Misunderstanding Al Qaeda's New Affiliate
Al Qaeda's announcement earlier this month of a new affiliate in South Asia is a troubling reminder that wars in the region will go on long after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. To make matters worse, leading analysts in the announcement's wake have revealed a complete lack of understanding about the goals and the focus of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and head of President Barack Obama's 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review, wrongly described the new group as focused exclusively on India. He even suggested that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence is hiding al Qaeda top man Ayman al-Zawahiri -- a claim that echoes hearsay from Indian intelligence sources.
Vikram Sood, the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (India's CIA), went a step further, arguing that al Qaeda's new branch provides Islamabad the deniability it needs to continue supporting terror attacks in India. The presence of AQIS, Sood says, "absolves Pakistan of the charge that there is an al Qaeda in Pakistan."
India's Times Now news channel had a prime time discussion centering on the question of why Pakistan, in its view, is siding with al Qaeda. Amid the media hysteria, several Indian states were put on high alert, despite the absence of an imminent threat.
This is a lot of high-level nonsense, and it is not innocuous. The greatest threat from AQIS is in fact to Islamabad.
The 55-minute video makes clear that with this affiliate, al Qaeda intends to launch a war for all of South Asia -- and Pakistan will be the focus. Al-Zawahiri said in the video that the borders in South Asia are artificial and injurious to Muslims, who are left weakened and divided on the subcontinent. AQIS leader Maulana Asim Umar spoke of a "caravan of jihad" that would begin in Pakistan and spread through India all the way into Myanmar. AQIS then claimed responsibility for two September attacks: the assassination of a Pakistan Army brigadier in Sargodha on Sept. 2, and a failed attack Saturday against a naval base in Karachi. So the group's first two operations targeted the Pakistani military -- the very entity Riedel and Sood claim is supporting the group.
So why have analysts, journalists and former intelligence professionals gotten it so wrong?
For one, they didn't bother to pay attention to the details. Commentators are clearly working with translations of the original materials, and they probably scanned excerpts of those translations released by companies such as SITE Intelligence Group. Few analysts bothered to watch the original content, which al Qaeda has made available in Arabic and Urdu. This brings us to a still deeper problem: Many analysts lack the ability to understand the video even if they did watch it. Most U.S. observers of terrorism in South Asia, including Riedel, don't understand Urdu. How can one understand any group without paying attention to what they are saying? Imagine being an expert on U.S. politics without speaking any English.
Even linguistic proficiency is not enough, though, and Western analysts, even if they are fluent in Hindi or Urdu, struggle to understand the role of religion in South Asia. I have closely followed the changes in the jihadist discourse in Pakistan over the last year as various jihadist groups have rolled out new narratives for their wars in preparation for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Taliban is reframing its war against Islamabad as Ghazwa-e Hind: the battle to reunite historic India, which includes Pakistan, under Islamic rule. Pro-Islamabad jihadist groups have used this term, which comes from an oral tradition attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, to anchor their attacks on present-day India. The Pakistani Taliban is now using it as a means to legitimize its attacks on Islamabad, and sure enough, al-Zawahiri mentioned Ghazwa-e Hind toward the end of his address in the AQIS announcement video.
Finally, there is a tendency among former government officials -- particularly from the intelligence and military worlds -- to see the hand of the state behind everything. Riedel, in a guarded fashion, accused the Inter-Services Intelligence of guarding al-Zawahiri.
Granted, elements within Pakistani intelligence did reportedly give advance warning to al-Zawahiri in 2006 of an impending U.S. drone strike, saving his life, and Osama bin Laden was hiding around a mile away from Pakistan's equivalent of West Point. Still, there are no indications that the advanced notice given to al-Zawahiri or the refuge bin Laden enjoyed in Abbottabad were approved by senior Pakistani officials. And these associations should not overshadow the way al Qaeda has actively fueled the Pakistani Taliban's war against Islamabad -- a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and security personnel.
Indeed, Mahmood, the AQIS spokesman, said that the jihad against the Pakistani state was launched in 2007 under bin Laden's own direction. Yes, the Pakistani state has historically supported jihadist groups in the region. And, yes, it continues to do so to some degree today. But al Qaeda is a strategic competitor and a foe of Islamabad, not an ally.
Real analysis requires careful observation over time and judicious restraint. As the flawed reporting on AQIS and the hysteria surrounding the Islamic State demonstrate, our public discourse lacks these qualities. It is particularly frightening to note that on the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, many of the voices we regard as experts continue to get it wrong on al Qaeda and the broader phenomenon of takfiri jihadism.