The public’s focus on the seemingly endless number of human-rights abuses and territorial gains of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has left al-Qaeda somewhat on the margins of the debate over the strategic objectives of the international Islamist movement.
This summer, as ISIS surged into Iraq and the conflict in Syria finally boiled over into its neighbor, Al-Qaeda was somewhat marginalized from the public-policy debate. While al-Qaeda remained an important focus for policy makers and strategists, the public appeared to have re-focused its attention on ISIS and the instability the group had cultivated throughout the past three years of war in Syria. Ayaman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, appeared to wrestle with the role of the group as ISIS galvanized international support and took aim at ruling regimes in Iraq and Syria.
Reconceptualizing the group’s role in the international Islamist movement, al-Qaeda strategists have seemingly concentrated on sustaining the terrorist group’s role as the international Islamist movement’s titular and inspirational leader. Zawahiri released videos proclaiming al-Qaeda’s preeminence in the movement and widening the focus of operations to include both India and China. In this piece, I look at the objectives for an al-Qaeda affiliate focusing on India. In subsequent articles, I’ll address the widening of al-Qaeda’s strategic scope to China and other areas.
On September 3, Al-Qaeda announced the establishment of a new wing of their organization, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), an affiliate of the international terrorist organization that would ostensibly focus jihadist operations on the Indian subcontinent. In a video released the same day, Zawahiri stated that the creation of the group was the result of planning over two years:
The formation of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) was announced by al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri in a video released yesterday. In that statement, Zawahiri noted that AQIS “is the fruit of a blessed effort for more than two years to gather the mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity to be with the main group, Qaedat al-Jihad, from the soldiers of the Islamic Emirate and its triumphant emir, Allah permitting, Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group. (The Long War Journal, September 5)
An intriguing aspect of AQIS is its composition. Seemingly the result of the formation of alliances between a number of Pakistani and Central Asian terrorist organizations, AQIS is a melting pot of sorts. Again, the Long War Journal notes:
The new regional al Qaeda affiliate likely includes elements from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Harakat-ul-Muhajideen, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and Brigade 313, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Indian Mujahideen (a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Junood al Fida, and other groups based in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. (The Long War Journal, September 5)
The group attempted to announce its presence on the world stage on September 6, resulting in a dramatic failure. In the port city of Karachi, Pakistan, they undertook to raid a frigate in the port city of Karachi, but were repelled by Pakistani naval forces in grand fashion:
On Sept. 6, AQIS operatives attempted, and failed, to execute an even more audacious attack. The terrorists boarded a Pakistani ship, the PNS Zulfiqar, which has been docked. They apparently planned, according to AQIS, to launch missiles from the Zulfiqar at U.S. warships.
There are widely conflicting accounts in the press of the attack on Sept. 6. The version reported here is based on tweets by the AQIS spokesman and is not an independent account of the raid.
Mahmoud posted a purported diagram of the Zulfiqar, which the group says was obtained by insiders who served in the Pakistani Navy. AQIS included a picture of U.S. warships above the diagram posted by Mahmoud.
The statement from AQIS says that the jihadists had taken over the PNS Zulfiqar and were set to attack the American warships when Pakistani forces interceded. Some of the attackers were “martyred.” (The Long War Journal, September 13)
As the new direction of al-Qaeda high command comes into focus for observers in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and India, several interesting questions arise from the formation of AQIS:
Why did al-Qaeda choose to announce the formation of AQIS now? Does the prospect of Pakistani-Indian cooperation on a number of security issues threaten the future of the group in Pakistan? How does al-Qaeda plan to exacerbate the ongoing security problems between the two states?
Does the group represent an agreement by groups such as LeT, IMU, and the Turkistan Islamic Party to cooperate on attacks targeting countries such as Uzbekistan? If so, what does this mean for policymakers in Russia and the United States as both governments re-focus their efforts to combat international Islamist terrorism on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria?
Related to the previous point, what is the relationship between ISIS and al-Qaeda? The timing of the announcement of AQIS alludes to a curious possibility: that ISIS and al-Qaeda have begun working together, even if only nominally and on the basis of shared interest, in sustaining the international Islamist movement. The announcement by al-Qaeda leaders of the formation of AQIS leaves observers to wonder if this is an effort by al-Qaeda to leverage an opportunity to re-establish itself as the predominant operational planner in the international Islamist movement and spread the proverbial battlefield. In this case, observers are left to wonder how ostensible Pakistani proxies such as LeT and TTP (both of which are notably represented in the leadership structure of the newly-minted AQIS) will operate within the structure of the group.
As observers and analysts ponder the possibilities and debate the likelihood of cooperative endeavors by the two Islamist giants, they will note the importance of cohesiveness in the movement itself for successful operations in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and India. Whether that cooperation emerges in the form of effective and sustained operations will be the unanswered question which continues to haunt government officials seeking to both head off the next major attack and degrade the groups’ abilities to plan and carry out subsequent efforts.