So the news is out.
After more than five years of vague references to India and the Kashmir situation amid much general prose, Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has decided to launch a very focused diatribe against Kashmir – apparently criticising Pakistan for its ‘self-serving’ conduct of jihad at the same time.
It’s all very strange, and somewhat convenient.
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The ‘Mess’ in Kashmir
One may remember that it was Zawahiri who formally announced the setting up of the ‘Qaedat al-Jihad’ in the Indian Subcontinent in 2014. For ease, the media called it the AQIS (Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent). Asim Umar, the designated leader, had a résumé as long as your arm.
He had earlier been part of the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, and later, the Tehrik-e-Taliban. The group had a list of ‘luminaries’ in deputy positions, and it all seemed very impressive.
While reports indicated their activity in Bangladesh and Pakistan, nothing very tangible had emerged in Kashmir, barring a rather lonely and isolated militant named Zakir Musa, formerly part of the Burhan Wani group.
He, in turn, raised the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind which was to be the local Al Qaeda shop front.
Musa criticised Pakistan as well as India, not to mention, making bloody threats against secessionist leaders. He was as personable as his friend Burhan Wani, but he didn’t quite take off in terms of the public space, nor in terms of recruits.
When this author was in Kashmir, Musa was being labelled by locals as a cipher attempting to grab a leadership role. In Kashmir you need money – and a lot of it – to make an impression.
At any rate, he drew more crowds dead than living. His funeral on 24 May, was marked by the usual breast-beating and cries of revenge, and confusingly, a few Islamic State flags.
Al Qaeda’s publicity arm put out a long eulogy, after apparently forgetting to give him any funds to live on. And there the matter ended, as something of a damp squib.
On 5 June, an audio message announced the appointment of Abdul Hameed Lelhari, a native of Pulwama, as the next head of the group. Nobody was paying that much attention. Infighting has broken out among militant groups over the killing of an alleged Islamic State militant (earlier in the Lashkar) and all hell has broken loose.
Enter Pakistani intelligence, exuding goodwill. On 16 June, reports suggest that its agencies warned of a big attack, possibly using a car bomb, planned by Al Qaeda to avenge Musa’s death. Everyone goes on high alert, and luckily nothing very much happens. No word from the local Al Qaeda cell either.
Zawahiri Speaks Up On Kashmir
Into this mess comes Zawahiri’s sudden waking up to events in Kashmir. The video calls specifically for attacks against the Indian forces and the government, together with a rather surreal comment.
He blames Pakistan for refusing to allow Arab mujahideen to turn to Kashmir after they drove out the Soviets in the 1980s. Nothing is further from the truth.
Kashmiri groups and Al Qaeda cadres had been operating cheek by jowl for years, together with Pakistani intelligence, and its all been told and re-told elsewhere.
Zawahiri also seems to forget to make any reference at all to Ghazwat-ul-Hind, which is puzzling, since that’s supposedly the group’s pointsman.
However, another video surfaces almost simultaneously – Lelhari’s first media appearance. And the language in both videos is interesting to say the least. Both criticise Pakistan, alleging that its agencies are trying to rein in heavy attacks, both call for a Shariat-based jihad, and as the Long War Journal observes, Lelhari also calls for all decisions to be made by a council based in ‘Occupied Kashmir’ itself. This last bit is the most interesting.
This is an attempt at unity, with an offer of two seats for each tanzeem at the High Council for all groups, with final decisions or suggestions being referred to Al Qaeda central – in Pakistan-Afghanistan (where else?).
This is vaulting ambition, for a two-bit group, with a dubious standing in the Valley and not much money to speak of.
But this is what Kashmir has seen for decades. When one set of tanzeems fall out, another one with new credentials takes its place – the only commonality being that they are all based to the west of us. The rest of us can only wonder at the sheer duplicity.
Who to Blame?
So, here’s the problem. If a large-scale attack does take place against Western/Indian interests, and is claimed by the Al Qaeda, who will New Delhi blame?
After all, Islamabad has already provided the warning. And it’s none other than Zawahiri who has called for ‘unrelenting blows’ at the Indian army and its economy – which includes targets such as Mumbai. Nice move by all concerned.
India gets hit, and Pakistan will call for joint investigations to eliminate a ‘common threat’. The question to be asked is – where is Zawahiri anyway?
It’s a nice, interesting terrorist quandary, where the main piece of the puzzle is missing. That mystery may be solved by a question as Miss Marple may ask – who benefits?
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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