Be on guard

Ayman al-Zawahiri’s announcement that al-Qaeda is setting up a wing in the Indian sub-continent has set off alarm bells in the region. In a video posted online, the al-Qaeda leader said the new outfit, ‘al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’ would wage jihad in the region and “liberate from injustice and oppression” Muslims in Assam, Gujarat, Kashmir, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The al-Qaeda’s setting up of a wing in the Indian sub-continent has been widely interpreted as aimed at reviving its fading fortunes. Indeed, since 2011 when its leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces, the al-Qaeda has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.

The Islamic State’s rise in recent months and its emergence as the dominant jihadi group has marginalised the al-Qaeda even further. It is likely, therefore, that al-Zawahiri’s announcement is aimed at boosting the sagging morale of his fighters and also proclaiming to the world in general and the global jihadi movement in particular that the al-Qaeda remains active and has big plans for the future.

Even at the height of its influence, the al-Qaeda could not recruit fighters from India to the cause of global jihad. Some argue that a weak al-Qaeda is even less likely to do so. Indeed, over the past decade few Indian Muslims were attracted by global calls for jihad. However, this appears to be changing. Several Indians are reported to have journeyed to Iraq in recent weeks to join the ranks of Islamic State. They could join the al-Qaeda’s unit in the subcontinent as well.

India must take al-Zawahiri’s announcement seriously and act to ensure that his plans for the subcontinent are defeated. While India’s security grid improved substantially in the wake of the 2008 terror attacks, loopholes do exist.

Co-operation between various intelligence agencies remains patchy. Robust preventive action is needed but arbitrary arrest of Muslim youth must be avoided at all costs. This and communal riots have in the past contributed to deep anger among Muslim youth pushing them to violence to articulate their grievances. India cannot afford to allow such disaffection to grow any longer. A comprehensive strategy that addresses Muslim alienation is needed to deprive jihadists of the troubled waters in which they fish for recruits. India’s Muslims will not fall prey to false promises of jihadis if they feel secure in this country and invested in its future. A secular, democratic and inclusive India is the best bulwark against jihadi terrorism.

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