Zawahiri was announcing the formation of the Jamaat Qaidat al-Jihad Fi’shibhi al-Qarrat al-Hindiya (the Base of Jihad in the Indian subcontinent), or al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, in a 55-minute video. The al-Qaeda chief called for the flag of jihad to be raised across the region, spoke specifically about the Muslims in Kashmir, Gujarat, Assam, Bangladesh and Burma, and sought to cast the establishment of the franchise as an attempt to return the subcontinent to its heydays under Islamic emperors.
In doing so, al-Qaeda is using a different model to the franchising approach that has worked for it so far in a move that might say as much about competitive pressures from the Islamic State/Caliphate in Iraq as it does about the organisation set up by Osama Bin Laden.
For a long time, security experts were divided over the exact nature of the Al Qaeda franchise model. Outfits dedicated to jihad and allied with the original organisation, often using a similar name (since al-Qaeda means"‘the Base" anyhow), popped up all over the globe. Yet some, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, had close links and organisational support from the original outfit, while others were often seen as opportunistic groups trying to turn their local struggles into something more grandiose.
Of all the franchises, AQAP, which is fuelled by anger against the pro-American monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the lawlessness in Yemen, as well as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have been the most successful partly because of Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s direct contacts in both regions. These days an even more famous offshoot has gained notoriety, although the Islamic State decided to cut off ties with al-Qaeda in June last year.
In most of these places, al-Qaeda did not actively move in with the intention of setting up its own organisation. Instead, it would work with local outfits that had already been engaged in militancy before sending official letters recognising them as affiliates. It was one such letter in June last year that informed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now calls himself Caliph, to stop fighting in Syria or risk losing affiliate status. Franchises that do gain official recognition often get a huge leg-up in terms of funds and volunteers, because of the cachet that goes with the al-Qaeda brand.
“Al-Qaeda is kind of a ready-made kit now,” William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times. “It is a portable ideology that is entirely fleshed out, with its own symbols and ways of mobilising people and money to the cause. In many ways, you don’t have to join the actual organisation anymore to get those benefits.”
In that sense, Zawahiri’s announcement for India is a little anomalous. The al-Qaeda chief wasn't conferring franchise status on any Indian militant outfit, of which there are several to choose from. Instead, he declared the setting up of a new formation with Umar Asim, who has connections with the Pakistani Taliban, as the man to head this eastward expansion.
While al-Qaeda has called on Indian Muslims to mobilise before, such as through Asim’s own demand for true believers to leave India and fight in Syria, last year, the group has never announced open affiliations with local organisations. Both the Indian Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba have touted themselves as the local fronts for Bin Laden’s group, the links don’t include official franchise recognition.
Now al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent will undoubtedly attract many who were involved in those and other groups, if only because of the allure of the global brand name. Many commentators have, in fact, seen this as an expressly competitive exercise in branding because of the spread of the Islamic State and suggestions that Indians too have been signing up to join it.
By not lending its name to a local group, al-Qaeda has committed itself to active organisation of its terror efforts in India, which would be a novel approach for the decades-old terrorist outfit as well.
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