Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent: Still a Threat to India? –

In March 2020, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) rechristened their Urdu-language magazine Nawa-i-Afghan Jihad to Nawa-i-Ghazwa-e-Hind, making clear its intentions that India, and especially Jammu & Kashmir, will be its new focus area. Erudite scholars believed that this could in turn translate into more attacks inside India and on Indian interests elsewhere. AQIS has since then increased their propaganda blitz against India, instigating Muslims in India to rise up against the Indian government. Hitherto now, the group’s presence has largely been confined to Jammu & Kashmir, as highlighted by Geopolitical Monitor in 2016. Yet despite its rhetoric and contrary to the widespread belief that AQIS has the capacity to harm Indian interests, AQIS has not been able to conduct any terror attacks in India thus far. Intriguingly, the terrorist group appears to have opened another front in Assam, located close to the Bangladesh border in India’s northeast, where multiple cells were uncovered last year. This potentially indicates that, though the threat from AQIS appears to have decreased temporarily, with these new arrests, it may still pose a potent threat to India in the future.
AQIS’s India-centric Propaganda
Ever since AQIS renamed its Urdu language magazine to highlight India as a new focus area in March 2020, there has been an uptick in India-centric propaganda emanating from AQIS. Time and again, AQIS has released messages instigating Indian Muslims to rise against the Indian government over contemporary issues in Indian politics. Some India-centric messages and statements include:
Yet despite this apparent focus on India, AQIS has not been able to mount any terror attacks in Jammu & Kashmir let alone elsewhere in India. While this propaganda appears to be mere empty rhetoric sans actions on the ground, one should not discount the fact that AQIS has been able to open another front in Assam in India’s northeast, which is broadly in line with Ayman Al Zawahiri’s April 2022 message calling for Hijrah to Assam.
AQIS’s Assam Outreach
The state of Assam has been the primary focus of AQIS since 2021, Jammu & Kashmir aside. AQIS in October 2021 released a video entitled “Don’t Sit Idly by Grieving,” calling for Muslims to perform Hijrah to Kashmir and Assam. Zawahiri’s April 2022 message also focused on instigating Muslims to perform Hijrah to Assam. Strangely, between the first AQIS message in Oct 2021 and Zawahiri’s Hijrah message in April 2022, Indian intelligence and security agencies broke up at least 5 AQIS cells in Assam itself, suggesting that these messages themselves amounted to a dead giveaway.
Between February 2022 and October 2022, around 53 individuals, including Bangladeshis, have been arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and by Assam police for belonging to an AQIS network. These individuals have been linked to Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. At least 9 AQIS cells are believed to have been neutralized in Assam and in its vicinity, clearly showcasing the fact that AQIS has in fact opened a new front in Assam in India’s northeast. Given the fact that Assam is blessed with around 35% of a Muslim population, along with its geographic proximity to Bangladesh, where Al Qaeda is believed to have a strong presence, AQIS appears to have intentionally chosen Assam as the next Hijrah destination apart from Jammu & Kashmir in India.  The seeds of this effort may have been sown as early as 2018 when AQIS dispatched one Saiful Islam, a resident of Narayanganj district in Bangladesh, into India. Saiful Islam crossed over illegally into India and became an Arabic teacher in a Madrassa. He did not indulge in any terrorist activity but blended into the local society by marrying a local girl. This AQIS network started spreading into other parts of Assam where the Imams and Islamic preachers were also targeted along with young recruits.
The intention of AQIS was simple and envisaged with a long-term plan. AQIS had set up Madrassas for recruitment, religious indoctrination, and training. In this way, AQIS managed to setup at least 3-4 religious centers where young recruits were indoctrinated. Of the 53 individuals arrested, there were at least 5 religious teachers, indicating that the intention was not just to carry out immediate terror attacks but to prepare youngsters for the future. Unlike other terrorist groups, AQIS methodology appears to be built with foresight in mind by gradually creating capacity and setting up physical infrastructure in place, rather than infiltrating terrorists for carrying out one-time attacks.
Understanding the gravity of the situation, the Assam government-initiated measures to regulate the working of Madrassas. To begin with, the Assam government to date has demolished at least 3 Madrassas in Barpeta, Morigaon, and Bongaigaon district, all of which were linked to AQIS. Concomitantly, it has also started merging at least 100 small Madrassas (with 50 Islamic students) with bigger Madrassas, with active involvement from the local Islamic community. Interestingly, the government is also contemplating modernizing the curriculum of the MadrassasInterestingly, the government is also contemplating modernizing the curriculum of the Madrassas.
On the surface, AQIS appears to have failed to match its propaganda with action in India. However, though the threat posed by AQIS may have receded for now, the fact that the group has managed to open another front in Assam given its current constraints speaks a lot about its intentions. AQIS, with its well-calibrated planning, is preparing for the long haul, which in turn has caught many by surprise. In this sense, AQIS did not recruit terrorists for the moment but rather for the future, for the prophesized Ghazwa-e Hind which could one day become a reality if the Indian sentinels don’t wake up from their complacent slumber.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of
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