AQIS Ups the Ante, but against India or Islamic State?

Zawa, cc Flickr, modified, Andres Pérez,

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has come out with a new message titled “a message to Mujahid nation of Kashmir,” encouraging Kashmiris in India to emulate knife attacks similar to the ones carried out against the Israelis in the Palestine. “Your brothers in Falasteen” AQIS extols, referring to Palestine, “have written new chapters of jihad with decentralized knife attacks on Israelis, what stops you from using a dagger or knife to slit the throats of forces of Kufr?”

This message comes in the wake of widespread protests in Jammu and Kashmir for the past one week as a result of the death of a popular flamboyant militant leader, Burhan Wani belonging to the Hizbul Mujahideen. The mass protests have left 30 dead and hundreds injured; they have witnessed scenes of army camps being attacked by unruly mobs and weapon snatched from army men. All these occurrences have been mentioned in the AQIS statement as well, indicating a possible change in the AQIS strategy while attempting to up the ante in India. It is quite unlike AQIS to come out with statements in real-time; they rarely coincide with the actual incidents that trigger them. This Kashmir-centric message closely follows an earlier statement by AQIS, which, though not incident or region-specific, also has aimed to instigate Indian Muslims.  The message titled “No to the slogan of disbelief” was released by the head of AQIS, Moulana Asim Umar.

“Even if you come out with merely knives and sword,” proclaims Moulana Asim Umar in the earlier message, “history bears witness – Hindus cannot withstand you.”

Last week, the United States government listed Moulana Asim Umar as a specially designated global terrorist (SDGT) and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). Additional information provided by the US State Department states that the AQIS was involved in the attack on a naval dockyard in Karachi. As highlighted by Geopolitical Monitor earlier this year, the plan was to attack PNS Mehran, a naval base in Karachi and hijack a warship, the PNS Zulfiqur, to target the Indian coastline and also US warships in the Indian Ocean. The US communiqué also blames AQIS for murders including that of a US citizen in Bangladesh. And most importantly, it also points out that Moulana Asim Umar is a former member of the banned Pakistan based, Harkat -ul-Mujahideen.

The US action follows Moulana Asim Umar’s identification as Sanaul Haq last December, when several operatives of AQIS were arrested by Indian intelligence agencies. Haq’s journey to AQIS started from his hometown in Sambhal district in Uttar Pradesh, which is around 150 kilometers from India’s capital Delhi. Armed with a graduation from the famous Dar-ul-Uloom seminary in Deoband in 1991, Haq’s baptism into extremism happened in 1992 after the demolition of Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh before moving to Pakistan in 1995.

According to the Indian Express, Haq joined the Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia-a Karachi seminary that has produced several terrorist leaders such as Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who headed the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil, the leader of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. After his studies, he joined the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, imparting his teachings at Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania seminary in Peshawar and training jihadists at training camps in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). In 2007, Haq came in contact with Illyas Kashmiri, who had close links to Al Qaeda, and gradually move up the ladder in Al Qaeda.

Now coming back to the messages, these two recent messages which have been released in short rapidity have come a long time after the formation of AQIS by Ayman al Zawahiri in September, 2014. Though there is some conflation on certain aspects between these messages, they are perched diagrammatically at opposing ends on aspects which merit further scrutiny. Firstly, both the messages talk about how gullible Muslim clerics in India have deceived the Muslim masses.  By doing so, AQIS is seen attempting to discredit mainstream Muslim organisations which propagate moderate Islamic values in India. Secondly, both the messages advocate lone wolf attacks. While, the Kashmiri message encourages “decentralised” attacks on armed forces using rudimentary tactics such as knifes which have been highly successful in Israel, the other message from Moulana Asim Umar instigates lone wolf attacks on government civil servants and to start riots in turn to cause financial losses.

However, the messages do have some divergent views as well. Firstly, the Kashmiri message provides tactical and operational measures such as using Molotov cocktails (petrol bombs), and measures to reduce the impact of tear gas, etc. This appears to be picked straight out of the Palestine intifada days, where similar tactics were adopted by Palestinians in their struggle against the Israelis.  These measures certainly reflect the mindset of AQIS to escalate the conflict to the next level.

On the other hand, the message from Moulana Asim Umar is more of a sermon, attempting to invigorate the Muslim community, but completely bereft of tactical measures. This message mostly dwells on recent issues which have plagued the communal harmony in India such as the anti-Muslim riots and controversies related to chanting nationalistic slogans such as “Band-e-mataram,” meaning “I bow to thee holy mother”; “Jaey mata,” meaning “long live holy mother”; and “Bharat mata ki jai,” meaning “long live holy mother India,” which AQIS considers un-Islamic.

The primary reason for this divergence could be that AQIS perceives the Kashmir theater to be at a slightly advanced stage of the jihadi struggle compared to the pan-Indian jihadi struggle. In fact, AQIS even eulogizes the Kashmiri freedom struggle as a precursor to the Arab Spring, buttressing the thinking that AQIS accords a different treatment for jihad in Kashmir than the rest of India.

Given the disparate yet common threads of these messages, AQIS’ intended objectives here, when seen from the larger organizational perspective, appears to be more internal. They revolve around the group’s own desperation from not being able to make inroads into India, which is further aggravated by rivalries among the jihadi groups. The only known AQIS module was busted by Indian intelligence when 5 operatives of AQIS were arrested in December, 2015. As opposed to this, the Islamic State has been able to make significant inroads in terms of drawing youngsters who either travel to Syria or form localized cells in India which the AQIS has not been able to match. This fledgling competition with Islamic State and dearth of recruits could be the reason as to why AQIS has come out with messages in such rapid succession.

Interestingly, both the AQIS statements aimed at India have come at a time which coincides with a video released by the Islamic State, showing Indian members of the Islamic State in Syria. This release more or less appears as an AQIS effort to “up the ante” against Islamic State. There is a high possibility that the coming days will witness matching messages and responses directed at each other from both these groups. This sibling rivalry is not only bound to push the actual conflict to higher levels but also the “war of ideas,” each propagating their own ideology.

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