DUBAI: Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on Wednesday announced the formation of an Indian branch of his militant group he said would spread Islamic rule and “raise the flag of jihad” across the subcontinent.
In a 55-minute video posted online, Zawahiri also renewed a longstanding vow of loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in an apparent snub to the Islamic State armed group challenging Al Qaeda for leadership of transnational militancy.
Zawahiri described the formation of “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent” as a glad tidings for Muslims “in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir” and said the new wing would rescue Muslims there from injustice and oppression.
Counter-terrorism experts say Al Qaeda's aging leaders are struggling to compete for recruits with Islamic State, which has galvanised young followers around the world by carving out tracts of territory across the Iraq-Syria border.
Islamic State leader Abu Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calls himself a “caliph” or head of state and has demanded the loyalty of all Muslims.
The group fell out with Zawahiri in 2013 over its expansion into Syria, where Baghdadi's followers have carried out beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions.
As well being an indirect repudiation of Islamic State, the announcement could pose a challenge to India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi.
He has already faced criticism for remaining silent about several incidents deemed anti-Muslim, underscoring fears that his Hindu nationalist followers will upset religious relations in the majority Hindi nation.
However, while Al Qaeda is very much at home in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, due to influential contacts and a long presence there, it is a minnow compared to local militant groups in terms of manpower and regional knowledge.
Over the years Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden, killed by US forces in 2011, repeatedly pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar, in return for the safe haven he granted their followers in Afghanistan.
The statement did not mention Islamic State or Baghdadi, but it appear to take a subtle dig at the group's efforts at administering areas it has seized in Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State's effort at state-building is something never attempted by Al Qaeda's central leaders, who traditionally have preferred to plot complex attacks on targets in the West.
Zawahiri called for unity among militants and criticised “discord” — echoing a common Al Qaeda complaint against Islamic State's record of clashing with rival Islamist groups in Syria.
The statement also warned al Qaeda's new wing against oppressing local populations - another complaint levelled against Islamic State by critics in Iraq and Syria.
“If you said that you are doing jihad to defend the sanctities of the Muslims, then you must not transgress against them or their money or honour, and not even transgress your mujahideen brothers by word and action,” he said.
“Discord is a curse and torment, and disgrace for the believers and glory for the disbelievers,” he said.
“If you say that by your jihad you do not want but the pleasure of Allah, then you must not race for governance and leadership at the first opportunity.”
Muslims account for 15 per cent of Indians but, numbering an estimated 175 million, theirs is the third-largest Muslim population in the world.
Centuries of rule by medieval Muslim invaders drove a wedge between Hindus and Muslims.
Tensions have grown since Pakistan was carved from Muslim-majority areas of India in 1947, a violent partition in which hundreds of thousands were killed. In the era of Washington's “war on terror”, some Indian Muslims have begun to sympathise more with hardline pan-Islamic groups and causes.
Indian states on alert after Al Qaeda announces local wing
India ordered several provinces on Thursday to be on increased alert after Al Qaeda announced the formation of a wing of the militant group in India and its neighbourhood, a senior government official said.
The government believes it is authentic and has warned local governments, said an official who attended a security briefing in which the video was discussed with the home interior minister.
“This matter has been taken very seriously,” the official told Reuters. “An alert has been sounded.”
A high security alert in the state involves activating informer networks in sensitive areas. A senior police official said that Gujarat has been high on the list of militant organisations, including Al Qaeda, since the 2002 riots.
Until now there has been no evidence that Al Qaeda has a presence in India.
The timing and content of the video suggests rivalry between Al Qaeda and its more vigorous rival in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State, which anecdotal evidence suggests is gathering support in South Asia.
According to media reports, Islamic State pamphlets have been distributed in Pakistan in recent days.
Zawahiri's announcement also made two references to Gujarat, the home state of India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Modi has long been a hate figure for certain religious groups because of riots on his watch as chief minister of the state in 2002. More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in the spasm of violence.