Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent: The Nucleus of Jihad in South Asia


Bottom Line Up Front

  • The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will give terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) more room to maneuver.
  • AQIS is a major node in a network with deep roots in South Asia, and it works closely with other terrorist groups, including the Afghan Taliban.
  • Growing sectarianism in South Asia, including violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, could be a boon for AQIS’ ability to recruit fighters.
  • The U.S. remains al-Qaeda’s primary target, but affiliates like AQIS also pose a threat to China, which has a growing presence in South Asia.

In late December 2018, President Trump announced that the United States would begin withdrawing approximately 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, effectively cutting the U.S. military presence in that country in half. The drawdown of U.S. troops comes at a critical time, just as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is embedding more of its fighters as both military trainers and advisers to the Afghan Taliban. The Soufan Center’s most recent report outlines the threat posed by AQIS, focusing on the group’s strategy of gaining the support of the masses by ‘going local.’ This strategy also means that al-Qaeda has avoided the brunt of United States and Western counter-terrorism efforts for several years, allowing it to resuscitate once dormant networks of allies while building broad-based support and a robust logistics infrastructure. With fewer troops to combat a growing AQIS presence in Afghanistan, 2019 could very well witness a surge in al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities throughout South Asia. This is especially the case as the remaining U.S. troops are focused on fighting militants from the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and training and advising the struggling Afghan National Security Forces.

Afghanistan and Pakistan remain fertile ground for the rise of militant groups. Over the last three decades, Islam in South Asia has undergone a gradual shift, from moderate and pluralistic to a more puritan Wahhabi brand practiced in Saudi Arabia. The spread of thousands of Saudi-funded madrassas and Wahhabi mosques across South Asia is proving to be an ideal recruiting base for al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups throughout the region. AQIS is a major node in a broad-based, loosely organized jihadist network that has deep roots in South Asia. Until recently, AQIS has relied on traditional methods of clandestine terrorist activity, like using person-to-person contacts for recruitment, training, and indoctrination. Still, it seems inevitable that the group’s efforts, both concerning recruitment and spreading its propaganda, will continue to migrate more pervasively to the Internet and social media.

AQIS has adopted a strategy of eschewing the savage tactics of the so-called Islamic State. AQIS’ new code of conduct is a deliberate attempt to reestablish al-Qaeda as the leader of global jihad, a position it had lost to IS since the latter’s rise in 2014. Opportunity in the region abounds: the growing communal divide and increased incidences of violent attacks on Muslims in India have created an atmosphere of fear and exacerbated tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the region. AQIS is attempting to exploit this hostility through repeated Urdu language rhetoric in the form of propaganda pushed out on various social media channels. There is also growing concern over increasing militancy in the contested Kashmir region claimed by both India and Pakistan. This is all part of a well-crafted strategy, which includes infiltrating, operating, and spreading its ideology in countries experiencing relative calm, like India. This model may prove to be al-Qaeda’s blueprint for the future.

Even though the majority of recent analysis on foreign terrorist fighters focuses on IS, it is important to realize that, behind the mobilization to Syria and Iraq, the next largest mobilization of foreign fighters was the Afghan jihad. Given the history of failed states and civil wars, along with ungoverned spaces and porous borders, in South Asia, countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue to be attractive destinations for foreign terrorist fighters. The United States in particular and the West in general continue to remain al-Qaeda’s primary targets. AQIS poses a threat to other states in the international system, such as China, which is increasing its presence in South Asia. Recent attacks like the shooting at the Chinese consulate in Karachi and the killing of a prominent Chinese businessman, while not tied to AQIS directly, offer clear signals that China is also a legitimate target for terrorists in the region.

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