Al-Qaeda's India move just a 'publicity stunt'
AL-QAEDA leader Ayman Al-Zawahri has announced the formation of an Indian branch of his militant group, which he said would spread Islamic rule and "raise the flag of jihad" across the subcontinent.
In a video spotted in online jihadist forums by the Site terrorism monitoring group, Zawahri said the new force would "crush the artificial borders" dividing the region's Muslim populations.
In a video statement on Wednesday, he singled out Assam, Gujarat and Kashmir - Indian regions with large Muslim populations - along with Bangladesh and Myanmar as territories the new organisation would target. He added that the new wing would rescue Muslims there from injustice and oppression.
India responded to the threat yesterday by ordering several provinces to be on increased alert, although it was not immediately clear what additional steps were being taken.
Indian security forces are usually on a state of alert for attacks by home-grown Islamic militants and by anti-India groups based in Pakistan. Until now, there has been no evidence that Al-Qaeda has a presence in India.
Muslims account for 15 per cent of the Indian population but, numbering an estimated 175 million, theirs is the third-largest Muslim population in the world.
While an Indian official said "this matter (the threat) has been taken very seriously", experts said Al-Qaeda would struggle to gain traction with India's mostly moderate Muslims.
The group once attracted jihadists from around the world to training camps on the Afghan-Pakistan border, but has seen its global influence eclipsed by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group fighting in Iraq and Syria.
Experts said Zawahri's threat appeared to be a reaction to IS' growing dominance.
"This is just a publicity stunt. It shows their desperation because IS is now showing that they are the real threat in the world right now," said Ajit Kumar Singh, research fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management. "It's a fight for supremacy between Al-Qaeda and the IS."
Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, has a long history of violence between separatists and security forces. But Kashmiri separatists said Al-Qaeda had no role to play in their struggle against Indian rule of the disputed territory.
"They have no scope here. Kashmir is a local political dispute and Al-Qaeda has nothing to do with it," a spokesman said.
Al-Qaeda is active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where its surviving leadership is thought to be hiding out, but has been significantly weakened there by a decade-long campaign of US drone strikes on its hideouts.
However, officials say many of the Arabs once drawn to Al-Qaeda in Pakistan have moved to join the fight in Syria and Iraq, and there is anecdotal evidence of Pakistanis joining them.
But there have been very few reports of young Indian men leaving to fight for Islamist causes abroad, which experts say is because local grievances have kept them at home.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani expert on militant movements, said: "The problem is that if your support base is shrinking in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan...if Al-Qaeda is losing there, you can't hope that Al-Qaeda will get some new recruits in India or Myanmar."
Muslims are a minority in Myanmar, and the country has not seen violence linked to hardline interpretations of Islam.
Bangladesh has a limited history of involvement with Islamist causes abroad, although local militant groups have carried out a series of attacks in the country since 1999.
AFP, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG