The Cipher Brief sat down with Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, to discuss the threat posed by al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). According to Kugelman, al Qaeda has managed to “spread its tentacles across the Indian Subcontinent and the broader South Asia region” and AQIS remains worrisome, primarily since it operates “in the shadows.”
The Cipher Brief: From statements made by the al Qaeda leadership, it appears the group aims to expand its influence in the Indian subcontinent, but news headlines do not seem to indicate that the group has gained significant traction there. Are these assessments accurate? If so, why has this been the case?
Michael Kugelman: Al Qaeda’s reach in South Asia is deeper than what not only the news headlines, but also the U.S. government, may suggest. In recent years there’s been a tendency in Washington to shrug off the threat posed by al Qaeda in South Asia. More broadly, we’ve often heard that al Qaeda’s capacities have been degraded and that the group itself has been decimated. This is true in the context of old guard al Qaeda — the central leadership once led by Osama Bin Laden that enjoyed a major presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan up to 9/11. Bin Laden has been killed and several of his top deputies and other key al Qaeda operatives have been eliminated by drones.
What’s often overlooked, however, is that despite the blows it’s suffered, the organization has still managed to spread its tentacles across the Indian Subcontinent and the broader South Asia region. It has a presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — all countries where, over the last few years, the group has claimed attacks or established bases. And yet the most telling indication of al Qaeda’s influence on the Indian Subcontinent and beyond is the large array of local Islamist terror groups allied with it — from the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network to the anti-Indian outfits, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed as well as sectarian militant outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Name a terror group in South Asia and there’s a strong chance it will have close links to al Qaeda. One of the chief reasons why al Qaeda has remained resilient in the Indian Subcontinent, despite the organization’s losses in recent years, is that it can turn to powerful militant friends for support and replenishments.
Institutionally, al Qaeda’s influence in the Indian Subcontinent is embodied by Al Qaeda in the India Subcontinent (AQIS) – a regional faction of al Qaeda with a presence in multiple South Asian countries. The group is headed by Asim Umar, a leader who has long spouted anti-India propaganda, and who, according to some Indian media reports, is himself an Indian.
TCB: How much of a threat does al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) currently pose in South Asia? Does the group aim to attack the west?
MK: On the hierarchy of militant threats emanating from South Asia, AQIS does not by any means occupy the upper-most position — the Pakistani and Afghan Talibans and their various factions continue to be the most lethal and active terror groups in the region. Still, AQIS shouldn’t be taken lightly. It has claimed several high-profile attacks across South Asia over the last few years, including assaults on liberal bloggers in Bangladesh. There’s reason to fear that AQIS-patented attacks could intensify in scope in the coming years, particularly if the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, thereby offering opportunities for new sanctuaries and training camps. Let’s not forget that back in 2015, the U.S. military discovered what it described as the largest al Qaeda training camp it had ever seen in Afghanistan.
In a worst-case scenario, AQIS could establish safe havens in Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan and plot an attack on the United States. While AQIS is regionally focused, at the end of the day, it’s an arm of an international terror group that is intent on attacking the United States. This is a goal, let’s not forget, that other al Qaeda regional affiliates, especially al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have repeatedly sought to achieve in recent years.
TCB: How are governments in the region working to combat this threat?
MK: In an ideal world, the affected governments of South Asia would band together to launch a collective policy to take on AQIS. However, this is neither an ideal world nor an ideal region. Rivalries and enmities militate against region-wide cooperation on anything, much less counterterrorism.
That said, these governments have made individual efforts to combat the AQIS threat, though in their messaging, they tend to cast these efforts as broader measures against al Qaeda on the whole. Afghanistan, with assistance from U.S. and NATO forces, has sought to blunt the threat through air strikes (in the same way that it is targeting ISIS). Pakistan periodically announces the arrest of AQIS operatives. Bangladesh’s government takes very tough stands against terrorism and frequently announces sweeps and arrests of AQIS-linked militants, though it also often uses counterterrorism as a pretext to crack down hard on the Islamist political opposition.
TCB: What is the level of coordination between AQIS and core al Qaeda?
MK: It’s hard to gauge the details of the relationship between the two, but there is clearly coordination between al Qaeda core and its AQIS affiliate. Consider that when Asim Umar, the head of AQIS, claimed responsibility for attacks on the Bangladeshi bloggers, he said explicitly that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the supreme leader of al Qaeda, had ordered these attacks — a somewhat unusual case of a regional al Qaeda regional affiliate explicitly stating that it had carried out an attack on the direct orders of the central leadership.
One factor that may help explain why Zawahiri and other al Qaeda central cadre would be focused on the activities of AQIS could be al Qaeda’s close ties to the Afghan Taliban – one of South Asia’s preeminent militant factions. Zawahiri, and bin Laden before him, pledged full allegiance to that organization’s top leadership. In his statement announcing the formation of AQIS in 2014, Zawahiri suggested that he wanted to bring together militants from around the region to fortify the power of the Afghan Taliban. In this sense, core al Qaeda may have a strong interest in working closely with an affiliate that operates in a neighborhood where a critical ally is based.
Another, albeit more speculative, reason to assume strong coordination between central al Qaeda and AQIS is that the latter is one of al Qaeda’s newer and less proven regional affiliates and therefore may require considerable hand-holding. AQAP, which is more potent and established than AQIS, may be seen by central al Qaeda as more self-sufficient, thereby negating the need for micromanagement and close coordination.
TCB: Is there a rivalry between al Qaeda and ISIS in the Indian Subcontinent? If so, how has it played out thus far?
MK: Some analysts have asserted that a major reason why al Qaeda established AQIS back in September 2014 was to push back against the rise of ISIS in the region. This is a questionable assertion, however. When Zawahiri announced AQIS’ launch in 2014, he said that al Qaeda had been developing AQIS for two years — a period that far precedes ISIS’ formal arrival in South Asia. ISIS central announced the establishment of its own South Asian affiliate in early 2015.
Still, there is very much a rivalry. On the Indian Subcontinent, the rivalry between al Qaeda and ISIS runs deep on both ideological and operational levels. Al Qaeda recognizes the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban as its emir, and it rejects the caliph status that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has arrogated to himself. So long as al Qaeda’s loyalties remain with the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban (as they have over the last few years, despite the multiple leadership changes within the Taliban), it will find itself at odds with ISIS. Additionally, Taliban forces are fighting against ISIS militants in Afghanistan and keeping the latter on the defensive. Strikingly, it is the al Qaeda-allied Afghan Taliban – which the U.S. State Department doesn’t even formally designate as a global terrorist organization – that fuels the al Qaeda-ISIS rivalry in South Asia.
At the same time, while there is undoubtedly an al Qaeda-ISIS rivalry in the Indian Subcontinent, al Qaeda clearly has the upper hand as the more powerful player. While several splinter groups and other terrorist factions have linked up with ISIS, most terror groups in South Asia remain firmly aligned with al Qaeda. ISIS, working with local militant factions, has demonstrated an ability to carry out attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the major parent militant organizations of the region are still firmly allied with al Qaeda. ISIS’ profile in South Asia is most pronounced in a small area of eastern Afghanistan, whereas al Qaeda’s footprint in the region is much deeper, with areas of influence stretching from Afghanistan to Bangladesh.
One reason for the greater success of al Qaeda is that the Indian Subcontinent and broader South Asia region are not riven by the deep, violent sectarian divides that ISIS has exploited in the Middle East to fuel its rise and sustain its strength. By contrast, AQIS finds a friendlier neighborhood brimming with local terror groups who have long-established ties to the parent al Qaeda.
ISIS doesn’t help its cause by resorting to such brutal forms of butchery in Afghanistan. Many locals there have come to view the Taliban as gentle by comparison.
TCB: What should we be most concerned about with AQIS moving forward? What more can be done to better combat the group?
MK: Perhaps the biggest reason to be worried about AQIS is that it has operated in the shadows. Washington and other key capitals have taken their eye off the al Qaeda ball and fixated on ISIS, giving one of al Qaeda’s newest affiliates an opportunity to quietly build up its strength. In more recent years, the U.S. government seems to have come around to the threat posed by AQIS, particularly since that large training camp was discovered in Afghanistan in 2015. Last year, the State Department put AQIS on its list of foreign terror organizations and listed AQIS leader Asim Umar as an officially designated global terrorist.
One move that could enhance efforts to combat AQIS is to stop the “al Qaeda-is-degraded” rhetoric and instead acknowledge that al Qaeda remains a serious threat in South Asia. While the Trump Administration would seemingly have good reason to push back against these pronouncements that al Qaeda is weak — it was the Obama Administration that minimized the al Qaeda threat — it has nonetheless so far followed the same pattern of its predecessor by focusing laser-like on ISIS and saying relatively little about al Qaeda.
The unsettling reality is that while ISIS is increasingly on the defensive, al Qaeda remains dangerously potent. The strength of al Qaeda’s regional affiliates, including AQIS, amplify its continued clout. Combating AQIS won’t be easy, given its ties to so many different powerful militant factions in South Asia.
Additionally, policymakers in the region, in Washington, and elsewhere face the same challenge with AQIS that they do with so many other terror groups around the world: that is figuring out a way to eliminate not just the group’s infrastructure, finances, and fighters, but also the ideology that sustains this all. Killing terrorists is one thing; killing the ideology that fuels them is quite another. This is a fundamental challenge that we will confront with AQIS and all the groups like it well into the future.