Al-Qaida in India

Animesh Roul
August 25, 2007

The involvement of a number of Indians in the foiled UK terror plots of early July this year rang alarm bells in India. Are Indian Muslims being lured into al-Qaida's global jihad? Britons of Indian origin have been tied to al-Qaida in the past, including the Muslim convert Dhiren Barot and Haroon Aswat, the alleged mastermind of the 21/7 bomb attacks. Unlike these Qaida predecessors, Kafeel Ahmed, one of the Glasgow car bombers, was born and raised in large part in India, in the booming hi-tech city of Bangalore.

Though Ahmed is hardly representative of the 138 million Muslims in India, it is clear that al-Qaida is keen to elevate its profile in the country. The Californian-born militant Adam Gaddahn and the group's deputy commander Ayman al-Zawahiri have called for attacks against India in recent al-Qaida videos, invoking the thorny issue of Kashmir as a rallying call for Muslims. Speaking to the country's large and disproportionately impoverished religious minority, al-Qaida seeks to place India on the same par as prime targets the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Islamist violence in India has largely been grounded in local concerns: the secession of Kashmir and revenge against Hindu extremists for the 1992 demolition of Babri Masjid. The growing terrorist threat within South Asia and the radicalization of India's Muslim minorities through the 1990s were due to such national issues, and had little to do with international problems like Iraq or Afghanistan. Pakistan-based Islamist terror groups - such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e- Muhammed and Al Badr - have staged attacks in India in the past with international support. Yet, al Qaida as an organization largely failed to establish its own cell in India.

In more recent times, India has not remained immune to the global spread of Islamist militancy. Radical elements of the Muslim community never identified with international jihadist ideologies until the 2002 Gujarat riots, which further alienated Muslims in India and provided fertile ground for militant extremism. With active support from external forces, Muslim youths educated in madrasas and influenced by the missionary organization Tablighi Jamaat have carried out numerous revenge attacks in the country's major cities. Extremists increasingly take to the streets to protest against the US-led "war on terror", the toppling of Saddam Hussein, to call for the establishment of Sharia law and to issue fatwas.

Al-Qaida is desperately trying to establish a foothold in the country, now including Urdu as its language of propaganda propagation in the last two releases by the group's media arm, al-Sahab. Some Indian Islamist groups have taken up the call. One such outfit, now outlawed, is the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) whose leaders are sympathetic to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. SIMI distributes audio cassettes of bin Laden's speeches and jihadist video propaganda within the Muslim community to win hearts and minds as well as willing fighters.

Al-Qaida's influence may be more than just moral and ideological. In July and November 2006, evidence emerged that suggested agents of the international terrorist network were operating in southern India and Kashmir, but this was overlooked by the intelligence agencies. Also in June this year, a local news agency received a video that claimed the existence of an al-Qaida cell in India under the command of one Abu Abdal Rehman al-Ansari.

Increasingly, many Muslim youth in India are talking about the plights of their "fellow Muslims" in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and elsewhere. Their alienation from mainstream Indian society is being mapped onto a world of globalized Islamist struggle. Nevertheless, such extremism remains confined to a small minority of the Muslim community. India's system of secular pluralism remains strong and inclusive. Recent terrorism trials have convicted dozens Muslims for the 1993 bombing of Mumbai and the 1998 bombings in Coimbatore. The moderate Muslim majority has condemned such attacks and has failed to fall under the sway of radicalism.

India, however, has always boasted that Indian Muslims were well integrated and that their religious beliefs did not grate against liberal democratic society and, instead, constituted one of the most open forms Islam anywhere in the world. Under the pressure of more radicalized influences from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and from growing extremism within India itself, the bubble of this vision of Indian Islam may soon burst. 

Author Note
Animesh Roul, Executive Director (Research), Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi. The article was originally published in the Terrorism.openDemocracy (UK).