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Al Qaeda’s New Wing in South Asia

Al Qaeda’s New Wing in South Asia

By Loveleena Sharma

Edited by Shambhavi Singh,Senior editor,The Indian Economist

After achieving the optimum point of growth, trade needs to be expanded in order to engender more revenue. It seems so that even the terrorist groups are following the similar path in globalizing terror. Lately, in a video message Aymam al Zawahiri, leader of Al-Qaeda, has announced the establishment of a branch in the Indian Subcontinent, ‘raising the flag of Jihad’ in South Asia. Qaedat al–Jihad, the South Asian wing of Al Qaeda will work in the tutelage of Umar Qasim. In the video Zawahiri’s focus remained on regions such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the Indian states of Assam, Gujrat, and Jammu and Kashmir.

It is not Al Qaeda’s first time to set up its wing beyond the region of West Asia. It has wings in in Maghreb, North Africa and in Yemen in Arabian Peninsula. This raises the main question- Why has Al-Qaeda chosen South Asia?

The answer to the question lies in the population and the history of the South Asian region. South Asia has roughly as many Muslims as in Africa or the Arab World.  Around 62% of the world’s Muslims live in South and Southeast Asia, and only about 20% Muslims live in Arab countries. The largest Muslim population in a country is in Indonesia, that is home to 12.7% of the world’s Muslims, followed by Pakistan (11.0%), India (10.9%), and Bangladesh (9.2%). Secondly, the history of the Mughal Empire invokes the feeling of lost pre-eminence in the region. Zawahiri utilized this sentiment, and has raised the question of rulers becoming the subject in their own region.

But a point worth noting here is that if the history and demography of the South Asian region remained intact, then why has Al-Qaeda taken this step now, when it could have been taken decades ago. There are possibly two catalyzing factors associated with it.  Firstly, in the light of recent issues like tensions between Bengali Muslims and indigenous tribals in Assam have flared into riots and violence, with tens of thousands still displaced. In western Burma, Muslims from the beleaguered Rohingya minority group have been treated as stateless interlopers by the Burmese government. They are facing consistent discrimination and harassment. In Kashmir, a separatist movement blows hot and cold, while the local population lives under a form of martial law.

Since the death of its figurehead Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda has been somewhat eclipsed due to internal rift. Then came the meteoric rise of the Islamic State (IS), a sub-sect of Al-Qaeda, which further over shadowed the Al-Qaeda. This expansion can be seen as a way of reasserting the influence of Al-Qaeda on the worldwide Jihadists. In fact, much of Zawahiri’s message intended to tell the world that Al-Qaeda remained strong and viable, despite its weakness in Syria and Iraq. And, expansion seems the best option to re-establish Al-Qaeda as the most powerful terrorist organization in the world. Thus, making South Asia the scapegoat of the rift between two Non-State actors, and might be used in the future as the battleground for both groups.

In this issue, another factor needs to be kept in mind. Besides these two actors, there are other terrorist groups in the region, with their own goals and objectives. There exists a possible future conflict between these organizations. It depends on the local groups, whether they will clash or cooperate with Al Qaeda for their worldwide Jihad. But either way, the result will be deleterious.

On the whole, this step by Zawahiri cannot be taken lightly, irrespective of the reasons behind the decision. India’s intelligence and security services are studying the announcement by Zawahiri attentively and have asked the state to remain vigilant.

A 55 minute video message has got the whole region on their toes, adding one more issue to the list of obstacles in the peaceful development of the region. This message will and ‘should’ pave the way for vigorous  counter-terrorism from the region, at least from India.

Loveleena Sharma has completed her graduation in Political Science from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce. And, with her ardent interest in International Relations, is now pursuing her Masters in International Relations from the South Asian University. She is interested in  Foreign Policy, Conflict Transformation and Peace Building, South Asian studies, etc. Her other interests include reading, cinema, and theatre.




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