Explained: In two major videos, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s India ‘project’ | #students | #parents

Ayman al-Zawahiri had mentioned India on several occasions from 2001 onward, the year of the September 11 attacks on the United States. He saw jihad in the subcontinent as a means of expanding the Afghan emirate, and wrote of the “religious duty” of “the [Muslim] nation [to] fight in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya”.

This was in line with what Osama bin Laden had himself said in 1996, condemning “massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Pattani, Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina”.

Thereafter, in videos released from time to time, al-Zawahiri largely focused on Islam’s war against western powers. India mostly found passing mentions in them, and he spoke off and on about Kashmir. He asked Muslims to fight, and one occasion in September 2003, he warned Muslims in Pakistan that General Pervez Musharraf, then President of Pakistan, would hand them over to Hindus and flee the country to enjoy his riches.

But on two occasions — in 2014 and 2022 — he released major videos that were focussed entirely on India. These Indian-centric videos were among al-Zawahiri’s most important messages to his followers and contained important anouncements about his vision for jihad in the subcontinent.

2014: ‘Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent’

From 2011, when he took charge of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed by US commandos in Pakistan, building a subcontinental front to wage jihad began to become an operational objective for al-Zawahiri.

In a video released in 2014, he announced the formation of “Jamaat Qaidat al-jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya”, or “Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Sub-Continent”, and said that it was a message that al-Qaeda had not forgotten its Muslim brothers in India. He said jihadists would break the borders of British India and asked for Muslims in the subcontinent to unite.

In the video, he promised that al-Qaeda would expand its operations throughout the region: “Our brothers in Burma, Kashmir, Islamabad, Bangladesh”, he said, “we did not forget you in AQ and will liberate you form injustice and oppression”. The new branch, he said, was in particular “a message that we did not forget you, our Muslim brothers in India”.

Al-Zawahiri named one “Maulana Asim Omar” as the chief of al-Qaeda’s new subcontinental affiliate. This man was killed in Afghanistan in 2019, and in announcing the killing of the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the Afghan authorities said Omar was Pakistani. It was subsequently revealed that Omar was in fact, Indian, who was born Sanaul Haq in Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh.

The AQIS went on to claim responsibility for several terrorist attacks in the subcontinent, including the grisly killings of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.
A photo of Al Qaeda’s new leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, is seen in this still image taken from a video released on September 12, 2011. (SITE Monitoring Service/Handout via Reuters)
2022: On the Karnataka hijab controversy

In April this year, al-Zawahiri, released a video in which he spoke of the hijab controversy in India and asked Muslims in the subcontinent to fight the perceived assault on Islam “intellectually, using the media and with weapons on the battlefield”.

Zawahiri’s reference to a contemporary issue confirmed that he was alive, contrary to suggestions that he had died of natural causes in 2020. Al-Qaeda had issued videos even after unconfirmed reports of his death, but in all of them al-Zawahiri had spoken only about historical conflicts and ideological issues, casting a doubt on whether the videos were shot in the present time.

In the almost nine-minute video released in April by al-Qaeda mouthpiece as-Sahab media, Zawahiri showered praise on Muskan Khan, the Karnataka student who raised slogans of Allah-hu-Akbar after being heckled by a right-wing Hindu mob shouting slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” in February 2022. Al-Zawahiri said that her “defiant slogan of takbeer” as she challenged “a mob of Hindu polytheists” had “emboldened the spirit of Jihad” and had reawakened the Muslim community.

The video started with a clip of Khan taking on the mob, followed by al-Zawahiri’s address. “She has unveiled the reality and unmasked the nature of the conflict between the chaste and pure Muslim Ummah and the degenerate and depraved polytheist and atheist enemies it confronts… May Allah reward her greatly for imparting a practical lesson to Muslim sisters plagued by an inferiority complex vis a vis the decadent Western World. May Allah reward her for exposing the reality of Hindu India and the deception of its pagan democracy,” Zawahiri said.

He said Khan’s video had inspired him to write a poem that he recited at the end of the video. “Her takbeer inspired me to write a few lines of poetry, in spite of the fact that I am not a poet. I hope that our honourable sister accepts this gift of words from me,” Zawahiri said.

9/11: Al-Zawahiri’s greatest moment

Born into a well-connected upper middle-class family from suburban Cairo, al-Zawahiri was an intellectual rather than a fighter. He is said to have excelled as a student, been drawn to poetry, and hated organised sports, seeing them as “inhumane”.

Drawn to the teachings of the Islamist ideologue Syed Qutb as a teenager, al-Zawahiri joined the Muslim Brotherhood when he was just 14. Qutb, whose works ‘Milestones’ and ‘In the shade of the Quran’ are foundational texts for the global Islamist movement, was executed in 1966.

In the years that followed, al-Zawahiri would train as a doctor and specialise as a surgeon. He married Cairo university philosophy student Azza Nowari in 1978; their wedding, held at the Continental Hotel, attracted attention in the liberal Cairo of the times: the men were segregated from the women, and photographers and musicians were kept away.

Following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, al-Zawahiri was among hundreds arrested and tortured. Released after three years in prison, he fled the country, and began practising medicine in Saudi Arabia. There, he came into contact with Osama bin Laden. He first travelled to visit bin Laden-funded jihad facilities in Pakistan in 1985, a relationship that would slowly mature until 2001, when the Egyptian Islamic Jihad formally merged with al-Qaeda.

The two men became inseparable: the intellectual, serious al-Zawahiri providing the perfect foil to the enthusiastic but politically immature bin Laden. Both men helped plan 9/11; it was to be al-Qaeda’s greatest moment: a spectacular gesture that would precipitate a civilisational cataclysm between Islam and the west, and signal that the power of the United States was illusory.

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