So now, it’s the al Qaeda’s turn to threaten. The language is violent in the extreme, warning of “explosives being tied to our bodies”, including that of children. That doesn’t say much about their protection of child rights, which is where this whole mess started, with Nupur Sharma’s alleged remarks. And a mess it is, all due to the inability of television anchors and politicos to see beyond their ideological noses and TRPs. Don’t dismiss this as a mere public relations campaign by terrorists or those supporting them. It’s dangerous to the extreme in an age of DIY terror.
It seems that a newly resuscitated Ayman al-Zawahiri is now directing himself against India.
The al Qaeda's hatred of the ‘West’ is well-known. It is the anger against India that’s relatively new. The AQIS's magazine name was changed from 'Nawa-i Afghan Jihad' to 'Nawa-e-Gazwah-e-Hind', clearly a refocus from Afghanistan to Kashmir.
There is no way that the threat can be dismissed. Intelligence agencies will now have to use all their assets to keep abreast of the dangers.
The key that will effectively short circuit most terror plans is a flat refusal of the Indian public and ‘outragers’ on social media to succumb to religious dividers.
A strong statement a little way down the line by the Prime Minister will not just help, it’s the key.
Zawahiri Comes to Life
First, the missive itself. Dated 6 June, it carries an excess of energy in its threats, warning not only of explosive attacks and vengeance against ‘saffron terrorists’ in Delhi, Bombay, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, but also executions, hangings, imprisonment and being “bound with chains”. The threat is not just unusual in its target but is also curiously delayed. True, the Nupur Sharma controversy erupted only days after she made the alleged statement in late May, and came to prominence only when Qatar, Iran and Kuwait summoned the Indian Envoy on 5 June. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) issued a statement of “respect for all religions” the same day.
On 6 June, Pakistan summoned the charge d’ affairs, and the same day, the al Qaeda woke up to life. This message is on the letterhead of the al Qaeda in the subcontinent – it seems to have missed out ‘Indian’ in the letterhead – a group created in 2014, by Ayman al-Zawahiri himself, and in a branch of the original. It had also claimed attacks in Pakistan in its original form as AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent).
Now consider this. The fact that Zawahiri is alive was conclusively known only after a 22 February 2022 video where he praised Muskan Khan for her defiance of a hijab ban in Karanataka, hailing her for having “challenged a mob of Hindu polytheists with defiant slogans of takbeer [God is the Greatest]”. He only then went on to down other Islamic countries – including Pakistan – for being puppets of the West, and offered no violence.
Prior to this, videos in March were made up of clips, while another on the 9/11 anniversary last year seemed curiously disjointed, not even mentioning the return of the Taliban. An 858-page book does, however, reference Illyas Kashmiri, who is said to have planned the Mumbai attacks and was killed in 2011, and Asim Umar from Uttar Pradesh, who had led the AQIS. The newest one, however, had Zawahiri apparently in full flow, even if again rather late. Muskan’s outburst was in early February. It seems, therefore, that a newly resuscitated Zawahiri is now directing himself against India.
The Al Qaeda in the Subcontinent
A UN report places Zawahiri and his team in Zabol, close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Others are in and around Kabul. It is necessary to note that the al Qaeda and its arms operate under an umbrella of protection from the Taliban, who have, however, time and again stated that while it will extend hospitality, any terror attacks by the group will be strongly opposed, which was reiterated in a recent statement by Mullah Yakub, the Defence Minister and the son of Mullah Omar.
But while the Taliban is no homogenous group and doesn’t seem to have a central authority, it has actually never assisted the al Qaeda in its terror pursuits. The problem is that the al Qaeda itself, as the United Nations notes, has since been issuing statements promising attacks against the ‘West’, but not from Afghanistan.
The al Qaeda's hatred of the ‘West’ is well-known. It is the anger against India that’s relatively new. The AQIS, or ‘AQS’, if its new letterhead is to be followed, is relatively weak after its core was destroyed by the Afghan intelligence in 2015. It, however, seems to retain some 200-400-odd persons, headed by former spokesperson Osama Mahmood. The main worry? That its magazine name was changed from 'Nawa-i Afghan Jihad' to 'Nawa-e-Gazwah-e-Hind', clearly a refocus from Afghanistan to Kashmir, apparently on Zawahiri’s call for “jihad” in Kashmir.
The Threat Upfront
There is no way at all that the threat can be dismissed. Whether it is actually from the al Qaeda leader on his own initiative or whether it's backed by forces who are using the ‘Nupur Sharma’ episode to full benefit, doesn’t count in operational terms. Intelligence agencies will now have to use all their assets, both internal and external, to keep abreast of the threat. That will mean using contacts in the Taliban as well as with ‘partner’ countries who are as interested in looking for the whereabouts of the elusive Zawahiri. Remember that his death had been announced in late 2020, and there are many who still think he’s no longer functional.
Then there is the combing of all web-based communications – particularly the dark web – in trying to find messages that will alert agencies of a possible attack. It's more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a massive haystack.
It is the internal threat that is more worrying. The al Qaeda's cadres don’t necessarily have to travel to India to carry out an attack. Given the recent trends in India – most particularly on social media and some television channels – that paint all Muslims as terrorists and goad them on religious matters, some radicalisation is imminent. At the time of writing, a car ran over pedestrians in Berlin, on a street where an Islamic State cadre had once used the same method to kill 12 people in 2016. So common has this become that a whole new action guide has been put out by the US Homeland Security. Worse is the use of heavier vehicles, such as a bus or a truck. In the present context, with Nupur Sharma alleging threats against her family, a hostile force has to launch only a minor attack against her that could lead to a severe communal blowback. It's hardly ‘Mission Impossible’.
Why India Should Issue a Strong Statement
The key that will effectively short circuit most terror plans is a flat refusal of the Indian public and ‘outragers’ on social media to succumb to religious dividers. Since that is a virtual impossibility, the media could lead, for instance, in highlighting incidents such as the denouncement by Muskan Khan's father of Zawahiri's call of support as "unwelcome", notwithstanding which local politicians continued to declare that the girl had ‘outside support’, deliberately pushing a conspiracy theory. There you have it: cause and unwanted effect.
Apart from the media, the whole thing can be nipped in the bud if the government issues a strong statement of support for all religions, pointing out quite reasonably that all its development schemes are directed at all citizens everywhere.
Certainly, that can't be done just yet given that there is no question of bowing down to pressure from the likes of the Organisation of Islamic States (OIC). But a strong statement a little way down the line will not just help, it’s the key – especially when delivered with the usual charisma of a Prime Minister who has a following that world leaders envy. Hinduism doesn’t have to be reinvented to please anyone. All that has to be done is to simply show it in its true light. And don’t forget, for decades, none but a small handful of Indians joined the likes of the Islamic State or the al Qaeda; fewer still turned up in Kashmir. All that could change, and badly; and all of it put together can turn bigger than just a politically untenable situation.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)