Intro: Al-Qaeda’s move is not only to draw the youth into its ranks away from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), but also to validate their theocratic beliefs.
For long, Indians prided themselves on the fact that secular and liberal environment prevailing in the country had prevented Indians Muslims from joining global terrorist outfits. However, all this changed with the emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which now calls itself as Islamic State, on the global stage. With the capture of Mosul and the proclamation of Caliphate, there was a transformation, as the new Caliph tried to derive his authority from theocratic validation within Islam. His name, status, resources and claimed descent from the Prophet’s family have drawn numerous youth from across the globe to gravitate towards the ISIL. Many Islamic outfits from across the globe including Boko Haram in West Africa and some components of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have already shifted their allegiance to the Caliphate from al-Qaeda, which had been propagating a global jihad under Amir-ul Muminin Mullah Omar of Taliban. Already ISIL has been gaining ground over Al Nusra, the militant outfit aligned with al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. It clearly shows that ISIL flush with funds captured in Mosul, and armed with sophisticated arms and ammunition left behind by the Iraqi troops, was eclipsing al-Qaeda as the predominant jihadi outfit of the world, both militarily as well as ideologically.
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More significantly, in a new phenomenon, one has started hearing reports of Indian youth fighting for the ISIL. Arif Majeed, a young engineering student from Kalyan, who had joined ISIL with his friends died in Mosul fighting for the caliphate. Four engineering drop outs from Hyderabad were arrested in Kokatta, while they were trying to leave India for Bangladesh to join the ISIL in Iraq. Their subsequent interrogation has led to revelation that 15 others including a girl from Hyderabad wanted to join the ISIL. The outfit is fairly active in the cyber space and a recruitment video with sub titles in Urdu, Hindi and Tamil has been circulating in Social media. The letter written by Arif Majeed, where he explained his move from the comforts of his middle class home to war torn Iraq, as a blessed journey, because he did not want to live in this sinful country; shows the level of online indoctrination. He left a letter for his parents, where he wrote “I cried when I saw you all sinning, smoking cigarettes, taking interest, watching TV, illegal sexual intercourse, living luxurious lives, intermingling of sexes, not praying, not growing beards. These things will lead to you burning in the hell-fire.” He even castigated his sisters and cousins for watching television as he perceived it to be a major sin as it contained music, an “instrument of Satan”.
These incidents of grave radicalisation have shattered the long propagated facade that Indian Muslims are immune to the attraction of global jihad, and therefore would not join the global Islamic militants. These developments have also forced al- Qaeda to rethink its strategy about India, as it was losing ground in its own backyard. Consequently, Ayman al-Zawahiri in a video message aimed at Indian Muslims proclaimed the creation of a South Asian Wing, Qaedat al-Jihad, termed as al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), by many media organisations. He proclaimed that the establishment of this outfit was to “help raise the flag of Jihad and the return of the Islamic rule in the subcontinent, which one day used to be part of the land of the Muslims until the infidel enemy took it over and divided it.’ Al-Qaeda’s move is not only to draw the youth into its ranks away from the ISIL, but also to validate their theocratic beliefs. For long al-Qaeda has believed in the prophesy that “End of Time Battle” will be fought in Khurasan, which in Islamic lexicon contains parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. According to their belief this victory will be followed by Ghazwa-e-Hind or Battle for India. The formation of AQIS is meant to fulfil this part of the theocratic prophesy.
Although most Islamic scholars infer that these beliefs have no theocratic validation and are figment of militants’ imagination, one must understand that almost all the global jihadi outfits swear by it and are willing to die for it. So strong is the conviction, that Abu Bakr Baghdadi had initially proclaimed himself as the Caliph of Khurasan, although the territory under his control was nowhere close to the areas that constitute it. Al Qaeda by its proclamation about the establishment of AQIS has gone even further as far as fulfilling of this “prophesy” is concerned. Not only, is it present in Khurasan, as defined in Islamic lexicon, but in AQIS, it has prepared grounds for the next stage, namely “Ghazwa-e Hind”. Al Qaeda realises that bulk of the support for ISIL is stemming from the fact that in the eyes of Ummah it has greater theocratic sanctity. Not only is Caliphate an Islamic concept, which resonates in Muslim minds with the carefully preserved concept of its glorious past, but also most Islamic scholars believe that only a person from Quraish tribe can be the leader of the Ummah.
Caliph Ibrahim or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claims to be a descendant of prophet and thus a Quraish, on the other hand Mullah Omar is not even an Arab. In addition, besides the issue of a righteous leader, ISIL fulfils the requirements of jihad more clearly than al-Qaeda. It has a large territory under its firm control, has vast resources and a well trained army. Although al-Qaeda also claims to meet all the requirements of jihad, many scholars are sceptical about its claims of controlling territory and possessing resources and troops as required for jihad. The opening of an Indian outfit is an attempt by al-Qaeda to get over its perceived weaknesses from theocratic point of view as well as to get new recruits for its cause.
From India’s point of view, what is important is Ayman al Zawahiri specifically mentioned that its raising was to rescue the Muslims of Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Kashmir, thereby indicating al-Qaeda’s desire to tap into perceived Muslim discontentment at places named by him. These are places, which have in the past seen communal violence or action against radical Islamists. The combined number of Muslims in this region is also the largest in the world, almost one and a half times the population of Muslims in Indonesia.
To gain influence in this region, al-Qaeda is pursuing a carefully crafted propaganda blitz focussing on the minds of Muslim youth as it realises that most of the youth joining ISIL are educated and from fairly well to do families. Already, a large number of militant organisations with linkages with ISI have been mushrooming in India and they have also been trying to indoctrinate the Muslim youth by concocting stories about Muslim persecution. Zawahiri’s video was also an attempt at this direction and for this reason he delivered part of his speech in Urdu, besides Arabic. He also stated that the creation of the Indian subsidiary was the culmination of al-Qaeda’s efforts of over two years to unite disparate Mujahideen groups. In order to appeal to Indian Muslims, he stated that the new entity would “crush the artificial borders” dividing Muslim populations in the region. More significantly, from India’s point of view designation of Asim Umar, a Pakistani militant with close ISI links, as head of AQIS is dangerous. It needs to be analysed whether al-Qaeda wants to use its services to tap into the resources of various ISI proxies in India or the whole project of AQIS is ISI sponsored.
It is essential to analyse as to how India can deal with this menace. Indians are not very security conscious and security checks are often perceived as infringement of individual freedom. More significantly, the threat of radicalisation as represented by al-Qaeda and ISIL affiliates must not be perceived as simple Law and Order problem. It can only be countered by a carefully crafted de-radicalisation programme coupled with psychological operations. However, the scholarship required for undertaking such a task is not readily available within the country, nor is there any organisation capable of moulding media perceptions and educational curriculum to meet the requirements of slow and successful deradicalisation programme.
-Alok Bansal (The writer is Director, Centre for security and strategy, India Foundation)