Al-Qaeda eyes India in jihadi battle of the brands

Andrew North
South Asia correspondent
@NorthAndrewon Twitter

image copyrightAP
image captionDespite having 10% of the world's Muslims to recruit from, al-Qaeda has made no headway in India

In the global battle of jihadi brands, Osama Bin Laden's successor appears to be trying to win back ground from Islamic State (IS).

Al-Qaeda has never had any success recruiting from India, despite its huge 180 million-strong Muslim population.

In fact, there has been speculation it never tried too hard in the past for fear of opening up another front with the country's massive Hindu majority.

Which makes Ayman al-Zawahiri's video announcement of a new al-Qaeda wing for the Indian subcontinent look all the more desperate.

But even before IS burst into global consciousness this year with its Iraq blitzkrieg, al-Qaeda in general and Zawahiri in particular had been struggling to fill the vacuum left by Bin Laden's death.

He has not risked breaking his cover for a video appearance in almost two years, doubtless fearful of meeting the same fate at the hands of the Americans.

image copyrightReuters
image captionCritics of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri say he has failed to fill the shoes of Osama Bin Laden

But now al-Qaeda is feeling the pressure from IS in the heart of its old stronghold in the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands.

Several Pakistani-based militant groups previously allied to al-Qaeda have recently pledged allegiance to IS and its goal of an Islamic caliphate.

The group has now reportedly launched a support and recruitment drive in border areas like Peshawar. Booklets in the name of the Dawlat-e-Islamia (Islamic State) have been circulating among the many Afghan refugees living there.

Graffiti, or wall-talk, another guide to sentiments, is also going the group's way, with pro-IS slogans now regularly appearing on Peshawar buildings.

And while Zawahiri's announcement seems primarily aimed at India, the man he named as the new leader of al-Qaeda's South Asia wing, Asim Umar, is reportedly a Pakistani.

There have been reports of an IS recruitment drive in some Indian states too.

And where al-Qaeda failed in India, IS seems to have had some moderate success. In May, it emerged that four young Indian Muslims living near Mumbai had travelled to Iraq to join the group after reportedly being recruited online.

That set off alarm bells in India, with commentators worrying about the country facing the same kind of "blowback" the Middle East and the West has faced from jihadis returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan.

image copyrightAFP
image captionKashmiri protesters were photographed flying an Islamic State flag at demonstrations in Indian Kashmir

But significantly there has also been a counter-reaction in India to the Islamic State group.

Thousands of Indian Shia Muslims have volunteered to go to Iraq to defend the country and its key Shia shrines from its onslaught.

It's unlikely this volunteer army will ever make it there, as the Indian authorities have barred any citizen from travelling to Iraq without official sanction.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not directly reacted to Zawahiri's video message so far, saying it wants to verify it first.

But his long-term response is likely to decide the outcome of this new jihadi struggle for influence in South Asia.

There are plenty of dangers, as the marginalised status of Indian Muslims makes for potentially fertile recruits.

They are among the poorest groups in India, and suffer frequent discrimination in access to jobs and housing.

image copyrightAP
image captionIndia's marginalised Muslims are a key target of the al-Qaeda recruitment drive

Mr Modi is himself a controversial figure among Indian Muslims because of allegations he failed to prevent an outbreak of anti-Muslim rioting in Gujarat when he was in charge of the state in 2002.

His refusal to show any remorse for what happened is seen by many as a calculated stand to appease his Hindu nationalist supporters.

And Hindu hardliners never miss an opportunity to demonise India's Muslims as a threat.

While there have been attacks claimed by local Muslim extremists they are mostly small scale, and evidence suggests their support comes as much from militants in next door Pakistan as from India.

Since the bloodletting of partition in 1947, India's Muslims have for the most part been Indians first and Muslims second, trusting to the country's secular promises.

But with IS and al-Qaeda in effect choosing India as a new battleground, those ideals could be facing a serious challenge.

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