Over the past one year, now and then, ‘news’ about al-Qaeda, a global militant group, planning to spread its branches in the Indian subcontinent has circulated. Lately, the Indian wing of al-Qaeda has reportedly assumed responsibility for the murder of three bloggers this year in Bangladesh. This naturally raises questions on the threat posed by this militant group. In this piece, the issue has been analysed from several angles. These include an attempt to understand whether all claims made by al-Qaeda can be accepted as authentic. Considering that al-Qaeda is understood to be losing its strength and supporters because of the rise of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), prospects of its future in India and Bangladesh have been probed into. Besides, if al-Qaeda can no more be viewed as a strong militant group, there may be several reasons for it making claims about its network and its activities in the subcontinent. It may have indulged in this exercise primarily to gain some publicity through media coverage.
Irrespective of the nature of threat received by Taslima Nasreen, the latest round of news regarding her having ‘fled’ India has certainly invited attention to prospects of al-Qaeda spreading its reach here.
The Bangladeshi writer and human rights activist Taslima Nasreen recently left India, claiming that she was receiving threats from al-Qaeda. Just as al-Qaeda’s claims for being responsible for the murders of bloggers in Bangladesh cannot be accepted as authentic unless they are backed by substantial evidence, the same can be said about Nasreen’s claims. Till the date of writing this piece, details about the nature of threats she had received from al-Qaeda were not revealed. Also, in this case, no representative of al-Qaeda has come forward to accept that threats have been issued to Nasreen from this militant group.
Against this backdrop, in this piece, claims made by al- Qaeda have been analysed to understand whether they are backed by any credibile legimitacy or not. Whatever be the nature of al-Qaeda’s intentions, the militants cannot add any authenticity to the same simply through videos and other means of making claims.
Al-Qaeda was founded between August 1988 and late 1989 by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and several other militants. Its origins are linked with Soviet intervetion in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union, the United States, Russia, India and several other countries.
Ironically, despite al-Qaeda being in news lately for its alleged activities in the subcontinent, it is important to briefly analyse the same from several angles. However strongly and frequently al-Qaeda may claim itself to be responsible for militant activities in the subcontinent, there is no guarantee about its speaking the truth.
Nasreen’s case of having fled from India owing to reported threats from al-Qaeda has been cited as an example of the degree to which news can be manipulated and manufactured to push forward a certain point.
Taslima nasreen’s ‘claim’
‘News’ about award-winning Bangladeshi writer and human rights activist Taslima Nasreen having fled from India to the United States, following ‘threats’ she allegedly received from the terrorist group al-Qaeda, needs to be analysed from several angles. While there is no doubt about Nasreen being no longer in India, it is as yet too early to assert whether she really received any threats from al-Qaeda. The details of the threats, their nature, timing and frequency, were not made public at the time this piece was being written. Besides, no representative of al-Qaeda has come forward to claim that this terrorist organisation had issued threats to Nasreen. Regarding the threats, ‘news’ about them have been circulated from two sources, one is Nasreen herself and the other is the NGO Centre for Inquiry (CFI), an organisation of which she is a part. Nasreen has been helped to move to the US by CFI, where a fund has been established to assist her.
On her decision to leave India, Nasreen tweeted, ‘Was threatened by Islamists who killed atheist bloggers in B’desh. Worried. . . . Wanted to meet GOI (government of India) but no appointment. Left. Will be back when feel safe.’1 Describing Nasreen as a role model, Ronald A. Lindsay, chief of CFI, said in a press statement in New York, ‘We could not stand by while her life was in danger, nor will we turn our backs on the other brave freethinkers in fear for their lives. I know our community will make a strong show of solidarity and give generously to this emergency fund.’2
Nasreen was forced to leave Bangladesh in 1994, after she received threats from several extremist Muslim groups who described her writings as blasphemous. She lived for a decade in the United States and Europe before India granted her temporary residential permit in 2004. At present, she has been granted ‘temporary’ stay in the US in order ‘to alleviate the immediate threat to her life’, according to CFI. ‘Her safety is only temporary if she cannot remain in the US, which is why CFI has established an emergency fund to help with food, housing and the means for her to be safely settled,’ CFI said in a statement.3
The bloggers killed this year in Bangladesh were targeted on busy streets. AQIS has claimed in its video released this May, ‘The killing mission started in Pakistan with the murder of the secular Dr Shakeel Auj and blogger Aneeqa Naz.’
Irrespective of the nature of threat received by Nasreen, the latest round of news regarding her having ‘fled’ India has certainly invited attention to prospects of al-Qaeda spreading its reach here. It may be noted that earlier too, in India, she faced threats regarding her writings. Initially, she lived in Kolkata but was forced to leave the country in 2008 owing to opposition against her writings. When she returned to India, West Bengal denied her entry and she was forced to stay in New Delhi till recently. It is important to note that the Indian government had cancelled her resident permit in July 2014. She tweeted on 26 July 2014, ‘I applied for extension of my Indian resident permit a month ago. No answer from govt. Never happened before.’ A few days later, she tweeted on 31 July, ‘Indian govt has cancelled my resident permit that I started getting since 2004. Issued a temp tourist visa for 2 months. Beyond my imagination.’4 Nasreen’s visa row was resolved last year when the Indian government gave her a visa, allowing her to stay in India till August 2015.5
Against the backdrop of these facts, it is yet not clear whether Nasreen has moved to the United States because of the present Indian government having earlier rejected her demand for renewal of her resident permit visa or because of threats she claims to have received from al- Qaeda.
Nasreen’s case of having fled from India owing to reported threats from al-Qaeda has been cited as an example of the degree to which news can be manipulated and manufactured to push forward a certain point. Lately, she has justified her decision to leave India because of alleged threats from al-Qaeda. And last year, the same lady was worried about India having cancelled her resident permit. Certainly, she has earlier been threatened by radical extremists in India. But in none of those cases did she take the decision of leaving the country. She preferred moving to New Delhi from Kolkata rather than going to another country.
Al-Qaeda’s Claims and Bangladesh
Nasreen’s case may not have been elaborated upon if claims had not been made in recent past about the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. In a video titled ‘From France to Bangladesh: The Dust Will Never Settle Down,’ chief of al-Qaeda in the subcontinent (AQIS) Asim Umar stated, there is a war going on against Muslims ‘through World Bank and IMF policies, drone attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s writings, UN charter, official sermons by muftis and Narendra Modi’s utterances.’6
Bangladesh, it may be noted, has been taking fairly strictly action against organisations and people indulging in extremist behaviour.
AQIS also claimed responsibility for the deaths of three bloggers this year in Bangladesh. These include Avijit Roy, a Bangladesh-born American writer. He was hacked to death by two machete-wielding assailants in Dhaka on 26 February. Roy, a professed atheist, wrote actively on his blog, Mukta Mona (Free Mind). Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death in Dhaka a month later, in March. Another blogger, Ananta Bijoy Das, was stabbed to death in May in the northern city of Sylhet. Earlier, over a two-year period, several bloggers had died under mysterious circumstances or may have been reportedly murdered. A group called Defenders of Islam in Bangladesh had published a ‘hit list’ of writers who were, according to this group, opposing Islam. By May 2015, nine of those on the list had been killed and many attacked.7
The bloggers killed this year in Bangladesh were targeted on busy streets. AQIS has claimed in its video released this May, ‘The killing mission started in Pakistan with the murder of the secular Dr Shakeel Auj and blogger Aneeqa Naz.’ Shakeel Auj, a respected scholar of Islamic studies, known for his moderate views, was shot dead in Karachi, Pakistan, in September 2014. Aneeka Naz, an Urdu blogger, was killed in a 2012 car traffic accident, in which her husband was injured. Naz is not known to have held contentious political views.
Describing the murder of bloggers in Bangladesh as an activity of local extremist elements, minister of state for home affairs Asaduzzaman Khan said, ‘In our country, there are times when such incidents do take place when the fundamentalists try to create a problem by disturbing the peaceful atmosphere but we are on a high alert so that they don’t get successful in their plans.’
‘Not only bloggers, they have sent threats to leading intellectuals of our country and also politicians, including me but we can’t be cowed down by such threats,’ Khan said. Foolproof security has been arranged for the bloggers, he said. In addition, he said, ‘We have also taken action and arrested few suspects.’ Dismissing involvement of al-Qaeda or its Indian wing, AQIS, in the killing of bloggers, he stated, ‘No, I don’t think so there is any involvement of any foreign organisation like al-Qaeda or other terror groups. This is the handiwork of our home-grown elements like Jamaat who have been trying to create problems in our country for last few years.’8
Though Zawahiri’s announcement earned him substantial media coverage, there is no doubt that it was devoid of credibility as well as legitimacy.
Regarding the killing of bloggers in Bangladesh, the country’s initial suspicion rests on local militant groups. Bangladesh recently banned a group called Ansarullah but Kamal (ABT), which according to investigators is responsible for murders of bloggers in the country. There prevails suspicion about this group’s connection with al-Qaeda. What demands attention is that local elements were responsible for the reported murders. In other words, foreign militants did not enter the country to target persons on their hit list. Now, it is a matter of speculation whether the local militant group ABT is linked with al-Qaeda or not.
There is a view that ABT is an ‘al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic extremist group in Bangladesh that started its activities during 2007 as the Jama’atul Muslemin.’ This has been expressed by the international security think tank Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC). It also states that the group was funded by different NGOs and it ceased to operate when funding ended but resurfaced during 2013 as ABT. Interestingly, ABT is assumed to be ‘inspired’ by al-Qaeda. This does not refer to ABT having any direct, strong or weak linkage or any kind of association with al-Qaeda. A group may be inspired by another without ever being in contact with it.
Bangladesh, it may be noted, has been taking fairly strictly action against organisations and people indulging in extremist behaviour. The country has, so far, banned six militant and extremist outfits, including ABT. The other five are Jamaa’tul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Bangladesh (HuJI), Shahadat-e Al-Hikma, and Hizb-ut Tahrir. Four of these were banned in 2005. Hizb-ut Tahrir was outlawed in 2009 for preaching extremism. The key leaders of JMB Shaikh Abdur Rahman and Siddiqul Islam ‘Bangla Bhai’ were hanged for killing a judge in a bomb attack.9
A large percentage of Indian Muslims who are conscious of their presence are least interested in being associated with them.
‘Politicians, journalists and analysts seem to be busy encashing dividends from imaginary and exaggerated terrorist threats from al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror outfits,’ according to academician Taj Hashmi. In his opinion, the so-called claim made by AQIS about being responsible for murders of bloggers in Bangladesh may not be ‘authentic’ and ‘some vested interest group might have produced the video to get some dividends by raising a false alarm about al-Qaeda’s presence in Bangladesh.’ In Hashmi’s analysis, ‘If the latest AQIS video was another political ploy or a false flag operation, then it has also failed miserably. Not only a U.S.- based Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) – a private intelligence group – has rejected the AQIS claim that al-Qaeda was behind the killing of Avijit Roy, but various intelligence agencies and media in Bangladesh have also rejected the claim as far fetched.’ Specifically referring to blogger Roy’s murder in Bangladesh, Hashmi points out, ‘Avijit Roy could be a prime target for some fanatic groups or individuals in Bangladesh, but he was never a prime al-Qaeda target for assassination. Al-Qaeda and mega terrorist groups believe in mass killing or assassination of VIPs for drawing global attention to their cause.’10
Al-Qaeda and Indian Muslims
The prospects of al-Qaeda spreading itself in the subcontinent hit headlines last year, in September, following the release of a video in which the militant group leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced his decision to open a branch in India.11 Though India has been on alert over possible threats from al-Qaeda and other militant groups, prospects of the former gaining any strength in this country have been dismissed as nonexistent. ‘The idea that Ayman al-Zawahiri is going to open a branch of al-Qaeda in India is just crazy. Yes, there are some jihadi elements in India, but there’s no evidence that al-Qaeda has a presence in the country,’ was immediate reaction of Peter Bergen, an American expert on counterterrorism. Describing his video as ‘boring’, Bergen said, ‘It’s an attempt by Zawahiri to have people like us discuss him, because he’s been out of the limelight for so long, it’s all been about ISIS in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda is very conscious that they’re yesterday’s story.’12
Though Zawahiri’s announcement earned him substantial media coverage, there is no doubt that it was devoid of credibility as well as legitimacy. The hype raised about India being on alert following his announcement was also hollow. In fact, India has continuously been on alert regarding prospects of various militant groups’ entry into this country. India does not need announcements made by al-Qaeda leaders and other such groups to be on alert regarding their intentions. What demands attention is that Zawahiri’s announcement failed to stir Indian Muslims even marginally or nominally. This is not surprising as the majority of Indian Muslims are not even aware of such militant leaders and their groups’ existence in other countries. A large percentage of Indian Muslims who are conscious of their presence are least interested in being associated with them. Not surprisingly, most Muslim organisations in India openly rejected Zawahiri’s call and said that they don’t want foreign terrorist outfits’ interference in their internal matters.
The population of Indian Muslims is too large, diverse and widespread in the country to be easily influenced by a terrorist or extremist external group.
Indirectly, this also proves this militant leader’s concern about his group lacking supporters in India. If the group really had active members in India, he would probably have refrained from issuing such an announcement. He would have probably preferred carrying on his task quietly. Giving it publicity is equivalent to setting Indian defence and security forces on alert against the activities of this and similar militant groups. A militant leader seriously concerned about attracting Indian Muslims to his group is not expected to lay a trap for his own agents being caught in their attempt to open a wing in India.
Zawahiri was probably least concerned about his video having put India on alert. If he were, there would not have been any video of his socalled aim to open a branch of his militant group in a strong and alert country. Without such a daring video, the militant leader would not have earned so much publicity across the world. This probably was his key mission – earn publicity, receive media coverage and political as well as diplomatic attention and remain in the limelight for some time. Had the video focused on opening more branches of his militant group in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it probably would not have received much attention.
Chances of any international militant group, with or without a religious label, succeeding in India are extremely limited. Geographically, area-wise, India is the seventh-largest country in the world and the secondmost populated. Socially, India is home to most major religions of the world. It has the second-largest population of Muslims in the world, who form about 15 per cent of India’s population. The population of Indian Muslims is too large, diverse and widespread in the country to be easily influenced by a terrorist or extremist external group.
If Indian Muslims were geographically concentrated in a few pockets and if their community could be labelled as united, without any major differences, the situation may have been different. Differences and certain divisions within Indian Muslims are to a degree also responsible for their being devoid of any common political party and of any person or group regarded as representative of the entire Indian Muslim community. Cultural differences, including commonly spoken languages and common way of dressing, as well as political leanings among Indian Muslims vary remarkably from region to region. In addition, differences within Indian Muslims of groups, caste and class cannot also be overlooked. These include their being viewed as Sunni or Shia, as well as groups such as Syed, Sheikh and Pathan, and also their professional and economic status. The importance of these differences is marked by their being given great importance to this day by Indian Muslim families while deliberating on matrimonial relations.
Indian Muslims having unintentionally or deliberately ignored the militant leader’s call for their support. Their approach has probably compelled international experts and critics on counterterrorism to regard his idea of opening a branch in India as ‘crazy’.
Besides, religious freedom allowed in India as a part of its secular system, together with its democratic, constitutional, cultural and historical roots, leaves little scope for terrorism with religious labels to progress here. In India’s capital city, within a range of a few kilometres, it is not surprising to come across several places of worship representing different communities, including Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs. There is thus nothing surprising about Indian Muslims having unintentionally or deliberately ignored the militant leader’s call for their support. Their approach has probably compelled international experts and critics on counterterrorism to regard his idea of opening a branch in India as ‘crazy’.
Just as Zawahiri’s primary purpose behind the video release of his announcement of opening a branch in the subcontinent was gaining publicity, the same motive may have prompted AQIS to release a video this May regarding its ‘activities’.
Al-Qaeda Weakened by ISIS
Globally, al-Qaeda has ceased to have as much significance as has been gained by the militant group ISIS. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, an influential jihadi scholar recently said that ‘al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is cut off from his commanders and keeping the group afloat through little more than appeals to loyalty.’13 Senior associates of al-Qaeda, al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada, the radical Jordanian preacher deported from the UK in 2013, have admitted that ISIS has been winning the ground and propaganda war since it split. In other words, according to its own members, al- Qaeda has ‘collapsed’ under the weight of ISIS’s growing power sapping its fighters, money and territory.14
The al-Qaeda, reportedly, ‘around the Middle East has been drained of recruits and money after losing territory and prestige to its former subordinate division,’ (that is, ISIS). Earlier, a branch of al-Qaeda in the Middle East, ISIS was exocommunicated from the network in 2014. Since then, ISIS has expanded globally with its ‘network of affiliates and branches’, reportedly stretching from Afghanistan to West Africa. In the sixth edition of their official English-language publication, Dabiq, ISIS leaders have described al-Qaeda as a ‘drowned entity’. They have also declared that they will not tolerate any other jihadi group where they are operating. ISIS has claimed that al-Qaeda had been reduced to ‘a raging bull stumbling about . . . a drowning entity struggling to breathe in deep water as it is exhausted and fatigued by tiredness and the struggle in the water.’15
…it cannot be ignored that al-Qaeda leaders are becoming increasingly conscious of their losing support and their declining strength.
Undeniably, the split between ISIS and al-Qaeda has been dismissed by some critics as their internal feud. Perhaps, if the split could be viewed only as an intra-group matter, ISIS would not have dismissed al- Qaeda’s present stature so strongly in its propaganda publication, Dabiq.
Al-Qaeda has been interested in gaining support in the subcontinent for quite sometime. Over the past few years, messages from al-Qaeda leaders have referred to events in the subcontinent, including India, Bangladesh, Burma and Pakistan. The 117-page online magazine of al- Qaeda, Resurgence, was released on 19 October 2014. The magazine’s ‘in focus’ section gives relevant highlights from throughout the Indian subcontinent, potraying ‘Muslims as being under siege in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Burma.’16
In Thomas Joscelyn’s opinion, AQIS is not merely a reaction to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He has pointed out that ‘al- Qaeda has been attempting to woo Muslims across the Indian subcontinent for years. Ayman al-Zawahiri and other al-Qaeda leaders have repeatedly tried to position the terrorist organization as the vanguard of Muslims throughout the region. They are attempting to incite the populace against their local governments, which are allegedly puppets of the West.’17 Certainly, Joscelyn has made a valid point about al-Qaeda trying to ‘woo Muslims’ in the area for years. What needs to be asserted is that till date, al-Qaeda’s attempts in this direction have been confined to the status of being only attempts. The attempts cannot yet be labelled as signs of al-Qaeda having succeeded in its ventures in this area. This only supports the point of Muslims, particularly Indian, having chosen not to be lured by al-Qaeda.
If al-Qaeda still remained a strong force in the Middle East, it may not have turned towards the Indian subcontinent.
At present, at least the governments of India and Bangladesh do not seem too convinced about a strong presence of al-Qaeda in either or both countries. This is supported by the state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh (6–7 June 2015) around a month after the video was released in which AQIS claimed responsibility for murders of bloggers in Bangladesh. The visit has been hailed as a successful one.
Certainly, it is as yet too early to dismiss al-Qaeda as a totally weak organisation. At the same time, it cannot be ignored that al-Qaeda leaders are becoming increasingly conscious of their losing support and their declining strength. The latter point is supported by al-Qaeda leader deliberating on options to open a branch in the Indian subcontinent through a video released last year. Considering the chaos and turmoil that several Middle Eastern nations are facing in the present period, there is no lack of opportunities for militant elements to exploit the same for their benefits. If al-Qaeda still remained a strong force in the Middle East, it may not have turned towards the Indian subcontinent. But al-Qaeda’s intentions have hardly been welcomed either in India or in Bangladesh.
Notes and References
- F. Politics. ‘Govt Cancels Taslima Nasreen’s Resident Permit, Gives Her a Tourist Visa.’ 31 July 2014. <http://www.firstpost.com/politics/govt-cancels-taslimanasreens- resident-permit-gives-her-a-tourist-visa-1643381.html>.
- Vasudevan Sridharan. ‘Bangladeshi Writer Taslima Nasreen Flees to US After Threat from Islamic Groups.’ International Business Times, 2 June 2015. <http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/bangladeshi-writer-taslima-nasreen-flees-us-after-threatislamic- groups-1504016>.
- BBC News. ‘Taslima Nasreen: Blogger Flees to US After Death Threats.’ 3 June 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-32989070>.
- Op cit, n. 1.
- Hindustan Times. ‘Taslima Nasreen Visa Extended for One Year.’ 1 September 2014. <http://www.hindustantimes.com/indianews/ taslima-nasreen-visa-extended-for-one-year/article1- 1258872.aspx>.
- Hindustan Times. ‘Al Qaeda’s India Wing Mentions PM Narendra Modi in Video.’ 5 May 2015. <http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/al-qaeda-s-indiawing- mentions-pm-modi-in-video/article1-1343642.aspx>.
- Saeed Ahmed. ‘Ananta Bijoy Das: Yet Another Bangladeshi Blogger Hacked to Death.’ CNN, 13 May 2015. <http:// edition.cnn.com/2015/05/12/asia/bangladesh-blogger-killed/>.
- Shillong Times. ‘Bangladesh on High Alert After Bloggers’ Killing.’ 9 June 2015. <http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2015/ 06/09/bangladesh-on-high-alert-after-bloggers-killing/>.
- bdnews24.com. ‘Bangladesh Outlaws Islamist Militant Group Ansarullah Bangla Team.’ 25 May 2015. <http://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2015/05/25/ bangladesh-outlaws-islamist-militant-group-ansarullah-bangla-team>.
- Taj Hashmi. ‘Al Qaeda in Bangladesh: The Mythology and Pathology of Terror.’ Countercurrents, 11 May 2015. <http://www.countercurrents.org/ hashmi110515.htm>.
- Claire Cozens. ‘Al Qaeda Announces It Is Launching a Branch to Wage “Jihad” In India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.’ 4 September 2014. <http://www.businessinsider.com/afp-al-qaeda-opens-new-south-asia-front-2014- 9?IR=T>.
- F. India. ‘No Great Threat: Why Al Qaeda’s “Indian Wing” May Prove To Be a Mirage.’ 8 September 2014. <http://www.firstpost.com/india/no-greatthreat- why-al-qaedas-indian-wing-may-prove-to-be-a-mirage-1702235.html>.
- Spencer Ackerman, Shiv Malik, Ali Younes and Mustafa Khalili. ‘Al- Qaida “Cut Off and Ripped Apart By Isis”.’ Guardian (UK), 10 June 2015. <http:/ /www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/10/isis-onslaught-has-broken-al-qaida-itsspiritual- leaders-admit>.
- Thomas Josceyln. ‘Analysis: Al Qaeda’s “Resurgence” focuses on Indian Subcontinent.’ The Long War Journal, 23 October 2014. <http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/10/ al_qaedas_resurgence-2.php>.