Explained: In two major videos, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s India ‘project’

Ayman al-Zawahiri had mentioned India several times starting in 2001, the year of the September 11 attacks on the United States. He saw jihad in the subcontinent as a means of expanding the Afghan emirate and wrote of the “religious duty” of “the [Muslim] nation [to] struggle in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Chechnya”.

This was in line with what Osama bin Laden himself had said in 1996, condemning “massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Pattani, Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya and Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

After that, in videos released from time to time, al-Zawahiri focused largely on Islam’s war against the Western powers. India mostly found casual mentions in it, and he occasionally spoke of Kashmir. He asked Muslims to fight, and once in September 2003 he warned Muslims in Pakistan that General Pervez Musharraf, the then president of Pakistan, would hand them over to Hindus and flee the country to enjoy its riches.

But on two occasions – in 2014 and 2022 – he released major videos focused entirely on India. These India-focused videos were among al-Zawahiri’s key messages to his followers and contained important announcements about his views on jihad in the subcontinent.

2014: ‘Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent’

From 2011, when he was in charge of al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was assassinated by US commandos in Pakistan, building a subcontinental front to wage jihad became an operational target for al-Zawahiri.

In a video released in 2014, he announced the formation of “Jamaat Qaidat al-jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya”, or “Organization of the Base of Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent”, saying that it a message that al-Qaeda had not forgotten its Muslim brothers in India. He said jihadists would breach British India’s borders and asked Muslims in the subcontinent to unite.

In the video, he promised that al-Qaeda would expand its operations across the region: “Our brothers in Burma, Kashmir, Islamabad, Bangladesh,” he said, “we have not forgotten you in AQ and will free you from injustice and oppression. In particular, the new branch, he said, was “a message that we have not forgotten you, our Muslim brothers in India.”

Al-Zawahiri appointed a “Maulana Asim Omar” head of al-Qaeda’s new subcontinental affiliate. This man was killed in Afghanistan in 2019, and when announcing the assassination of the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Afghan authorities said Omar was Pakistani. It was then revealed that Omar was in fact an Indian, who was born as Sanaul Haq in Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh.

The AQIS then claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks on the subcontinent, including the horrific murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.

A photo of Al Qaeda’s new leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, is featured in this still image, taken from a video released on September 12, 2011. (SITE Monitoring Service/Handout via Reuters)

2022: On the Karnataka Hijab Controversy

In April of this year, al-Zawahiri released a video in which he spoke about the hijab controversy in India and asked Muslims in the subcontinent for the alleged attack on Islam “intellectually, with the help of the media and with weapons on the battlefield” to fight.

Zawahiri’s reference to a contemporary issue confirmed that he was alive, as opposed to the suggestion that he had died of natural causes in 2020. Al-Qaeda had released videos even after unconfirmed reports of his death, but in all, al-Zawahiri had only talked about historical conflicts and ideological issues, raising doubts as to whether the videos were recorded in the present day.

In the nearly nine-minute video released in April by al-Qaeda spokesman as-Sahab media, Zawahiri praised Muskan Khan, the Karnataka student who shouted slogans of Allah-hu-Akbar after being harassed by a right-wing Hindu. mob shouting slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” in February 2022. Al-Zawahiri said her “challenging slogan of takbeer” when she “challenged a mob of Hindu polytheists” had “encouraged the spirit of Jihad” and re-energised the Muslim community. had awakened.

The video started with a clip of Khan taking on the mafia, followed by al-Zawahiri’s address. “She has revealed the reality and exposed the nature of the conflict between the chaste and pure Muslim Ummah and the degenerate and depraved polytheistic and atheistic enemies it faces… May Allah reward her richly for giving a practical lesson to Muslim sisters plagued by an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the decadent western world. May Allah reward her for exposing the reality of Hindu India and the deceit of its pagan democracy,” Zawahiri said.

He said Khan’s video inspired him to write a poem that he read at the end of the video. “Her takbeer inspired me to write a few lines of poetry, despite the fact that I am not a poet. I hope our esteemed sister accepts this gift of words from me,” Zawahiri said.

9/11: Al-Zawahiri’s Greatest Moment

Born into a well-connected, upper-middle-class family from a suburb of Cairo, Al-Zawahiri was an intellectual rather than a warrior. It is said that he excelled as a student, was drawn to poetry and disliked organized sports, considering them “inhumane”.

As a teenager, Al-Zawahiri was drawn to the teachings of Islamist ideologue Syed Qutb and joined the Muslim Brotherhood when he was only 14. Qutb, whose works “Milestones” and “In the Shadow of the Quran” are foundational texts for the worldwide Islamist movement, was executed in 1966.

In the years that followed, al-Zawahiri would train as a doctor and specialize as a surgeon. He married Azza Nowari, a philosophy student at Cairo University, in 1978; their wedding, held at the Continental Hotel, attracted attention in liberal Cairo at the time: the men were separated from the women and photographers and musicians were kept at a distance.

After the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, al-Zawahiri was arrested and tortured among the hundreds. After three years in prison, he was released, fled the country and started practicing medicine in Saudi Arabia. There he came into contact with Osama bin Laden. He first traveled in 1985 to visit bin Laden-funded jihad facilities in Pakistan, a relationship that would slowly mature until 2001, when Egypt’s Islamic Jihad formally merged with al-Qaeda.

The two men became inseparable: the intellectual, serious al-Zawahiri who provided the perfect protection for the enthusiastic but politically immature bin Laden. Both men helped plan 9/11; it would be Al-Qaeda’s greatest moment: a spectacular gesture that would hasten a civilizational disaster between Islam and the West and signal that the power of the United States was an illusion.

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