In a message released late on Tuesday night, Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has called for Kashmir-based jihadist groups to “single-mindedly focus on inflicting unrelenting blows on the Indian Army and government so as to bleed the Indian economy and make India suffer sustained losses in manpower and equipment”.

In the message, Al-Zawahiri — Al-Qaeda’s first-in-command focused exclusively on Kashmir — also lashes out at Pakistan’s army and government saying they cannot be trusted to liberate Kashmir. “Their history of failures, defeats, corruption, and treachery is a witness to this truth”, Al-Zawahiri argues. “At the very most, all they would like to achieve is to transfer to Kashmir the corruption and rot that Pakistan has endured at their hands for seventy years”.

“Kashmir is a bleeding wound in our hearts”, Al-Zawahiri writes, “hearts that grieve with the pain of many such bleeding wounds”. “It is a tragedy made even direr by the fact that they are caught between Hindu brutality on the one hand and the treachery and conspiracies of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies on the other”.

Hamid Lone, the head of Kashmir’s fledgling Al-Qaeda unit, had last week called for a new 'shura', or council, to govern the operations of jihadist groups in the state, replacing the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council. Lone, also known as Hamid Lelhari, had said the new 'shura' should be based on Islamic principles, and work towards “the enforcement of Allah's law in Allah's land”.

Building on this idea, Al-Zawahiri argues that Pakistan is “exploiting the Mujahideen for specific political objectives, only to dump or persecute them later; the beneficiaries, in the end, being a bunch of traitors who fill their pockets with bribes and illegitimate wealth”.

Al-Zawahiri has further said that following 9/11, Islamabad “arrested the Mujahideen of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Emirate, tortured them in its prisons and handed them over to the 'crusaders'. In fact, many were killed in the secret prisons of these agencies”.

“When it comes to defending Muslims”, Al-Zawahiri asserts, “the Pakistan Army possesses a very dark history. The Army that helped America destroy Afghanistan, the army that surrendered Bengal to India, the army that carried out massacres of Muslims in Baluchistan and expelled the residents of Waziristan and Swat from their homes is not an army that can be entrusted with the defence of Muslims anywhere”.

Al-Qaeda in India

Ever since 2014, Al-Zawahiri has focused on building up Al-Qaeda’s presence amidst south Asia’s jihadist landscape, breaking with its traditional focus on the Arab world. In a video released in September 2014, Al-Zawahiri announced the formation of a new Al-Qaeda franchise for the region, “a message that we did not forget you, our Muslim brothers in India”.

He promised Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS, would “break all borders created by Britain in India”, and called on all Muslims in the region to “unite under the credo of the one God”.

Al-Qaeda’s South Asia chief, Sana-ul-Haq — also known by the pseudonym Asim Umar — issued a similar message, asking Indian Muslims: “You who have ruled India for eight hundred years, you who lit the flame of the one true God in the darkness of polytheism: How can you remain in your slumber when the Muslims of the world are awakening”?

Elements of the Indian jihadist movement have long known to have been in touch with Al-Qaeda, and some intelligence analysts believe the organisation hopes to use those ties to escalate pressure on India. In one video message, Salman said slain Al-Qaeda military commander Illyas Kashmiri had “carried out many successful operations against India from here”.

Kashmiri, who worked with 26/11 perpetrator David Headley after the attacks in Mumbai, was also linked to Indian Mujahideen jihadists who trained at his base in Pakistan’s Miranshah — training they are thought to have used, among other things, for the 2010 bombing of the German Bakery coffee shop in Pune.

In a 2014 interview, Raja Muhammad Salman — also known as Usama Mehmood, the second-in-command of Al-Qaeda's South Asia operations, said the organisation’s broad aim was to “to reform Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Bangladesh and the whole of the subcontinent, into an Islamic subcontinent.”

There has also been at least one case of an Indian dying in combat with Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Afghanistan — Anwar Bhatkal, who died in an attack on an outpost in Kandahar in May.

Expanding Jihad

For years, Al-Qaeda has argued it is imperative to widen the jihad beyond what it sees as an unwinnable war of attrition in Kashmir. However, Al-Qaeda has had no significant success staging operations outside of Kashmir, where Zakir Rashid Bhat— also known as Zakir Musa — led a small group of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen operatives disenchanted with Pakistan.

Al-Zawahiri, an Indian intelligence official told Firspost, hopes Al-Qaeda’s new Kashmir unit will form the base for a wider, pan-India expansion of jihad.

In December 2017, Mehmood argued that the key to victory in Kashmir lay in attacking Indian cities. “India is already using 6,00,000 troops just to hold on to Kashmir”, Salman said in a statement. “If it is attacked in Kolkata, Bangalore, and New Delhi, it will come to its senses and release its grip on Kashmir.”

Then, in February 2018, Zakir Bhat called for targeting “companies which are associated with the Government of India, or those foreign companies which have invested or wish to invest in India".