A quick search of international headlines over the past few months shows that ‘ISIS’ crops up more than any other militant outfit. The group, which has been scaling up its acts of violence – including mass killings of minorities – has been in the news of late because of its beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, besides its growing offensive in Syria and Iraq.
The group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed ‘Caliph’ of D’awaa Islamiya (Islamic State), has demanded the loyalty of all Muslims as well an allegiance to the Wahhabi doctrine. In doing so, and its consequent increasing popularity, it has dwarfed the terrorist outfit which has long claimed leadership of the jihadists fighting to restore the Caliphate – Al-Qaeda.
So when Ayman al Zawahri, who took charge of al Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, announced the formation of an Indian branch Wednesday, some questioned if this was to raise its voice against the rising dominion of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and to reclaim its vaunted position as the global leader of jihadis.
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A Reuters report cited counter-terrorism experts as saying that al Qaeda’s ageing leaders are struggling to compete for recruits with ISIS. Zawahari’s renewal of ties with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar is also seen as a snub to ISIS.
Al-Baghdadi, who had a falling out with Zawahari in 2013 over ISIS’ expansion into Syria, has exploited the three-year civil war in Syria to make significant territorial gains, including as much as 30% of Syria according to some reports.
According to Matthew Olsen, the outgoing director of US’ National Counterterrorism Center, the group now commands 10,000 fighters and controls an area roughly the size of the UK across both Syria and Iraq. In the process, it has acquired advanced weaponry, equipment and money. On Wednesday, some reports suggested it has also taken control of figher jets at an airfield in Syria.
While ISIS and al Qaeda may share common modus operandi – al Baghdadi was originally an al Qaeda member – they diverge in the execution of their goals of an Islamic Caliphate, an entity last seen in the Ottoman dynasty.
It is in this context that al Qaeda’s India ambitions must be seen. This is not the first time al Qaeda has turned its attention eastwards – in July 2013, in another video, it had urged Indian Muslims to join the global jihad, but with little impact.
This time, thought, it may be more serious about following up. Recently, a photo of Tamil Nadu students with ISIS T-shirts created a furore, as have reports of Indians joining the organisation. A recent Scroll article explored why Indian Muslims, who have largely ignored the call of jihad by al Qaeda and the Taliban, have chosen to respond to ISIS. It says that al-Baghdadi has positioned his struggle as one against Shia overreach and not the West, unlike the Al-Qaeda. It is this call for Sunni pride that has attracted the youth, it argues.
Muslims account for 15% of the Indian population, of which Sunnis constitute 85%. India’s Muslim population is also the third-largest in the World.
In the latest video, Zawahari has said the India group has been years in the making. It said it will defend the “vulnerable in the Indian subcontinent, in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir…”, adding “your brothers in Qaedat al-Jihad did not forget you and that they are doing what they can to rescue you from injustice, oppression, persecution, and suffering.”
While the 55-minute video by Zawahiri does not specifically mention ISIS or Baghdadi, it appears to take a dig at the group’s efforts at administering areas it has seized in Iraq and Syria, according to a Reuters report.
ISIS has captured attention of the West, with Martin Dempsey, chairman of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying at a Pentagon press briefing that the terror group has an “apocalyptic, end-of-days” vision that will eventually have to be defeated. But US intelligence officials, according to a Guardian report, have concluded that despite the group’s dramatic rise to prominence in the Middle East, it is not comparable to “al-Qaida pre-9/11”.
But if the call to jihad in the Indian subcontinent is any indication, it certainly hasn’t prevented al Qaeda from taking notice of this challenge to its authority.