Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is a U.S.-designated terrorist group and al-Qaeda’s newest affiliate. Founded in September 2014, the group has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks in the region, including the September 6, 2014, attempted seizure of a Pakistan navy frigate in a naval dockyard in Karachi, Pakistan. The group has also claimed responsibility for the murders of secular activists, writers, professors, and doctors in Bangladesh. AQIS reportedly operates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.
AQIS is al-Qaeda’s fifth official chapter.
AQIS was formed after a two-year effort to consolidate jihadist factions on the Indian Subcontinent, according to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who announced the affiliate’s formation in a video dated September 3, 2014.Included in the group’s ranks are Taliban fighters loyal to both Zawahiri and Taliban emir Mullah Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, who assumed this position in May 2015 following the death of the Taliban’s former emir, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour.
Analysts generally believe that al-Zawahiri created AQIS in order to steal the limelight from expanding ISIS and therefore promote al-Qaeda’s brand. The Diplomat’s Jordan Olmstead asserts that “AQIS isn’t about India—it’s about preserving al-Qaeda’s safe havens in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” especially amid rivalries with ISIS and the Pakistani army for influence and control over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Flashpoint Global Partners senior analyst Laith Alkhouri called the group’s formation at the time “a serious counternarrative to the ISIS expansion.”
However, an unnamed jihadist close to AQIS told Reuters, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s new chief al-Zawahri started the reorganization of al-Qaeda, with its main focus on South Asia.” Sources close to AQIS’s former emir (leader), Asim Umar, told Reuters that Umar has eyed the Indian subcontinent for many years, and has released videos propagandizing to Kashmiri Muslims in a hope to recruit them to fight the secular governments.
AQIS has claimed responsibility for the murders of a number of secular activists.
Analysts have downplayed the threat of AQIS and al-Qaeda central to the subcontinent. “Al-Qaeda first mentioned India as a target in 1996, when bin Laden made a reference to both Jammu and Kashmir and Assam,” said Ajai Sahni of India’s Institute for Conflict Management. “Since then, it has not been able to achieve anything significant in both these Indian states.” However, AQIS launched its first attack three days after its founding. On September 6, 2014, AQIS militants attempted to seize a Pakistani navy frigate, from which they planned to launch missiles at nearby American and Pakistani ships. Ten militants and one officer died in an ensuing suicide bombing and shootout. AQIS has claimed responsibility for the murder of a number of secular activists. In May 2015, the group claimed responsibility for the murder of atheist bloggers Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman in Bangladesh and liberal professors Mohammad Shakil Auj and Shafiul Islam in Pakistan. In October 2015, AQIS’s Bangladesh branch, known as Ansar al Islam, claimed responsibility for the killing of Faisal Arefin Dipon, a Bangladeshi publisher of secular books. Another publisher, Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, was also targeted but not killed. In April 2016, Ansar al Islam claimed responsibility for the murders of secular campaigner Nazimuddin Samad, and the editors of an LGBT magazine, Xulhaz Mannan and Tanay Mojumdar.
On September 23, 2019, the United States launched a joint operation with the Afghan military, carrying out a raid in Musa Qala, southern Afghanistan. On October 8, 2019, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security confirmed that along with AQIS leader, Asim Umar, six other militants were killed during the operation. The NDS also claimed that Osama Mehmood, AQIS’s spokesman, is now the leader of AQIS.
Like al-Qaeda Central, AQIS ascribes to a Salafi ideology whose central tenet is waging jihad in order to wrest power from what al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri calls the “infidel enemy” and impose rule by sharia (Islamic law). In the group’s first video, released on September 3, 2014, Zawahiri declared that AQIS would “raise the flag of jihad, return the Islamic rule, and [empower] the Shariah of Allah across the Indian subcontinent.”
[AQIS seeks to] establish sharia in the land and to free the occupied land of Muslims in the Indian sub-continent.
Salafis hold that Muslims should emulate the actions of the first generation of Muslim leaders—known as the righteous ancestors (al-Salaf al-Salih)—and disregard more than a thousand years of Islamic jurisprudence. Al-Qaeda believes it is fighting a “defensive jihad” against the United States and its allies, defending Muslim lands from the “new crusade led by America against the Islamic nations…” according to Osama bin Laden. In the first issue of al-Qaeda’s new English language magazine Resurgence, which appeared on jihadist forums in October 2014, its editor Hasaan Yusuf wrote: “It was Jihad that brought Islam to the Indian Subcontinent, and it will be Jihad again that will overturn the legacy of imperialism from Pakistan to Bangladesh and beyond.” Through its “defensive jihad,” AQIS seeks to “[e]stablish sharia in the land and to free the occupied land of Muslims in the Indian sub-continent,” as Ayman al-Zawahiri said in the video announcing AQIS’s formation.
Necessary to AQIS’s ideology is the indoctrinated prophecy—found in the Hadith, oral traditions of the prophet Muhammad—of Ghazwa-e-Hind, the “final battle in India.” Al-Qaeda and AQIS members believe in an impending, apocalyptic war with the Indian state, resulting in the fall of the Hindu nation to Islam and the recreation of the caliphate. In Zawahiri’s announcement of the new affiliate, “Pakistan was mentioned only as a country that needed to be brought under full Sharia rule while Hindu India was portrayed as the enemy of Islam,” said Husain Haqqani, Hudson Institute senior fellow and former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.
A 20-page “Code of Conduct” published by AQIS in June 2017 reiterated the group’s intentions of attacking targets––particularly military related––in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. While the document claimed that Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist civilians and places of worship would not be attacked, it called for increased attacks on both active-duty and off-duty soldiers, as well as Americans operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The “Code of Conduct” also reiterated the group’s allegiance to al-Qaeda Central and the Taliban, and stated that one of its principal aims is defending and strengthening the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” by working with the Taliban.
AQIS prioritizes American targets in Pakistan and strives for a complete American withdrawal from the region, according to the Code of Conduct document. While AQIS maintains its focus on jihad in the regions specified above, it also supports and espouses al-Qaeda’s broader objective to conduct attacks against the United States and other Western targets.
In December 2014, AQIS spokesman Osama Mehmoud released a statement detailing the group’s operational structure, saying, “Although al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent was announced this year , we started operating under one Shura [consultative] committee and one commander almost a year ago.” In its “Code of Conduct” released in June 2017, AQIS explained that it operates with an emir, a vice emir, and a shura council, which acts as an advisory board. The emir and shura council can consult with each other to make administrative changes. AQIS also has a sharia committee, which provides guidance on matters of sharia law. A military committee provides guidance on military matters, such as the treatment of prisoners.
Like other al-Qaeda outfits, AQIS’s command structure may also include political, propaganda, and religious arms. However, AQIS is closely linked to the Taliban, and may therefore share some organizational aspects with that group. AQIS members have at times fought under the Taliban’s flag and are integrated into the Taliban’s chain-of-command. According to the Long War Journal, this may account for AQIS’s apparent lack of battlefield propaganda.
Analysts have alleged that AQIS may be broken into regional branches, including in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Karachi, Pakistan. AQIS’s Bangladesh branch is officially known as Ansar al Islam, and has claimed responsibility for a number of the attacks against secularists in the country.
Al-Qaeda officials have also called on AQIS to carry out attacks in Myanmar in response to government-inflicted violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group. The Myanmar-based Harakat al-Yaqin, in part responsible for the recent escalation in violence in the country, is reported to have had contact with al-Qaeda officials in the past.
In a July 2020 report published by the United Nations Security Council, it was alleged that around 150 to 200 AQIS members from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan are operating under the Taliban in the Nimruz, Helmand, and Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan. According to the report, AQIS is allegedly planning retaliatory operations in the area to avenge the death of its former leader, Asim Umar.
Little is publicly known about AQIS’s funding. It is suspected that AQIS is supported by al-Qaeda central, which receives funding from private donors, charities and foundations, drug trafficking, and state sponsors of terrorism, among other sources. The other known sources of funding are kidnappings for ransom, donations from individuals, charitable foundations, and religious charities including zakat, occasional state sponsorship, and proceeds from counterfeit currency. AQIS also benefits from its strong linkages with groups affiliated with the Pakistan’s intelligence agency—the ISI. In certain instances, Lashkar-e-Taiba funds have made their way to members of AQIS, such as the case with Abdur Rehman who received over $20,000 from LeT in a period of two years.
In Pakistan, there are discreet cells that specifically cater to raising funds for AQIS. In Karachi, one AQIS cell is dedicated to soliciting donations from businesspersons under the guise of support for Islamic charities. The money then makes its way through various channels throughout Quetta and southern Afghanistan before making its way to AQIS leadership in Waziristan.
Before Ayman al-Zawahiri announced AQIS’s formation in September 2014, al-Qaeda looked to recruit jihadists in the disputed territory of Kashmir, a longtime hotbed of foreign jihadist elements. AQIS’s former emir, Asim Umar, reportedly spent years disseminating recruitment videos to Kashmiri Muslims. An al-Qaeda video released three months before AQIS’s formation featured Umar, the then-commander of an al-Qaeda cell in Pakistan. Umar called on Kashmiri Muslims to wage jihad on India. An intelligence report alleged in July 2014 that the prophecy of Ghazwa-e-Hind, or the “final battle in India,” was being used by al-Qaeda and the Taliban to drive recruits into Kashmir.
Asim Umar reportedly spent years disseminating recruitment videos to Kashmiri Muslims.
Recruiting inside India has historically been difficult for al-Qaeda, as Indian Muslims have not felt the same grievances that may pull others into the organization. South Asia expert Jason Burke wrote, “Though there are some signs of increasing radicalisation in India, recruitment to extremist networks there is negligible.” Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies was also skeptical of AQIS’s recruitment strength within India, as well as Burma. Rana told the Los Angeles Times that it will “be very tough for [AQIS] to establish an infrastructure in India. It may be able to establish it in some part of the Indian side of Kashmir. In the past it had failed to attract Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.”
AQIS’s online propaganda, including videos and PDF magazines, plays a large role in recruiting South Asian Muslims to the jihad on the subcontinent. Al-Qaeda’s As-Sahab media arm has produced videos of speeches appealing to young Muslims in India, specifically in Bihar, Gujarat, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and South India. In the group’s inaugural announcement, Zawahiri specifically referenced the Indian districts of Assam, Gujarat, and Ahmedabad, three areas whose Muslim minorities have experienced or engaged in sectarian unrest in recent years. This reference may have been intended as a psychological appeal to disaffected Muslim youth within India and across the subcontinent.
AQIS’s online propaganda plays a large role in recruiting South Asian Muslims to terrorism.
Trying to bolster its image and draw new recruits, al-Qaeda released a new English-language magazine, Resurgence, in October 2014. The first issue focused heavily on the brand’s new affiliate. AQIS emir Asim Umar wrote an article deriding the Indian government and its policies towards Muslims. He aimed to appeal to Indian Muslims, writing, “We have little doubt that, sooner or later, the Muslims of India too will come to the realization that their future is inextricably linked to the success of the Afghan Jihad [by the Taliban and al-Qaeda].” In August 2016, AQIS began translating its propaganda into Tamil and Malayam in an attempt to reach South Indian Muslims.
Beyond videos and online magazines, little is known about AQIS’s recruitment tactics. According to a January 2019 report by The Soufan Center, AQIS has relied on using person-to-person contacts for recruitment, training and indoctrination.
Two weeks after the group’s formation in September 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that AQIS would struggle to recruit Indian Muslims to its cause. Modi declared, “If anyone thinks Indian Muslims will dance to their tune, they are delusional. Indian Muslims will live for India. They will die for India.”
Little is known about how AQIS trains its soldiers. In the group’s inaugural video in September 2014, Zawahiri announced the membership of “soldiers of the Islamic Emirate” (meaning the Afghan Taliban) in AQIS. This may explain the existence of a massive AQIS training facility in Kandahar, Afghanistan. U.S. and Afghan troops raided and demolished the 30-square mile camp in early October 2015.
In August 2016, AQIS released footage of another training camp in South Waziristan in Pakistan. Militants trained with AK-47s, machine guns, and RPGs at the Qari Imran Camp, named after the founder of AQIS. New al-Qaeda recruits progress from basic physical training to weapons training, training in armed assault, and bomb making. Harakat-ul-Mujahiddeen, a Pakistani Islamist terrorist organization long linked to al-Qaeda and now to AQIS, reportedly operates training camps in Afghanistan. AQIS emir Asim Umar reportedly trained at one of the camps, which also served to train Kashmiri jihadists.
According to the Soufan Center, AQIS provides a two-week in-person religious training course in the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) that exist along the permeable border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This training course is meant to further indoctrinate its new recruits. All the members of the AQIS India cell were trained in religious madrassas in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) region.
Also Known As:
- Ansar al Islam
- Jamaat Qaidat al-jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiy
- Jamaat Qaidat al-Jihad fi'shibhi al-Qarrat al-Hindiya
- Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent
- Qaedat al-Jihad
- Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent