervention. This should worry Zawahiri, whose organisation would wither to nothing without its network of allies. And when it comes to recruitment, although the absolute numbers are extremely small, more Indians have joined ISIL than al-Qaeda.
Although Zawahiri claimed that AQIS had been two years in the making, the timing of his announcement seems intended to keep al-Qaeda relevant in the rapidly changing environment of global jihad – both within South Asia, and globally. Such competitive dynamics can be dangerous, spurring on groups to demonstrate their capabilities by conducting attacks. Moreover, India is, today, a more attractive target than it was when Osama bin Laden first emerged from the ashes of the Afghan jihad. India is increasingly importance to the balance of power in Asia, moving closer to the US, and connected to the global economy.
The challenge for Modi is the same as it always was: to improve India’s ability to detect and disrupt plots. This is precisely why he appointed a veteran domestic intelligence officer, Ajit Doval, as his National Security Adviser. India must improve regional counterterrorism cooperation with its neighbours, ensure that its multiplicity of security agencies and states share information better, and improve its basic policing capacity on the ground. Whether AQIS succeeds in striking beyond Pakistan or not, these crucial tasks will remain on Modi’s national security agenda.
Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London and a PhD candidate at Harvard University. He holds Masters degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities. He specialises in the international politics of South Asia and the Middle East.