Why Is Al Qaeda Recruiting In India? These Embattled Muslim Groups Are Nearby
On Wednesday, we learned that Al Qaeda had launched an India branch. Analysts point out that the move was likely in response to ISIS, whose brand of jihad recruits younger Muslims — many of them Westerners — to try to extend its appeal. ISIS is known for its ability to recruit new members and its brutality in dealing with "infidels." Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is increasingly seen as the "old-guard terrorist group." Al Qaeda's branching out to the Indian subcontinent signals a maneuver to use religious and ethnic conflicts in the region to win back ground lost to ISIS.
The branch is Al Qaeda's first in Asia, and strategically located close to troubled regions with large Muslim populations. Singling out Myanmar, Bangladesh, and in India, Assam, Gujarat, and Kashmir, Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, says in the video that:
Your brothers … did not forget you and are doing what they can to rescue you.
Here's a look at Muslim populations in these areas, and how the conflicts between themselves and other groups could provide ripe opportunity for al Qaeda to spread its influence.
Home to a large population of Muslims known as the Rohingya, Myanmar has a terrible track record of their treatment of the minority group. There is strong resentment against the Rohingya among the larger Buddhist population, and they are denied citizenship as authorities consider them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
About 140,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps after Buddhist mobs chased them from their homes two years ago. The UN classifies the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, and said Myanmar's long history of persecution against them could amount to “crimes against humanity”.
There is no organized resistance on the Rohingya's part, and the world has largely turned a blind eye on them. Al Qaeda's reaching out to them could give the persecuted minority an avenue — and a higher cause — to resist oppression.
Tensions between the Muslim majority and Hindu minority in the country are largely aggravated for political means. Before this year's parliamentary election in January, police arrested dozens of activists from Bangladesh's largest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) for attacking Hindus and destroying their homes and property.
In March, The Washington Post reported of the deepening split between those who want the country to maintain its secular and Bengali values and those who want an Islamist state. Al Qaeda putting down roots nearby could increase the divide and drive even more violence to the country.
Three particular areas were mentioned in Al Qaeda's announcement: the state of Assam, where frequent clashes between indigenous tribals and Bengali Muslims take place, and anti-Bangladeshi sentiment in Assam run rampant; Gujarat, a state that has a considerable Muslim minority where, during sectarian riots in 2002, hundreds of Muslims were killed; and Kashmir, the continuous center of dispute between Pakistanis and Indians since the end of British colonial rule in 1947.
All three areas are socially unstable and therefore susceptible to religious extremists, but analysts say that Al Qaeda will have a hard time gaining support in India, where there is a history of overall pluralism and tolerance. Wilson John, a terrorism expert at New Delhi's Observer Research Foundation, told The New York Times there's an “ideological disconnect. They never had this support despite two decades of trying to find an anchor in India.”
India has been put on alert since the announcement. Al Qaeda's message differs substantially from that of ISIS — who targets all non-Sunnis, Muslim or not — instead, stressing unity against Western powers. Many are skeptical as to whether Al Qaeda can wield enough influence in South Asia, but as fair warning, remember the last time a radical group blindsided the world with its startlingly swift progress?