Al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent: An Appraisal of the Threat in the Wake of the Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan —

Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

Abstract: In the year since the Taliban took control of Kabul, al-Qa`ida and its regional affiliate in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS) has strategically camouflaged its presence in Afghanistan to protect the Taliban from political damage and to secure a safe haven. However, the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul on July 31 confirmed al-Qa`ida’s presence in the country and its close cooperation with the Taliban. It appears that with Taliban-run Afghanistan offering it a platform for regional expansion, AQIS is pivoting its focus to other parts of the South Asia region. Having set its eyes particularly on India and the contested Kashmir region, AQIS is currently pushing out targeted propaganda to recruit new operatives and to instigate new insurgencies in the region.

“The victories of The Islamic Emirate are a model for mujahideen that the success of Jihad is embedded in unity and alliance. If there is no unity then a war you almost won can be stabbed in the back like in Iraq and Levant.” — Asim Umar, emir of al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent, 20191

Although it was founded almost eight years ago, al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) remains the newest formal affiliate of the global al-Qa`ida network. It is also the least understood of al-Qa`ida’s affiliates in terms of its structure and geographical scope, its overlap with al-Qa`ida Central, and its local embeddedness.

In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the renewed motivation their victory has offered to jihadis worldwide, it is particularly relevant to take a closer look at the status of al-Qa`ida in South Asia and how the situation in Afghanistan may affect AQIS activities throughout the region. Although it is still too early to tell, it is most likely that al-Qa`ida, and particularly AQIS, is going to benefit from the Taliban takeover, both in Afghanistan and the region as a whole. 2

In October 2019, the new AQIS emir, Usama Mahmoud, said that “the success of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and the defeat of all the Tawaghit [tyrants] against them foretells the future of this jihadi movement which is moving forth in the subcontinent.” Yet, even now, almost eight years after its creation, AQIS does not stand out for its operational activities. The affiliate has only claimed a relatively small number of attacks throughout the region. Instead, its focus has been on uniting disparate militant groups in a cohesive structure, establishing an effective media apparatus, aand diffusing targeted ideological messages to recruit and mobilize sympathizers.

In recent years, AQIS has not been slow to comment on the situation in Afghanistan. Already in March 2020, in reaction to the peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban, AQIS issued a 135-page special issue of its Urdu-language magazine, Nawa-i Afghan Jihad (Voice of the Afghan Jihad), calling the deal a “magnificent victory” for the Taliban and for jihad. More importantly, the magazine also outlined plans to rename the magazine Nawa-i Ghazwatul Hind (Voice of the Battle for India), indicating a strategic shift of operational focus from the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) region to Kashmir and mainland India. bTwo months later, in May 2020, AQIS’ spokesman released another statement praising the Doha agreement and framing it as a “divine victory” resulting from the Taliban’s steadfastness and persistence in jihad. Then in August 2021, shortly after the Taliban’s complete takeover of Afghanistan, the group issued another statement congratulating the Taliban, saying:

The advice that all Muslims can take from this victory is that despite the volatility and fluctuation of the situation, it is not appropriate for a Muslim nation to retreat from protecting its religious values and national honor. The lesson for Muslims in this victory is that Muslims in any region cannot confront these plunderers, the enemies of Islam, and aggressive forces, except when they are ready to confront them as a nation, and when it is the whole Ummah, the mujahideen and the general public, together, united, and integrated.3

The Taliban takeover would have a direct impact on al-Qa`ida circumstances in the region, with the terrorist organization apparently judging even the capital to be secure enough for it to operate in. In the early part of 2022, al-Qa`ida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was located by U.S. intelligence in Kabul, and on July 31, he was killed on his balcony by a U.S. missile strike. According to the White House, “senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul.” 4The Associated Press reported, “The house Al-Zawahri was in when he was killed was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official.” 5

This article begins with a brief overview of AQIS’ origins, its ideology, and its organizational structure, and then takes a closer look at the various countries on which the affiliate is focused: Pakistan (the country in which the group emerged); Afghanistan; Kashmir and India; and Bangladesh and Myanmar. cIt concludes with a discussion on how the Afghan context is likely to influence AQIS in the region at large.

Origins, Ideology, and Structure
When al-Qa`ida’s now late emir Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of AQIS on September 3, 2014, in an hour-long video statement, it did not come as a major surprise. The AfPak region had for years been the heartland of al-Qa`ida’s senior leadership, and with the growing pressure resulting from the Islamic State’s caliphate declaration, the emerging fragmentation within a previously cohesive jihadi movement, and military infighting among jihadis, it was imperative for al-Qa`ida to secure a formal presence in the South Asia region. 6

While AQIS was formally established in September 2014, the group has since noted that it began operating sometime in 2013. Shortly after the group’s establishment, its then spokesman Usama Mahmoud explained that it started operating under one consultative committee prior to the September 2014 7declaration, and this aligns with al-Zawahiri’s claim that the founding in September 2014 was preceded by two years of preparation. d

Although the late al-Qa`ida spokesman Adam Gadahn stated that the establishment of AQIS was finalized in mid-2013 and had nothing to do with the emerging rivalry between al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, it is difficult not to interpret the creation within the context of the evolving militant landscape in the region and globally. eAQIS was presumably meant to ensure an al-Qa`ida structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan in case the senior al-Qa`ida leadership in the region was taken out, and to mobilize and unite a fragmented militant landscape in the region under a common banner in order to stem defections to the Islamic State.

AQIS is best understood as a regional umbrella organization that, on one hand, was formed with the intention to unite like-minded groups in the region that were already associated with al-Qa`ida and, on the other, to instigate local insurgencies under its banner. From its very inception, AQIS was framed as an effort to unite jihadis under the banner of al-Qa`ida and the ultimate authority of the Afghan Taliban to prevent fitna (discord). For al-Zawahiri, it was clearly of utmost importance to highlight that jihad in the region was under the auspices of the Taliban. 8Hence, in his first statement as emir, Asim Umar pledged allegiance not only to al-Zawahiri but also to Mullah Omar, at a time when the latter was already dead. 9

From the outset, analysts have had questions about AQIS’ relationship to the AfPak-based al-Qa`ida leadership and the group’s geographical coverage. Examining the leadership appointments, however, reveals just how embedded the new affiliate was within al-Qa`ida’s core. Before becoming AQIS emir, Asim Umar headed al-Qa`ida’s sharia committee in Pakistan while his deputy, Ahmad Farooq, used to manage al-Qa`ida’s preaching and media efforts in the country. And according to the U.N. monitoring team tracking the global jihadi threat, both AQIS and al-Qa`ida Central leadership are present in the AfPak border area and work closely together, 10and in July 2016, the U.N. monitoring team reported that al-Qa`ida supporters in Afghanistan had joined AQIS. 11

In relation to AQIS’ geographical focus, al-Zawahiri revealed in his founding statement that AQIS would fight for Muslims in “Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujurat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir,” 12yet within the first days of the affiliate’s creation, there was speculation that the affiliate only covered India. To correct the misunderstanding, Usama Mahmoud issued a statement on Twitter explaining that AQIS also covered Pakistan. 13What is striking about these early statements is the omission of Afghanistan, and although it quickly became apparent that AQIS had a substantial presence in the country, the group has consistently attempted to downplay it. As will be discussed later in this article, over the years AQIS would also establish some level of presence in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

In the video announcing its formal establishment, Usama Mahmoud explained that the goals of AQIS could be divided into six points. The first was waging jihad against the United States and destroying the purported global system of disbelief opposing tawhid (monotheism). The second was the implementation of sharia and reviving the Muslim societies. The third was to liberate Muslim lands in the Indian subcontinent, and the fourth was to wage jihad to re-establish a caliphate on the prophetic methodology ( al-manhaj al-nubuwwa). The fifth was to support the Taliban, and the sixth was to create a just Muslim society. Mahmoud stressed that AQIS viewed “defending the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” as “the worthiest of our duties, and with the strength of Allah, we will not wane in sacrifice so as to preserve it and support it with all that we possess.” 14

AQIS’ code of conduct-issued in 2017, which it considers a hugely important document-reiterated this agenda. 15Clarifying both AQIS’ relationship to the Taliban and its geographical presence, the 2017 code of conduct stated that “one of the major objectives of the Jama’ah [group] is strengthening the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, defending it, and bringing stability to it. In pursuit of this objective, the Jama’ah engages the enemies of the Islamic Emirate outside Afghanistan, and also takes part in the battles inside it — fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the mujahideen of the emirate.” f

Pakistan and the Forming of AQIS
Although AQIS claims to represent the entire Indian subcontinent, it is originally a product of longstanding jihadi politics in Pakistan. In the authors’ assessment, AQIS’ main purpose was to address the insecurities of al-Qa`ida’s post-9/11 Pakistani generation and to facilitate an organizational foundation to preserve their jihad. This is evident from the composition of AQIS’ founding leadership and its supreme council, who were all post-9/11 recruits from Pakistan. gFrom 2004 onward, al-Qa`ida initially organized these cadres in Waziristan’s tribal belt into over a dozen semi-independent groups that operated separately but remained under al-Qa`ida’s command, and it was not before 2014 that al-Zawahiri formally brought these groups under Asim Umar’s leadership and established AQIS. 16

Declassified Usama bin Ladin documents show that his high regard for Pakistani al-Qa`ida cadres’ loyalty and commitment to jihadism was one of the reasons he ordered the al-Qa`ida general manager to organize them into a separate branch of al-Qa`ida in Pakistan. 17A pertinent question is why the late al-Qa`ida leader kept the Pakistani networks as part of an informal structure for so long. Three factors explain the timing of al-Qa`ida’s formal 2014 announcement organizing these Pakistani networks into AQIS.

The first factor concerns al-Qa`ida’s priorities in the post-9/11 environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan, when the organization’s primary goal was to establish powerful jihadi fronts to battle U.S. and allied forces. This entailed supporting the Taliban in both countries. In Afghanistan, the Taliban made clear that they should spearhead the resistance and that other jihadi groups should recognize their authority. Although al-Qa`ida played an instrumental role in establishing an immediate robust resistance against the United States and allies in Afghanistan at a time when Taliban fighters were still scattered, the group made explicit its unconditional loyalty to the Afghan Taliban from the beginning 18and avoided establishing any separate organizational chapter in Afghanistan, instead focusing on Pakistan for this purpose.

The militant landscape in Pakistan offered al-Qa`ida significant opportunities to establish a foothold in the country. The Pakistani militants who splintered from the state-supported militant organizations provided al-Qa`ida with a clandestine network in Pakistan immediately after it fled Afghanistan in late 2001. 19

With TTP reaching its peak strength in 2009–2010, some policies like indiscriminate killings, infighting, and extortions disappointed the al-Qa`ida central leadership, who deemed these destructive to the jihadi cause in Pakistan and beyond. 22As TTP started to pressure al-Qa`ida’s Pakistani cadres to join its ranks, the distance between the groups grew and brought with it insecurities for al-Qa`ida’s Pakistani cadres. Hence, as a means of protection, the Pakistanis within al-Qa`ida approached the central leadership to provide them with an identity to secure their survival in Pakistan’s competitive jihadi landscape.

The second factor was the rapid elimination of the al-Qa`ida central leadership in the intense U.S. drone campaign that severely harmed the organization. 23The real reason for al-Qa`ida’s strength in the region was its informal Pakistani networks that to a great extent ran the organization.

Fearing for their future in the aftermath of bin Ladin’s death should the entire al-Qa`ida central leadership be taken out, al-Qa`ida’s Pakistani cadres demanded they be allowed to establish a separate al-Qa`ida branch in Pakistan to ensure their survival. 24Eventually, al-Zawahiri yielded, and in 2013, he allowed the Pakistanis to establish a preliminary branch that extended to South Asia beyond Pakistan. 25

The third factor that paved the way for AQIS was the internal rebellion within al-Qa`ida that exploded in 2013 when its Iraqi branch, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, started violating al-Zawahiri’s orders and eventually split from al-Qa`ida. Al-Baghdadi’s group’s mesmerizing territorial victories in Iraq and expansion to Syria inspired a number of influential figures close to al-Qa`ida’s remaining leadership in the AfPak region to side with the group, soon to be known as the Islamic State. iThese defectors were disappointed with al-Qa`ida’s approach and blamed them for the group’s decline in the region. These defectors included influential jihadis such as Abdul Malik Tamimi, who had enjoyed a powerful position within al-Qa`ida’s leadership and inspired subsequent large-scale defections to the Islamic State. jIt appears, therefore, that al-Qa`ida leadership’s decision to finally announce a separate branch for its local cadres was to stop further defections to the Islamic State.

While al-Qa`ida’s central leadership has enjoyed a good relationship with TTP since the latter’s establishment in 2007, providing it with economic, political, and military support and providing advice to guide its internal decisions and policies, the AQIS-TTP relationship has remained tense since the beginning. The following factors help explain these tensions.

First, AQIS emerged as a competitor to TTP. While TTP previously enjoyed al-Qa`ida’s support in its struggle to establish monopoly over the jihadi scene in Pakistan, 26AQIS was now a challenger, bidding to revive and reform the jihad in Pakistan. 27Although AQIS soon ceased all military attacks in Pakistan, it continued to claim to be the prime heir of jihadi militancy in Pakistan. 28 AQIS’ argument was based on the claim that the anti-state jihadi front in Pakistan had been founded by al-Qa`ida’s central leadership long before TTP’s own establishment in December 2007. 29Second, AQIS publicly criticized TTP, particularly for its indiscriminate attacks that resulted in heavy collateral damage. AQIS’ criticism of TTP first became public in December 2014 when it strongly condemned TTP’s attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed and wounded over 200 schoolchildren. 30After this, AQIS would regularly issue criticism targeting TTP. 31

A secret letter written by AQIS’ current emir, Usama Mahmoud, to TTP in June 2020 sheds further light on the tensions. 32Mahmoud stated that AQIS represented the true heirs of jihad in Pakistan, arguing that it was founded years before TTP’s establishment in December 2007. He urged TTP to follow AQIS policy of limiting the jihadi war in Pakistan to the media front alone and to cease all military attacks, arguing that such actions would create problems for a future ‘Islamic’ government of the Afghan Taliban in Kabul. He instead strongly suggested that TTP join AQIS in establishing a jihadi battlefield in India.

Afghanistan
Immediately after its formal establishment in September 2014, AQIS established a presence in Afghanistan, enjoying close collaboration with and shelter from the Afghan Taliban. 33Nothing demonstrated AQIS’ presence in Afghanistan more than the 2015 U.S.-led operation against the AQIS training areas in Shorabak district in southern Kandahar province, which reportedly resulted in the deaths of some 160 al-Qa`ida fighters. 34

According to the AQIS flagship magazine, Nawa-i Afghan Jihad, AQIS fighters have operated within at least 13 Afghan provinces, including in the fight against the local Islamic State affiliate in Nangarhar. kMoreover, AQIS senior leadership including its first emir, Asim Umar; his deputy Muhammad Hanif; military chief Umar Khattab Mansur and his deputy, Haji Qasim; and media and propaganda chief Usama Ibrahim were all killed along with a dozen senior cadres while they were under the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan. 41

As well as the military support AQIS has provided the Afghan Taliban, AQIS has consistently supported all efforts to help the Afghan Taliban achieve political victory over the United States. For example, AQIS stopped releasing evidence of its ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan when the Taliban negotiations with the United States in Doha entered the decisive phase. In the authors’ assessment, this was part of the AQIS strategy to minimize its presence in Afghanistan and was aimed to help the Doha agreement cross the finish line and to facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the Taliban’s accession to power. AQIS appeared to be so committed to this goal that the group even kept secret the killing of its founder, Asim Umar. Umar was killed in September 2019 in a joint U.S. and Afghan forces raid in the southern Helmand Province, where he was being sheltered by a local Taliban commander. 42

According to the terms of the Doha agreement in February 2020, the Taliban committed to “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” 43

Al-Qa`ida was considered one of the significant threats to the United States in this regard. Thus, to ensure the smooth withdrawal of the U.S. troops and the power transition to the Taliban, AQIS made a public announcement within days of the deal confirming that it was leaving Afghanistan. 44The group claimed that its objective to support the Taliban’s military and political victory in Afghanistan was achieved and it would therefore shift to a new front, fighting against the Indian state to help and liberate the oppressed Muslims in Kashmir, Gujarat, and other Muslim-populated Indian states. Although al-Qa`ida appears honest in its redefinition of its operational focus in the region, the AQIS leadership, not to mention that of al-Qa`ida core, does not seem to have any intention to relocate. The purpose of the statement was rather to fulfill the political objectives of the Taliban. Contrary to public statements, current AQIS emir Usama Mahmoud, in fact, told a secret gathering of the group’s senior cadres prior to the Doha deal that AQIS’ actual struggle in Afghanistan would only start after the U.S. withdrawal from the country. 45

Kashmir and India
Outside its core areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, AQIS has for years attempted to establish organizational structures and inspire insurrection in neighboring countries. While the group has historically found it difficult to embed itself locally in these countries and recruit large numbers of followers, it has to some extent succeeded in the contested region of Kashmir while ‘mainland’ India has proved more troublesome.

Al-Qa`ida founder Usama bin Ladin mentioned the conflict in Kashmir in his 1996 declaration of jihad, and over the years al-Qa`ida has issued a string of videos commenting on the region in an attempt to exploit episodes of tensions in order to mobilize sympathizers. 46Militants from Kashmir who migrated to Afghanistan to join al-Qa`ida would continue to keep one eye on their home territory, hoping to inspire insurrection although the group did not have a formal presence there. 47

With a regional affiliate now in charge of expanding al-Qa`ida’s presence throughout the region, al-Qa`ida is much better placed to play a more active role. And recent developments suggest that AQIS is in particular aiming to enhance its focus on Kashmir and India. As previously noted, in reaction to the peace deal between the Taliban and the United States, AQIS in March 2020 proclaimed a name change of its long-running magazine Nawa-i-Afghan Jihad (Voice of the Afghan Jihad) to Nawa-i Ghazwatul Hind (Voice of the Battle for India). This change took effect with the April 2020 edition of the magazine, thus indicating a new direction for its geographical operational attack focus with Kashmir as the intended future epicenter of its jihad. 48

In the aftermath of the release of the AQIS code of conduct, a new Kashmir-based group, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind (AGH), led by Zakir Musa was formally announced on July 26, 2017, in an official statement released by the al-Qa`ida-affiliated media unit the Global Islamic Media Front. 49While the founding statement of AGH did not explicitly mention the connection between AGH and al-Qa`ida, it was later revealed in an official statement that the group represents al-Qa`ida in Kashmir and works under the auspices of AQIS. 50

The discourse of AGH (AQIS’ front organization in Kashmir) is generally focused on its animosity toward India, and group statements promote attacks against Indian security forces. However, on several occasions, the group has also suggested attacks against U.S. and Israeli interests. In a video speech issued in February 2018, AGH emir Zakir Musa defined AGH’s enemies the following way: “The first enemy of our Jihad is the Indian Army. It is important that we attack its convoys and make its movement difficult. In this action, every able youth can join and by using petrol bombs can participate in such actions. Besides the Indian army, this list [of targets] includes all those supporters and personnel who run the tyrannical and infidel system of India and protect it and give it advantage.” 52

While AGH occasionally claims attacks, mainly in or around the towns of Srinagar, Pulwama, and Shopian in Indian-administered Kashmir, its operational frequency appears to be low and in periods dormant. Instead, the group’s main activity is its propaganda, with regular publication of videos and statements through its al-Hurr and al-Sindh media institutions castigating Pakistani and Indian authorities, eulogizing martyred members of the group, and commemorating past leaders. In reaction to the Modi government stripping Indian-administered Kashmir of its autonomy and statehood in 2019 and the state’s sweeping security clampdown, AGH spokesman Talha Abdul Rahman felt that militants had to change their modus operandi. In January 2021, he wrote that “now is the time to decide. Now is the time to prepare. They [authorities] have laid siege to every street and every masjid and every house in Kashmir and if we still do not go down to our full potential in preparation for this war, we will only have to face humiliating scenes.” 53

As one of his last acts, AGH emir Zakir Musa sent out an audio in April 2019 warning that AGH was growing stronger and that the group was about to restart operations. 54Yet, the group would suffer critically from India’s counterterrorism offensive during the following months in reaction to Muslims mobilizing against the state, losing numerous high-ranking leaders, which on several occasions led authorities to claim that the group had been eradicated. 55First, Musa was killed on May 23, 2019, 56then senior recruiter Showkat Mir was killed on June 23, 2019, 57followed by spokesman Shabir Ahmad Malik. 58The successor to Zakir Musa as AGH emir, Abdul Hameed Lone, was killed on October 23, 2019. 59

During his brief reign as leader of AGH, Hameed Lone attempted to carry on the ideological legacy of Zakir Musa by promoting a jihad independent of Pakistan’s directives. Adding to Musa’s efforts, Lone wanted to unite the various militant outfits in Kashmir under a ‘purer’ banner and suggested the establishment of a common shura council to govern militants’ operational activities. 60This strategy was quickly backed up the following month by the late al-Qa`ida leader al-Zawahiri in an address titled “Don’t Forget Kashmir,” in which he added that the priority of jihadis in Kashmir should be “inflicting unrelenting blows on the Indian Army and government, so as to bleed the Indian economy and make India suffer sustained losses in manpower and equipment.” 61

Although it might appear that AGH never really managed to gain traction in Kashmir, this would be a dangerous conclusion. Despite having to compete since 2017 with the local chapter of the Islamic State first known as Islamic State Jammu & Kashmir, which later became its Wilayat al-Hind, AGH has become popular among the region’s militants. Evidencing the popularity of Zakir Musa, and AGH generally, more than 10,000 people attended his funeral in 2019. 62

In recent years, AGH has focused on recruiting new members, including employees in the Indian army and police. 63The group is also likely to take advantage of the situation in Afghanistan. Back in July 2021, new AGH emir Ghazi Khalid Ibrahim praised the Taliban’s impending victory and told his fighters that the Taliban should be “a model to pursue for militants in Kashmir.” 64

In addition to the insurgency in Kashmir, AQIS and AGH have attempted to spread their activities to ‘mainland’ India. AQIS spokesperson-turned-emir Usama Mahmoud said back in 2019 that it does “not consider the battle front against India to be limited to Kashmir, wherever you find the Indian army and the polytheist rulers of India, within India and without, strike them.” 65AQIS, however, has never managed to establish a strong foothold in mainland India. Unlike many other countries in the region, few Indians joined the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and thus, India has not faced a large number of returning foreign fighters or the kind of jihadi network foreign fighters tend to establish and later draw on. Indicative of the low resonance of militant Islamist ideology among India’s Muslims, only around 100 Indians reportedly traveled in the last decade to Syria and Iraq to fight. 66

AQIS’ failure so far to establish itself in India is not for lack of trying. Already in 2013, its future emir Asim Umar, a native of Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh himself, began to frame a discourse of jihad in India:

Will the land of Delhi not give birth to a Shah Muhadith Delhvi who may once again teach the Muslims of India the forgotten lesson of Jihad and inspire them to take to the battlefields of Jihad? Is there no successor left of the group that drenched itself in blood at Balakot, who possesses the spirit of rising in rebellion against a system based on disbelief and offering one’s life for Allah?67

That year, al-Qa`ida was already in the process of establishing clandestine activities in India. The first evidence that AQIS was attempting to set up a formal organization in the country came to light in late 2015 when a group of 12 AQIS members were arrested in India, including Muhammed Asif. He has since been identified as the then head of AQIS in India, and it has also emerged that he spent time with AQIS leaders in Pakistan. 68

The arrests temporarily halted AQIS’ progress in India. Meanwhile, in 2015–2016, an al-Qa`ida-inspired group known as the Base Movement with no known links to AQIS executed a few small-scale attacks in southern India. 69Then, in May 2019, the Islamic State announced the creation of a separate province for India, Wilayat al-Hind, which until then had been part of the group’s Khorasan Province. 70

AQIS has, over the years, employed various narratives to promote jihad in India. These can be summarized as India’s oppression against Muslims in Kashmir, India’s promotion of secular policies in Bangladesh, India’s alliance with the United States and Israel, and India’s ancient history of Islamic rule. 74Especially since early 2020, AQIS has built up its communication output concerning India. In a January 2020 video titled “If Islam is Your Country, Then Rejoice! A Message of Love and Brotherhood in the Service of the Muslims of India,” Usama Mahmoud likened the situation of India’s Muslims to that of the persecuted Rohingya in Myanmar and called on them to stand up and fight. An even stronger call for action came in October 2021 in a short seven-minute video released by AQIS that began with scenes purporting to show Hindus beating up and killing Muslims, then showed images of deceased al-Qa`ida, Taliban, and TTP leaders, and ended with audio from the first AQIS emir, Asim Umar, calling for Indian Muslims to begin to act through jihad:

If you think that India is very powerful, remember that Jihad has been obligated to crush the pride of the arrogant. Jihad is fard (obligatory) for all Muslims of India … to defend Muslims brothers in Kashmir, in Assam and for your own defense. In which place are your lives and money not in danger? Or not already being looted? Where is it that your properties and businesses are not being destroyed? This is the promise of Allah.75

In April and May 2022, al-Qa`ida issued two videos featuring al-Zawahiri speaking specifically on India and Kashmir. In the first video, entitled “The Noble Woman of India,” the late al-Qa`ida leader praised the actions of a young Indian woman who objected to a group of Hindu nationalists protesting against the hijab. Al-Zawahiri used this show of defiance to promote the necessity of South Asia’s Muslims to work for the implementation of sharia. 76In the second video, a longer documentary-style production, al-Zawahiri compared the situation in Kashmir to the tragedy of Palestine and situated the Kashmiri conflict in the context of the global jihadi movement:

Oh our people in Kashmir! Your battle is the battle of the entire Muslim Ummah! Your theater is not just Kashmir, but the entire Indian Subcontinent! So prepare yourselves for bleeding your enemies to death in the entire Subcontinent. Since our Ummah is one and our Jihad is one, it is a duty on this Ummah to support its brothers in Kashmir both morally and materially.77

According to the letter writer’s narrative, while Muslims in India had been ignorant of their true circumstances, an awakening took place first in 2014 (corresponding to the year AQIS was created) that made Muslims aware of Islam as the only solution. According to the al-Qa`ida-supporting letter writer, this was further strengthened by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, which had convinced India’s Muslims that jihad was not only necessary but also feasible, according to the author.

The problem, the al-Qa`ida supporter lamented, was that while there were plenty of committed jihadis like himself in India, there was no organized structure to guide their actions:

There are many muslims especially from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Hyderabad, Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka, Assam, Bengal, etc who want to join this path of jihad. But unfortunately we don’t have the means to join this tanzeem [group]. There is no organized structure of AQ present in mainland India. In lack of any organized structure and lack of guidance and assistance from AQIS, many Indian muslims are becoming disillusioned. Many of us including myself have been waiting since a long time but we are not getting the assistance from AQIS we need in order to make hijrat to kashmir or to start the campaign of jihad from our own states.81

The Indian al-Qa`ida supporter concluded his letter by appealing to the AQIS leadership to help Indian Muslims either migrate to Kashmir or establish a group in mainland India to launch a military campaign.

In the authors’ assessment, it is highly likely that AQIS will increase its focus on India and Kashmir in the coming months, both in terms of its operational activities and its discourse. In ‘mainland’ India, it appears that AQIS seeks to consolidate its presence to become relevant, while in Kashmir it appears that the aim is to escalate its active involvement. A first sign of this came in a video that AQIS posted on November 18, 2021, titled “The Initiator is the Aggressor” in which it attempted to incite Muslims in Bangladesh, India, and Kashmir to respond to Hindus supposedly desecrating the Qur’an and targeting Muslims. Using old footage from a speech of Asim Umar, the video told people to consider the countries as lands of war and prepare to launch attacks. 82In furtherance of its propaganda efforts in the region, for some time, al-Qa`ida supporters have operated a Rocket.Chat channel named the “Islamic Translation Center” mainly translating official al-Qa`ida material into Gujarati, Bengali, Burmese, and Rohingya, in addition to Pashto and Urdu.

With growing Hindu nationalism in India and growing legal discriminations against the country’s Muslims, there is a real risk that AQIS and likeminded groups will be successful in recruiting members and building up a network inside Kashmir and ‘mainland’ India. 83Afghanistan and the jihadi safe haven offered by the Taliban will likely be central to these efforts, on one hand serving as an inspiration for militants in Kashmir and on the other hand providing a platform for Kashmiri and Indian militants in Afghanistan to support their comrades in India.

Bangladesh and Myanmar
Bangladesh and Myanmar, or Burma in the parlance of jihadis, have long featured in the propaganda of established jihadi groups, including al-Qa`ida and its affiliates who have had a long-standing interest in Bangladesh. Since 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar have been rocked by the Rohingya crisis that has spanned their common border and has resulted in more than a million 84Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar into Bangladesh. 85The Myanmar military regime’s genocide nagainst the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State has deeply angered Muslims around the world and created a cause célèbre for jihadi groups to exploit.

Bangladesh
Militant Islamist groups have operated for decades in Bangladesh, and since 2015, groups officially affiliated to al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, respectively, have been active in the country, although Bangladeshi authorities continue to deny their presence. 86The country’s history with militant Islamism started back in the 1980s when several hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslims from Bangladesh joined the Afghan jihad after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. It was during their stay in Afghanistan that some among the Bangladeshi foreign fighters established the first Bangladesh-focused jihadi group, Harkatul Jihad al-Islami of Bangladesh, or HuJI-B, which Usama bin Ladin reportedly funded early on. 87HuJI-B was later overtaken by another group, Jamaat ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), after the latter was formed in 1998, but what connected the two groups was their common alignment with the ideology of al-Qa`ida although both remained independent.

In announcing the formation of AQIS, then al-Qa`ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri explicitly mentioned a focus on Bangladesh. Ever since, both al-Qa`ida Central and AQIS leaders and their media outlets have directed their propaganda focus on instigating insurrection in the country. Bangladesh is home to the fourth largest Muslim population in the world, and the country has also seen a growing polarization between secularists and Islamists over the past decade. 89Ever since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Islam’s role in the country’s national identity politics has been in constant negotiation, and there has been a ‘culture wars’ backlash among religious conservatives that al-Qa`ida attempts to exploit. 90

In its propaganda output on Bangladesh, AQIS has historically focused on what it purports to be India’s encroachment, the persecution of Muslims, the criteria for governing a Muslim state, and finally the promotion of Islamic values. 91These ideological frames are intended to recruit and mobilize disenchanted individuals among the Muslims in Bangladesh and in neighboring Rakhine state in Myanmar.

Prior to the creation of AQIS, the operational activities of the militant Islamist milieu in Bangladesh had been largely dormant for a decade. Yet, militant Islamist activities started to revive around 2014–2015, likely instigated by the establishment of AQIS and the rise of the Islamic State outside the Levant. 92Of the two groups, it is the Islamic State and its supporters who have been most active in terms of operational activities both in terms of scope and scale, according to the authors’ data, with the July 2016 attack against the Holey Artisan Bakery that killed 22 remaining the most devastating jihadi terrorist attack in Bangladesh’s recent history.

In contrast, Ansar al-Islam has so far only claimed a relatively small number of attacks that generally target a single individual or a small group because of their perceived offense against Islam. Arguably the most infamous case was the killing of the U.S. citizen Avijit Roy, an online activist and blogger who spoke out for secular freedom and was brutally killed by machete-wielding attackers on February 26, 2015, in Dhaka. 93The precise number of attacks perpetrated by Ansar al-Islam is challenging to assess since claims of attacks have been attributed to a range of front groups, yet according to the Global Terrorism Database, AQIS has claimed 10 attacks in Bangladesh since its creation. 94

In the absence of operational activities, it appears that AQIS has been focusing on rebuilding through online recruitment and radicalization in addition to the distribution of al-Qa`ida propaganda translated into Bengali. 98Throughout 2021, Ansar al-Islam ran a recruitment campaign aiming to attract and mobilize new supporters to add to its estimated existing 700 to 800 active members. 99During the course of 2021, authorities attempted to hamper such recruitment by arresting Ansar al-Islam members and leaders. In November 2021, the group suffered a critical setback when one of its senior leaders was arrested. Hasibur Rahman, or Azzam al-Ghalib, had been heading Ansar al-Islam’s online activities when he was arrested and was as such a central figure in the online radicalization of Bangladeshi youth. 100Nonetheless, as recently as December 2021, the Bangladeshi intelligence establishment warned about an imminent operational return of Ansar al-Islam resulting from its success in recruiting among Rohingya refugees. 101As of August 2022, an operational resurgence by Ansar-al-Islam has not materialized. There have been, however, indications that Ansar al-Islam has an interest in expanding its focus to Kashmir and Myanmar, either by providing funding or sending fighters. 102

Myanmar
In Myanmar, AQIS does not appear to have any formal group established. While the country has been rocked by political violence orchestrated by the nationalist Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), there is no evidence suggesting that ARSA is linked to AQIS. Although al-Qa`ida and AQIS leaders have issued statements over the years identifying Myanmar as an arena of jihad that Muslims in the region should support, this has not resulted in any operational activity. 103This highlights Myanmar’s role to date as more of a slogan than an active battlefield in the global jihadi movement.

Nevertheless, AQIS undoubtedly views Myanmar as an integral part of its geographical portfolio. The country featured in al-Zawahiri’s statement announcing AQIS in September 2014, and the following month, AQIS published its first issue of the magazine Resurgence in which Myanmar was identified as one of the group’s focus areas. 104In September 2017, in the weeks after Myanmar’s army began its brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims, AQIS’ then spokesperson Usama Mahmoud issued a speech titled “Myanmar: A Call to Act,” telling Muslims in the region that it was a religious duty to support Myanmar’s oppressed Muslim population. 105In December that same year, an AQIS official, Muhammad Miqdaad, took this argument one step further, arguing that the Muslim populations of Rakhine state in Myanmar and of Chittagong in Bangladesh were similar and that any distinction between the two was artificial and detrimental to the ummah (global Muslim community). Instead, Miqdaad stated, the Muslims in the region should view one another as part of the same community, and Muslims in Chittagong should assist their brothers in Myanmar. 106

The strongest indication of al-Qa`ida’s rhetorical focus on Myanmar came in March 2021 when it sent out a new speech by al-Zawahiri titled “The Wound of the Rohingya is the Wound of the Ummah,” in which he attempted to situate the oppression of Myanmar’s Muslim population as part of the suffering of the global ummah.

In November 2020, a local group carrying the name “Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan” announced its creation and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. 107While this group appears to mainly exist online, it is nonetheless a testament to the interest jihadi groups have in Myanmar and in exploiting the Rohingya crisis to recruit and mobilize and compete with each other.

The Threat Horizon
Despite the fact that it appears AQIS has not organized a presence in Myanmar and has only created a limited organized presence in Bangladesh, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan offers a new platform for AQIS to strengthen its activities in both countries.

Similar to the situation in Kashmir and India, a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan could serve both as a potential safe haven for AQIS fighters in Bangladesh and Myanmar and as a place where they can travel to train and acquire weaponry. There are already reports that Bangladeshi youth have attempted to travel to Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover to join the substantial number of Bangladeshi fighters already present in the country. 108

With the continuation of the Rohingya crisis and no apparent solution to the issue of refugees and internally displaced people in Bangladesh and Myanmar, both countries remain fertile ground for recruitment. Thanks to Afghanistan’s strengthened safe-haven status in the wake of the August 2021 Taliban takeover, AQIS leadership has better conditions to exploit the situation and engage with local leaders and operatives in the two countries.

In the coming months, there may be an attempt by AQIS to unite militant factions in Bangladesh. Arrested Ansar al-Islam operatives have admitted previous attempts to merge with remnants of JMB. While JMB members have generally supported the Islamic State and thus have competed with Ansar al-Islam, the importance of these fault lines is waning. 109The coming period may also see increasing transnational cooperation among AQIS affiliates in the region. As the section on Bangladesh outlines, there are indications AQIS elements in Bangladesh aspire to expand their focus to Kashmir and Myanmar, either by providing funding or sending fighters.

That does not imply that an active insurgency in Bangladesh is out of the question. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has resonated among Bengali al-Qa`ida supporters online with some suggesting that militants in Bangladesh are capable of winning a war against the government. 110Only time will tell if such sentiment results in change from the current focus on dawa and recruitment to a campaign of violence inside Bangladesh.

The AQIS Threat Post-Taliban Takeover
Al-Qa`ida was originally founded in South Asia, and ever since, its focus has remained on the region at varying intensity but with an expanding geographical scope. Despite having to compete with the Islamic State for influence and resonance, the group has relied on its local networks to attract a following. Because of its close affiliation and cooperation with the Taliban, al-Qa`ida and particularly AQIS is poised to benefit from the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. As noted by the United Nations, AQIS was “involved in fighting alongside the Taliban, including during the rapid takeover of Afghanistan in 2021.” 111

According to recent U.N. reporting, 112the majority of AQIS fighters are still located in Afghanistan, specifically in the Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Paktika, and Zabul provinces with four operational commanders reportedly responsible for these six provinces: Salahuddin (Bakwa), Azzam (alias Hussain), Qari Tufail (alias Fateh), and Ahsan Bilal Waqar (alias Akari). The reporting from the United Nations stated that “Al-Qaida enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule but confines itself to advising and supporting the de facto authorities. Al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is reported to have 180 to 400 fighters, primarily from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan. AQIS fighters are represented at the individual level among Taliban combat units.” The U.N. reporting further stated that “AQIS is maintaining a low profile in Afghanistan” and that “AQIS elements remain difficult to distinguish from the Taliban forces in which they are embedded,” which explains why there is little open-source information pointing to recent AQIS activities in Afghanistan.

According to the U.N. monitors, “AQIS capabilities are assessed as still weakened from losses as a result of the October 2015 joint United States-Afghan raid in Kandahar’s Shorabak district. AQIS has also been forced by financial constraints to adopt a less aggressive posture. As with Al-Qaida core, new circumstances in Afghanistan may allow the group to reorganize itself.” 113

Although AQIS’ official media offers regular insights into the group’s activities, media releases since August 2021 paint a picture of the group as no longer active on Afghan soil and that its focus remains on establishing an indigenous anti-state jihadi insurrection in India. 114qThis message is not limited to AQIS propaganda narratives but is also communicated in AQIS emir Usama Mahmoud’s June 2020 letter to TTP. 115rThe letter is from before the Taliban takeover, but written after the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, and in it, the AQIS emir acknowledged that a military presence by his group in Afghanistan could have severe consequences for the Taliban. Thus, a significant reason for the extraordinary cautiousness of AQIS in keeping its presence in Afghanistan secret is to help the Taliban in their efforts to acquire internal and international legitimacy.

The fact that al-Qa`ida’s emir al-Zawahiri was killed on July 31 in the heart of Kabul raises uncomfortable questions about al-Qa`ida’s presence in the country and its relationship to the Taliban. Not only does it underline that al-Qa`ida is present in Afghanistan, it also illustrates that elements within the Taliban are willing to secretly assist and protect al-Qa`ida. In an interview published in this issue of CTC Sentinel, Edmund Fitton-Brown, the outgoing coordinator of the U.N. monitoring team focused on the Taliban and other problematic goups in Afghanistan, stated, “Let’s be clear: This was a facilitated presence in Kabul. Zawahiri’s presence was facilitated by the Haqqani network. It was facilitated after they took over Afghanistan.” 116

Yet, the Taliban’s public commitment to uphold the peace agreement is evident from the case of Amin ul-Haq. Amin ul-Haq is an Afghan national from Nangarhar province who was a longtime senior aide of Usama bin Ladin. 117Within days of the Taliban takeover, he returned to Nangarhar province. 118However, because his return was framed as evidence of an al-Qa`ida return to Afghanistan and led to media criticism of the Taliban, 119the group asked him to leave the country in the greater interest of the Afghan nation and the new “Islamic government.” sAlthough Amin ul-Haq denied any links with al-Qa`ida, 120the Taliban denied him a presence in his homeland. Such cases are clear warnings to AQIS members that any ‘wrong actions’ can deprive them of their safe haven in Afghanistan. Instead, AQIS has opted for media and propaganda activities intended to mobilize a new jihadi front in India. And judging from the past 12 months of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, AQIS has remained committed to this goal. That does, by no means, imply that al-Qa`ida will look to relocate from Afghanistan, but rather that it will quietly focus on employing Afghanistan to rebuild its global leadership echelon and as a hub to support expansion of operations in India, Bangladesh, and other parts of the South Asia region, through AQIS. CTC

Tore Refslund Hamming is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College and a specialist on militant Islamism and the movement’s internal dynamics. Since 2015, he has carried out extensive fieldwork and digital anthropology within extremist milieus in addition to studying their employment of technology. He also runs Refslund Analytics, a research and intelligence consultancy. Twitter: @Torerhamming Abdul Sayed is an independent researcher and analyst. He has a master’s degree in political science from Lund University, Sweden, and is a fluent Urdu, Dari, and Pashto speaker. To date, his work on the topics of transnational jihadism and anti-state extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan has appeared in a range of international outlets. He also writes frequently for the BBC Urdu, BBC Monitoring, and Jamestown Foundation on Islamist militancy in Afghanistan and South Asia. Twitter: @abdsayedd © 2022 Tore Hamming, Abdul Sayed

Substantive Notes
[a] AQIS has developed an elaborate media structure through its subgroups. The affiliate’s main media outlet is the subcontinent unit of As-Sahab Media Foundation, which published its Resurgence magazine, official videos, and leadership speeches. Its main magazine is the Urdu-language Nawa-i Ghazwatul Hind (previously Nawa-i-Afghan Jihad) that has been running since 2008, but which AQIS only acknowledged running in 2019, and it issues anasheed through its Nida-e-Jihad unit. Affiliated media organizations such as an-Nasr and Titumir Media are also issuing pro-AQIS material including al-Balagh magazine. In Bangladesh, Ansar al-Islam is publishing through al-Firdaws Media Foundation while in Kashmir, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind is responsible for al-Hurr and al-Sindh. Ansar al-Islam and Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind are essentially front groups for al-Qa`ida in Bangladesh and Kashmir, respectively.

[b] U.N. monitors have noted that “the 2020 name change of the AQIS magazine from ‘Nawa -i Afghan Jihad’ to ‘Nawa-e-Gazwah-e-Hind’ suggests a refocusing of AQIS from Afghanistan to Kashmir. The magazine reminded its readers that al-Zawahiri had called for ‘jihad’ in Kashmir following the Da’esh Sri Lanka attacks of April 2019.” “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2611 (2021) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, May 26, 2022.

[c] The authors are not aware of any focus on Sri Lanka in AQIS’ writings, suggesting the country is not a priority.

[d] Ayman al-Zawahiri revealed that Abu Dujana al-Basha was a central figure behind the establishment of AQIS. See Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Carrying the Weapon of the Martyr 5: The Shaykhs Abu Umar Khalil and Abu Dujana al Pasha,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, August 2017.

[e] Adam Gadahn explained that postponing the formal announcement of the group to February 2014 was “a result of a combination of logistical factors and some political and strategic considerations.” See “Resurgence: An Exclusive Interview with Adam Yahiye Gadahn,” Resurgence Special Issue, As-Sahab Subcontinent Media, Summer 2015, p. 67.

[f] In a 2017 exclusive ‘interview’ with AQIS’ media organization, spokesperson Usama Mahmoud elaborated: “This movement on the one hand aims to reform Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Bangladesh, and the whole of Subcontinent, into an Islamic Subcontinent. On the other hand, this movement is also a part of the global jihadi movement, i.e., it is part of the same jihadi movement that is fighting against the alliance of Crusaders, Zionists, Mulhids (Anti-Islam activists who claim to be Muslims), polytheists, and secularists.” See Usama Mahmoud, “What do we want to achieve? Jihadi movement in the Subcontinent — Reality & Facts 1,” As-Sahab Subcontinent Media, November 24, 2017.

[g] For example, this list includes AQIS founding chief Asim Umar; AQIS founding deputy emir Ahmad Farooq; the AQIS media and propaganda chief emir Engineer Usama Ibrahim Ghouri; the AQIS Afghanistan committee emir Qari Imran Mansur; the AQIS training centers emir Imran Siddiqi aka Shaikh Wali Ullah; the AQIS sharia committee head Mufti Ishtiaq Azmi, the AQIS military chief Khattab Mansur, and his deputy Haji Mustafa aka Qasim Kiyani; the AQIS foreign relations head Rana Umair Afzal (aka Mustafa Abdul Karim); and the AQIS explosives department emir Engineer Malak Adil aka Usman. These individuals defected from the pro-state Pakistani jihadi groups post-9/11, became part of al-Qa`ida networks in Pakistan, and were appointed to the AQIS Shura Council.

[h] The senior Pakistani al-Qa`ida ideologue Ubaid ur-Rehman Murabit defined the “Punjabi Taliban” as anti-state Pakistani militants, mostly non-Pashtun, who hailed from the Pakistan urban centers and migrated to join al-Qa`ida and its allied and affiliated anti-state Pakistani militants’ groups in the North and South Waziristan regions of Pakistan, where he himself spent time. For details, see Mawlana Dr. Ubaid ur-Rehman Murabit, “Biography of Dr. Muhammad Sarbuland Zubair Khan (Abu Khalid),” Hitteen 1:2 (2019): p. 150.

[i] According to researcher Don Rassler, this group included Abu `Ubayda al-Lubnani, Abu al-Muhannad al-Urduni, Abu Jarir al-Shimali (Abu Tha’ir), Abu al-Huda al-Sudani, `Abd-al-`Aziz al-Maqdisi, `Abdullah al-Banjabi, Abu Younis al-Kurdim, Abu `A’isha al-Qurtubi, and Abu Mus`ab al-Tadamuni. See Don Rassler, “Situating the Emergence of the Islamic State of Khorasan,” CTC Sentinel 8:3 (2015).

[j] A former al-Qa`ida militant provided details to one of the authors about Tamimi’s influential role in the al-Qa`ida cadres’ defection to the al-Baghdadi side in Waziristan. According to the former militant, Tamimi at the time remained al-Qa`ida’s top sharia ideologue and enjoyed great respect among the group’s rank-and-file because he was well-versed in Islamic jurisprudence. According to the former militant, he had covertly shifted his loyalty to al-Baghdadi before making it public in March 2014, and he convinced a large number of al-Qa`ida members to join the al-Baghdadi camp. Author (Sayed) interview, a former militant who served with al-Qa`ida in Waziristan during the same period as Tamimi, Nangarhar, Afghanistan, June 2021.

[k] The at least 13 Afghan provinces AQIS has claimed it has operated in are Kandahar, Hilmand, Uruzgan, Nimruz, Farah, Zabul, Ghazni, Wardag, Paktia, Paktika, Logar, Nangarhar, and Kunar.

[l] Hizb ul-Mujahideen is a militant Islamist group founded in 1989 and operating in Kashmir. A designated terrorist group, its objective is that Kashmir secedes from India and becomes part of Pakistan.

[m] Zakir Musa defected from Hizb al-Mujahideen in May 2017, and two months later, he established AGH.

[n] “On March 21, 2022, following a rigorous factual and legal analysis, the [U.S.] Secretary [of State] determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya.” “Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya in Burma,” U.S. Department of State, n.d. See also “Myanmar: US Recognizes Genocide Against Rohingya,” Human Rights Watch, March 21, 2022.

[o] Ansar al-Islam was banned by Bangladeshi authorities in March 2017, but it has continued to operate.

[p] This has been confirmed on several occasions, for example by the al-Qa`ida supporter mouthpiece Global Islamic Media Front, which refers to the unit in Bangladesh as “Ansar al-Islam (AQIS).” See, for example, the Global Islamic Media Front statement dated May 1, 2016, congratulating Ansar al-Islam on its killing of LGBT activists Xulhaz Mannan and Samir Mahbub Tonoy.

[q] Similarly, AQIS’ flagship Urdu magazine, Nawai Ghazwai Hind (NGH), followed the same themes in the four issues released since August 2021.

[r] This letter was released by pro-AQIS telegram channels in May 2022. One of the authors (Sayed) is co-authoring a forthcoming analysis of the letter.

[s] Multiple sources, including several close to Dr. Amin ul-Haq, told author Abdul Sayed in November-December 2021 about the Afghan Taliban demand for him to leave Afghanistan for the greater interest of the new government and Afghan nation after his relocation to the country was framed as al-Qa`ida’s return to Afghanistan. According to the sources, ul-Haq followed those orders and left Afghanistan.

Citations
[1] Asim Umar, “And On That Day the Believers Will Rejoice,” As-Sahab Subcontinent Media, June 13, 2019.

[2] Kabir Taneja and Mohammed Sinan Siyech, “Terrorism in South Asia After the Fall of Afghanistan,” War on the Rocks, August 23, 2021.

[3] AQIS, “Statement of Congratulations for the Conquest and Victory of the Islamic Emirate in the Land of Afghanistan,” As-Sahab Subcontinent Media, August 23, 2021.

[4] “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on a U.S. Counterterrorism Operation,” White House, August 1, 2022.

[5] Matthew Lee, Nomaan Merchant, and Aamer Madhani, “Biden: Killing of al-Qaida leader is long-sought ‘justice,’” Associated Press, August 2, 2022.

[6] Tore Refslund Hamming, Jihadi Politics: The Global Jihadi Civil War, 2014–2019 (London: Hurst, forthcoming).

[7] Usama Mahmoud, “The Special Production on the Occasion of Unity Among the Ranks of the Mujahideen and Creating ‘Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent,’” As-Sahab Media Foundation, September 3, 2014.

[8] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Special Production on the Occasion of Unity Among the Ranks of the Mujahideen and Creating ‘Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent,’” As-Sahab Media Foundation, September 3, 2014.

[9] “Mullah Omar: Taliban leader ‘died in Pakistan in 2013,’” BBC, July 29, 2015.

[10] “Twelfth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2557 (2020) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, June 1, 2021.

[11] “Eighteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 19, 2016.

[12] Al-Zawahiri, “The Special Production on the Occasion of Unity Among the Ranks of the Mujahideen and Creating ‘Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent.’”

[13] Usama Mahmoud, “Press Release №1: Jihad in Pakistan is the first step and milestone in the ‘Battle of Hind,’” September 8, 2014.

[14] Usama Mahmoud, “The Special Production on the Occasion of Unity Among the Ranks of the Mujahideen and Creating ‘Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent,’” As-Sahab Media Foundation, September 3, 2014.

[15] AQIS, “Code of Conduct,” As-Sahab Subcontinent Media, June 2017.

[16] Ahmad Farooq, “Shaikh Saeed (Mustafa Abu Yazid)” Hitteen 2:1 (2017): pp. 117–138.

[17] “Letter providing direction,” n.d., Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

[18] Abdul Sayed, “The Past, Present, and Future of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Soufan Center IntelBrief, August 20, 2021.

[19] For details, see Syed Salim Shahzad, Inside al-Qaeda and Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 (London: Pluto Press, 2011).

[20] For details, see Ibid.

[21] This is evident both from al-Qa`ida and TTP officially published accounts. For details, see Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud [Mehsud’s Revolution] (Paktika, Pakistan: Al-Shahab Publishers, 2017) and Ustad Farooq, “Shaikh Saeed (Mustafa Abu Yazid),” pp. 117–138.

[22] “Letter to Shaykh Abu Abdallah dtd 17 July 2010,” Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

[23] Asfandyar Mir, “What Explains Counterterrorism Effectiveness? Evidence from the U.S. Drone War in Pakistan,” International Security 43:2 (2018): pp. 45–83.

[24] Author (Sayed) interview, former militants who served with al-Qa`ida and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Waziristan during the same period, Nangarhar, Afghanistan, June 2021.

[25] “Unity of Ranks: Announcement of establishment of al-Qa`ida in the Indian Sub-continent,” As-Sahab Media Foundation, 2014.

[26] Mawlana Dr. Ubaid ur-Rehman Murabit, “Biography of Dr. Muhammad Sarbuland Zubair Khan (Abu Khalid),” Hitteen 1:2 (2019): p. 150.

[27] Ustad Ahmad Farooq, Pakistan mi jihad jari rihna chaheay [Jihad should continue in Pakistan], Hitteen Publications, October 2016.

[28] Usama Mahmoud, “Jihad in Pakistan — Jihadi movement in the Subcontinent, reality and facts. Part — 3,” As-Sahab Subcontinent, 2017.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Usama Mahmoud, “Our hearts are bursting with sorrow, pain, and grief over the martyrdom of children in Peshawar school!” AQIS press release, December 17, 2014.

[31] Usama Mahmoud statement condemning the TTP and TTP-JuA attacks on the Bacha Khan University, Charssada, and the NADRA Office, Mardan, titled “Recognize the Jihad,” As-Sahab AQIS, 2016.

[32] Usama Mahmoud, “A letter from AQIS Shura to the TTP Shura,” June 2020.

[33] Abdul Sayed, “The truth behind Al-Qaeda’s silence in Afghanistan,” Asia Times, November 5, 2020.

[34] Dan Lamothe, “‘Probably the largest’ al-Qaeda training camp ever destroyed in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, October 30, 2015.

[35] “The AQIS manifesto,” June 2017, published by As-Sahab Indian Subcontinent.

[36] Maulana Asim Umar, “Pledge of allegiance to the leader of faithfulls, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur,” As-Sahab Indian Subcontinent, October 2015.

[37] Maulana Asim Umar, “A message to Shaikh Haibatullah Akhunzada: Renewal of the pledge of allegiance,” As-Sahab Indian Subcontinent, June 2016.

[38] For Asim Umar and Usama Mahmoud statements on the formation of AQIS, see “Unity of Ranks: Announcement of establishment of al-Qa`ida in the Indian Sub-continent,” As-Sahab Subcontinent Media, 2014.

[39] “Twelfth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”

[40] “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 15, 2022.

[41] Abdul Sayed, “The truth behind Al-Qaeda’s silence in Afghanistan,” Asia Times, November 5, 2020.

[42] Abdul Sayed, “Al-Qaeda Confirms the Killing of its Indian Amir: The Rise and Secret Fall of Shaikh Asim Umar,” Militant Leadership Monitor 7:9 (2021).

[43] “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America,” U.S. Department of State, February 29, 2020.

[44] “Important announcement,” Nawai Afghan Jihad 13:3 (2020): p. 8.

[45] Usama Mahmoud, “Security course for the AQIS cadres,” released 2018–2019.

[46] Mohammed Sinan Siyech, “Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS): Renewing Efforts in India,” Middle East Institute, September 19, 2017.

[47] Usama Mahmoud, “Jihad in Kashmir… Way & Destination! A Call to Kashmiri Brothers,” As-Sahab Media Subcontinent, December 25, 2017.

[48] Animesh Roul, “Al-Qaeda’s South Asian Branch Gravitating Toward Kashmir,” Terrorism Monitor, April 17, 2020.

[49] “Foundation of new movement of Jihad in Kashmir named “Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind,” Global Islamic Media Front, July 2017.

[50] Usama Mahmoud, “Zakir Musa — A Commitment and a Movement,” As-Sahab Subcontinent Media, June 6, 2019.

[51] Yashraj Sharma, “Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind: Kashmir’s loneliest militant group’s perpetual fights,” Kashmir Walla, April 14, 2021; Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda-linked jihadist in Kashmir criticizes Pakistani Army,” FDD’s Long War Journal, September 2, 2017.

[52] Zakir Musa, “Kashmir will Become Darul-Islam,” al-Hurr Media, February 25, 2018.

[53] Talha Abdul Rahman, “Battlefields are Calling,” al-Hurr Media, January 6, 2021.

[54] Phil Hegseth, “Al Qaeda linked Kashmiri terror chief denounces Pakistan, calls for renewed jihad,” FDD’s Long War Journal, April 15, 2019.

[55] Sharma; “Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind: Lingering Al Qaeda influence in Kashmir and Beyond,” Society for the Study of Peace and Society, August 25, 2021.

[56] “Zakir Musa: Thousands mourn India’s ‘most wanted’ militant,” BBC, May 24, 2019.

[57] Rouf A Roshangar, “Showkat Ahmed Mir, most wanted militant, and 3 others killed in encounter in J&K,” India Today, June 23, 2019.

[58] Thomas Joscelyn, “Indian forces kill spokesman for al Qaeda group in Kashmir,” FDD’s Long War Journal, June 28, 2019.

[59] “Zakir Musa’s Successor Among 3 Terrorists Killed In Awantipora: Jammu And Kashmir Police,” NDTV, October 23, 2019.

[60] Thomas Joscelyn, “New head of al Qaeda group in Kashmir calls for independent jihadist council,” FDD’s Long War Journal, July 8, 2019.

[61] Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda leader threatens India, criticizes Pakistan in message on Kashmir,” FDD’s Long War Journal, July 9, 2019.

[62] “Zakir Musa: Thousands mourn India’s ‘most wanted’ militant.”

[63] Talha Abdul Rahman, “And do Jihad in Allah’s Path as is Due to Him,” al-Hurr Media, May 23, 2020.

[64] “Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind: Lingering Al Qaeda influence in Kashmir and Beyond.”

[65] Usama Mahmoud, “Kashmir… The Lion Shall Wise Up Now!” As-Sahab Media Subcontinent, October 12, 2019.

[66] Hari Prasad, “Still No Storm in the Ocean: New Jihadist Narratives on Indian Islam,” Hudson Institute, April 1, 2021.

[67] Asim Umar, “Why is There No Storm In Your Ocean? A Message for Muslims of India,” As-Sahab Media, June 8, 2013.

[68] Animesh Roul, “Al-Qaeda’s Quiet Resurgence in India,” Terrorism Monitor, August 15, 2017.

[69] “Leader of Al-Qaeda inspired ‘Base Movement’ module wanted to wage jihad against India,” Economic Times, July 13, 2018.

[70] Fayaz Bukhari and Alasdair Pal, “Islamic State claims ‘province’ in India for first time after clash in Kashmir,” Reuters, May 11, 2019.

[71] “India arrests nine al Qaeda militants planning ‘terrorist attacks,’” Reuters, September 19, 2020.

[72] “India claims arrest of two al-Qaeda-linked terrorists,” UCA News, July 12, 2021.

[73] “Al Qaeda handlers used social media for recruitment in India: NIA,” Federal, February 27, 2021.

[75] AQIS, “Don’t Sit Idly Grieving,” As-Sahab Media Subcontinent, October 6, 2021.

[76] Ayman al-Zawahiri, “The Noble Woman of India,” As-Sahab Subcontinent, April 5, 2022.

[77] Al-Qa`ida, “Kashmir and Palestine: A Recurring Tragedy,” As-Sahab Subcontinent, May 2, 2022.

[78] See Tore Refslund Hamming, “Hence he is asking AQIS: ‘So my appeal to the leadership …,” Twitter, December 9, 2021.

[79] Harrison Akins, “The Citizenship (Amendment) Act in India,” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, February 2020.

[80] Vatsal Raj, “The National Register of Citizens and India’s commitment deficit to international law,” LSE Blog, August 10, 2020.

[81] “A Message & Appeal From an Indian Muslim to AQIS Leadership,” Tawheed Awakening Media, December 2021.

[82] AQIS, “The Initiator is the Aggressor,” As-Sahab Media Subcontinent, November 18, 2021.

[83] Lindsay Maizland, “India’s Muslims: An Increasingly Marginalized Population,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 14, 2022; Cherian George, “The Rise of Hindu Nationalism,” MIT Press Reader, February 28, 2022.

[84] C. Christine Fair, “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army: Not the Jihadis You Might Expect,” Lawfare, December 9, 2018.

[85] Ibid.; “UNHCR chief urges support for Bangladesh to save Rohingya lives, ‘build hope,’” United Nations, May 25, 20202.

[86] Shailaja Neelakantan, “Bangladesh Again Denies Al-Qaeda Presence,” Benar News, January 15, 2021.

[87] Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, “How Afghanistan-Trained Mujahideen Brought Terror To Bangladesh In The 1990s,” Outlook, August 20, 2021; C. Christine Fair, “Political Islam and Islamist Terrorism in Bangladesh: What You Need to Know,” Lawfare, January 28, 2018.

[88] Animesh Roul, “How Bangladesh Became Fertile Ground for al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State,” CTC Sentinel 9:5 (2016).

[90] Fair, “Political Islam and Islamist Terrorism in Bangladesh: What You Need to Know.”

[91] Shafi Md Mostofa, “A Study of Al-Qaeda’s Propaganda Narratives in Bangladesh,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 11:2 (2019); Roul, “How Bangladesh Became Fertile Ground for al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State.”

[92] Iftekharul Bashar, “ISIS, AQIS and the Revival of Islamist Militancy in Bangladesh,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 7:6 (2015): pp. 18–23.

[93] “Rewards for Justice — Reward Offer for Information on the Murder of Avijit Roy and Attack on Rafida Bonya Ahmed,” U.S. Department of State, December 20, 2021.

[94] Examination of the data in START’s Global Terrorism Database. The authors searched for “Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent” and examined all attacks in Bangladesh. See START’s database at www.start.umd.edu/gtd

[95] Animesh Roul, “Al-Qaeda-Linked Group HUJI-B Attempts to Regroup in Bangladesh,” Terrorism Monitor 17:20 (2019).

[96] Mohammad Jamil Khan, “Ansar Al Islam: Lying low, continues recruitment,” Daily Star, December 24, 2021.

[97] “Banned Ansar al Islam militant discloses plan to attack Bangladesh parliament,” South Asia Monitor, May 17, 2021.

[98] “AQIS And ISIS: Expanding In Bangladesh,” New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, September 6, 2016.

[99] Mohammad Jamil Khan, “Ansar al Islam targeting non-Muslims, transgender people for recruitment: CTTC,” Daily Star, September 20, 2021; Animesh Roul, “Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh’s Unchecked Online Recruitment Campaign,” Terrorism Monitor 20:4 (2022).

[100] “Counter-terrorism police arrest online head of banned Ansar Al Islam,” UNB, November 15, 2021.

[101] Roul, “Ansar al-Islam Bangladesh’s Unchecked Online Recruitment Campaign.”

[102] Mohammad Jamil Khan, “B’desh: ‘Plan was to send recruits to Kashmir, Arakan to join AQIS’, says CTTC after interrogating 3 members of Ansar Al Islam,” Daily Star, July 4, 2021.

[103] Ariel Koch, “Reflections of the Rohingya in the Online Jihadi Propaganda,” Beehive, March 25, 2021.

[104] AQIS, “Resurgence,” As-Sahab Media Subcontinent, October 19, 2014.

[105] Usama Mahmoud, “Myanmar — A Call to Act,” As-Sahab Media Subcontinent, September 2017,

[106] Muhammad Miqdaad, “Adopt the Call of Allah — Say ‘No’ to Jahiliyyah,” al-Nasr Media, December 16, 2017.

[107] Daniele Garofalo, “Hijrah to Arakan? The Stunted Start of Rohingya Jihadism in Myanmar,” Terrorism Monitor 19:20 (2021).

[108] Bhattacharya; Khan, “Ansar Al Islam: Lying low, continues recruitment.”

[109] Animesh Roul, “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent: Spearheading Jihad in South Asia: 2014–2020,” Counter-Terrorism Perspective, July 30, 2020.

[110] Iftekharul Bashar, “Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: Security Implications for Bangladesh,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 13:4 (2021): pp. 19–24.

[111] “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2611 (2021) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, May 26, 2022.

[112] “Thirtieth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team;” “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”

[113] “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”

[114] For details, see the video outputs released by AQIS central media arm, As-Sahab Indian Subcontinent, after the Taliban takeover; for example, “Do Not Sit Idly Grieving!” As-Sahab Indian Subcontinent, October 2021; “Kashmir Is Ours,” As-Sahab Indian Subcontinent, October 2021; “The Initiator Is The Aggressor.”

[115] Mahmoud, “A letter from AQIS Shura to the TTP Shura,” June 2020.

[116] Paul Cruickshank and Madeline Field, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Edmund Fitton-Brown, Outgoing Coordinator, ISIL (Daesh)/Al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team, United Nations,” CTC Sentinel 15:8 (2022).

[117] Tahir Khan, “Al-Qaida grows weaker by the days, says Osama bin Laden aide,” Nikkei Asia, May 4, 2021.

[118] “Thirteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 13; Bill Roggio, “Osama bin Laden’s security chief triumphantly returns to hometown in Afghanistan,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 30, 2021; “Osama’s former bodyguard returns to Afghanistan: Who Amin-al-Haq is and what his return means,” Firstpost, September 3, 2021.

[119] “Osama’s former bodyguard returns to Afghanistan.”

[120] Abd. Sayed, “Dr. Amin ul Haq denies any connections with any foreign militant groups and says …,” Twitter, September 20, 2021.

Originally published at https://ctc.usma.edu on August 9, 2022.

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I am a research analyst focusing on jihadism, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

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Abdul Sayed

Abdul Sayed

I am a research analyst focusing on jihadism, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.