Ayman al-Zawahiri, killed in a US drone strike in Kabul over the weekend, had been on the radar of intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies for the last two decades. His killing is important for the global war on terror, as also for India.
There are at least four clear reasons for this.
First, al-Zawahiri had resurfaced in April this year, and Indian intelligence agencies were concerned. In a video, al-Zawahiri spoke on 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”.
He referred to a live, hot-button issue that confirmed he was alive and able to follow developments in India. He showered praise on a young Indian student who he claimed had “emboldened the spirit of Jihad” with her defiant response to a heckling crowd.
He said the girl’s action had inspired him to write a poem: “Her takbeers 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.”
Second, this video was seen by the Indian strategic establishment as al-Qaeda’s effort to recruit in India. In his earlier videos, al-Zawahiri had largely focused on Islam’s war against Western powers and India had found only passing mention. He had spoken about Kashmir previously, but had never specifically referenced any incident.
With al-Qaeda greatly weakened around the world, and its regional franchises unable to carry out frequent strikes, the video appeared to be an effort at issuing a rallying call, underlining that “our battle today is a battle of awareness, a battle of discerning illusion from reality. We must understand that the way out is by holding on to our Shariah, uniting as a single Ummah, from China to Islamic Maghreb, and from Caucasus to Somalia, a united Ummah waging a concerted war across several fronts”.
Third, his killing in Kabul confirms the assessment of the relationship of al-Qaeda with the new Taliban regime. A UN report in June this year said: “Al-Qaeda enjoys greater freedom under the new Afghan regime, but its operational capability is limited. It is unlikely to mount or direct attacks outside Afghanistan for the next year or two, owing to both a lack of capability and Taliban restraint. Going forward, al-Qaeda appears free to pursue its objectives, short of international attacks or other high-profile activity that could embarrass the Taliban or harm their interests.”
On al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the regional franchise of the terrorist organisation, the UN report said, the AQIS “is reported to have 180 to 400 fighters, with Member State estimates inclining toward the lower figure. Fighters included nationals from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan and were located in Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimruz, Paktika and Zabul Provinces.”
Fourth, the killing shows that India needs to navigate its engagement with the Taliban carefully. India, which had been largely elbowed out of Afghanistan after the US left and the Taliban returned a year ago, has opened a cautious outreach to the new regime in Kabul. But the killing of al-Zawahiri shows the terrorist infrastructure continues to be active in Afghanistan. And while India may continue to help Afghanistan through humanitarian assistance, it has to keep its eyes open for terrorist activities aimed at India from Afghan soil.
The UN report said that since the Taliban takeover in mid-August 2021, terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), both Pakistan-based groups targeting India, are present in Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan where they run terror training camps and have deep links with the Taliban.
According to the report, JeM maintains eight training camps in Nangarhar, three of which are directly under Taliban control. The LeT maintains three camps in Kunar and Nangarhar and has provided finance and training expertise to Taliban operations earlier.