Although the US administration following its withdrawal from Afghanistan are optimistically looking for reaching into a pact with Taliban over its promised role in an “inclusive” and “stable” government in Kabul, there are alarming indications of Al Qaeda’s silently recovering its lost ground and making a comeback. But this matter is not getting proper attention in the global or regional media although such development would have ominous implications particularly for South Asian nations, especially India’s Kashmir region. A recent arrest of four students from Kargil in India by Delhi Police in connection with the low-intensity IED explosion near the Israeli embassy on January 19 this year has rekindled the fear in this regard. It gives an disturbing signal of the Indian jihadist’s connections with Iran, in addition to its existing relations with Pakistani spy agency Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), Al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Connections between Al Qaeda and Kashmir-based militants
According to recent intelligence reports, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), one of the five major affiliated of the global terrorist outfit [other four being Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria; Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen; Al Shabaab in Somalia; and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa] — has signaled its plans to focus on Kashmir.
It may be noted that the announcement of the formation of the AQIS was made by Al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri in September 2014. But the group was not that active, particularly after the establishment of the Islamic State (ISIS) by the renegade Al-Qaeda Iraqi militia head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Islamic State announced its expansion to the Khorasan region in 2015, which historically encompasses parts of modern-day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and parts of India, including Kashmir.
This new country dreamt by al-Baghdadi was called the Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), which subsequently declared to include Bangladesh, the Maldives and Sri Lanka as well.
It did attract many militant youths in Kashmir. But then with the killing of the al Baghdadi in 2019 and the subsequent decline of the ISIS, elements associated with the ISIS-K looked forward to the AQIS.
In a book titled The Islamic State in Khorasan written by Antonio Giustozzi and published in 2018, has revealed that the ISIS-K was handled by the same ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) of Pakistan, which was equally friendly with the Al Qaeda, that despite the known rivalry between al-Zawahiri and al-Baghdadi, ISIS-K and Al Qaeda or for that matter AQIS had good ties and that there was a very thin wall of separation between them.
According to CIA report, AQIS targets are military and security personnel, political parties, foreigners, foreign aid workers, university professors, scholars, students and secular bloggers. The report said, in their goal to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Indian subcontinent, many militancy groups and individual jihadists in Kashmir do support the broader goals of Al Qaeda’s central leadership.
Al Qaeda members and affiliates use small arms and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), as well as crude weapons such as machetes. It is believed to receive financial and material support from Al Qaeda’s senior leadership and also engages in kidnapping-for-ransom and extortion to raise funds. The terrorists’ activities in Kashmir display this pattern very well.
What may be ominous in this regard is the spurt of activities by Al Qaeda in the past few months, particularly since the US-brokered Doha declaration in February 2020 that lent legitimacy to the process of Taliban returning to power in Kabul. The declaration of the US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has added further momentum to Al Qaeda’s revival.
In fact, Al Qaeda had welcomed the Doha deal, describing it as the “enemy acknowledging its defeat.” Its propaganda machinery had gone to the extent of portraying the Doha deal as “a watershed in the history of jihad”.
What is equally important is that the Taliban has not yet kept its promise at Doha (the basis of the proposed US troops withdrawal) to cut off ties with Al Qaeda and other militant groups. It has neither publicly renounced Al Qaeda nor taken any discernible action to limit Al Qaeda inside Afghanistan.
In fact, since the deal, the Taliban’s representatives have conspicuously sidestepped even the mere mention of Al Qaeda when pressed to clarify their position on the group. On the contrary, privately they are reported to have pointed out that Al Qaeda is a group of “oppressed Muslim dissidents, forced out of their own countries because of their beliefs”.
On June 1, the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the United Nations, in its 12th report, has observed: “the Taliban and Al Qaeda remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties. Member States report no material change to this relationship, which has grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties”.
The report finds that Al Qaeda continues to operate under the Taliban umbrella. “Al Qaeda is resident in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the east, southern and south-eastern regions, and are led by Al Qaeda’s Jabhat-al-Nasr wing under the direction of Sheikh Mahmood,” it says, adding that “a significant part of Al Qaeda leadership remains based in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the core is joined by and works closely with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent”.
Saying that, “Al Qaeda maintains contact with the Taliban but has minimized overt communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to ‘lie low’ and not jeopardize the Taliban’s diplomatic position vis-a-vis the Doha agreement,” the report suggests the member states to have “a longer-term Al Qaida core strategy of strategic patience for a period of time before it would seek to plan attacks against international targets again. This scenario is untested against stated Taliban commitments to prohibit such activities”.
Overall, Al Qaeda remains a loose, overlapping, and fluid network across multiple regions. Despite his poor health, al-Zawahiri is its supreme leader. The aforesaid five affiliates, including the AQIS, owe allegiance to him.
In addition, the group retains an active relationship with groups across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia such as Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, the Taliban and Haqqani Network in Afghanistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in Pakistan, and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen in the Maghreb and West Africa. In both the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, Al Qaeda-linked militants have strengthened their ties with the group’s central leadership.
In fact, Seth G. Jones, Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND, writes that it is possible that Al Qaeda can always take advantage of the US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan and further revitalize itself if it manages to have a charismatic leader, preferably one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, Hamza bin Laden.
One important point here is, Taliban and Al Qaeda, like most of the Afghanistan-based jihadist groups are already aligned towards Pakistani spy agency ISI. In the recent years, Pakistani ISI has also succeeded in further strengthening its ties with Palestinian Hamas and Myanmar’s Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). And here, the most alarming fact is – one of the key goals of Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Hamas, ARSA and other radical Islamic militancy outfits is establishing Islam’s dominance in the “non-Muslim” nations. Moreover, Pakistani ISI has also succeeded in establishing itself as one of the most trusted allies of the Islamist jihadist outfits in pushing forward the agenda of Islamic Caliphate. In this regard, jihadist forces will equally enjoy support and patronization from Turkey, Qatar and Iran. At the same time, Pakistan may now make its refreshed bids in pushing forward the agenda of destabilizing India with the help of Kashmiri jihadists in particular and other radical Islamic militancy outfits in different parts of India. So, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan may have severe impact on a number of South Asian nations, particularly India.
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