By Ryan Mauro, The Clarion Project
Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has announced the opening of a new branch targeting India, Bangladesh and Burma in a videotape release. He did not mention the Islamic State (formerly ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), but his announcement could be interpreted as an attempt to demonstrate Al Qaeda’s viability as it is being eclipsed by the Islamic State.
Zawahiri, who is thought to be hiding in Pakistan, said that it took Al Qaeda two years to merge its associated forces into this new branch. Tellingly, he said that the new branch, named Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent (QJIS), would be loyal to Taliban chief Mullah Omar.
Zawahiri named Ustad Usama Mahmoud as the spokesperson for QJIS.
He emphasized that the group’s goal is to “Establish sharia in the land and to free the occupied land of Muslims in the Indian sub-continent."
The jihad is not fundamentally about territorial disputes. Indian control of Kashmir, the crackdown on Islamists by the Bangladeshi government and the dictatorship of Burma are road blocks standing in the way of this greater objective of sharia governance. Al Qaeda takes up these political causes as a means to this end.
Zawahiri called on Muslims to help QJIS create a caliphate. He describes its mission statement as “to call the ummah [Muslim world] to unite round the word of Tawhid [monotheism], to wage jihad against its enemies, to liberate its land, to restore its sovereignty, and to revive its Caliphate.”
This is an important detail. The Islamic State’s pitch is that it is an established caliphate and the one with the best chance of a success. Zawahiri is showing that Al Qaeda is also pro-caliphate and is suggesting the Indian subcontinent as an alternative starting point.
Zawahiri did not mention the Islamic State, its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or its fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s competing branch in Syria. A senior al-Nusra leader is so desperate for a statement from Zawahiri that he wrote an open letter.
Although Zawahiri doesn’t want to escalate tensions with the Islamic State, his silence should be seen as a way of not backing down. By talking about reviving the caliphate without acknowledging the Islamic State’s already declared caliphate, Zawahiri is clearly signaling that he sees al-Baghdadi’s as illegitimate.
By announcing this new branch, Zawahiri is also trying to stop the Islamic State from encroaching on Al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s influence in Pakistan and on the Muslim minority of India.
A new West Point Combating Terrorism Center report concludes that foreign fighters are largely choosing Iraq and Syria over Pakistan as their destination for jihad. Translated Islamic State propaganda pamphlets and pro-Islamic State wall drawings and bumper stickers are showing up in Afghan refugee camps near Peshawar, Pakistan and on the Afghanistan side of the border with Pakistan.
In July, an affiliate of the Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-e-Khalafat, swore allegiance to the Islamic State. Shortly thereafter, the Afghan Taliban indirectly criticized the Islamic State for sowing discord amongst the jihadists.
In August, some Pakistani Taliban quit to create a new group named Jamaat-ul-Ahrar near Peshawar. It is supportive of the Islamic State, but has not gone so far as to swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi or endorse his caliphate. This may be due to its leaders’ links to Al Qaeda. Similarly, younger Taliban commanders are reportedly excited about the Islamic State but do not want to offend AlQaeda.
A commander of Hezb-e-Islami, an Afghan Islamist terrorist organization, said he and his fighters are flirting with the idea of joining the Islamic State. This terrorist group is closely linked to Iran, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The commander praised the Islamic State, acknowledged having some links to the group and said his forces would pledge allegiance to the Islamic State if its caliphate is determined to be legitimate.
However, Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said the quoted commander is not known to his group. He ruled out the idea of joining the Islamic State, saying, “The news reports that Hizb-e-Islami could join the Islamic State are outrageous and totally baseless. I categorically reject it.”
Zawahiri hopes his latest announcement will give the impression that Al Qaeda has grown in the Indian subcontinent enough to warrant the creation of a new affiliate. It is an attempt to create success by claiming success.
Al Qaeda has made many threats and statements since 9/11. Announcements like these are unlikely to steal the Islamic State’s thunder.
Unfortunately, there’s only one way for Al Qaeda to redeem itself: Carry out attention-grabbing attacks. Zawahiri knows Al Qaeda must accomplish something big soon or it will fade into the background.