US adds Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, leader to terrorism list

The Department of State added Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organization and listed its emir, Asim Umar, as a specially Designated global terrorist. The US government and intelligence services have consistently underestimated the strength of AQIS, which is an official branch of al Qaeda that is based in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Burma.

“Today’s action notifies the US public and the international community that AQIS and Umar are actively engaged in terrorism,” State notes in today’s press release announcing the designation.

State’s designation says that Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, announced the formation of AQIS in September 2014. However, when Zawahiri announced the formation of AQIS, he noted that al Qaeda worked to create the group for over two years.

Additionally, Zawahiri said that AQIS reported directly to the emir of the Afghan Taliban. This fact was omitted from State’s designation of AQIS.

“This entity was not established today, but it is the fruit of a blessed effort for more than two years to gather the mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity to be with the main group, Qaedat al-Jihad, from the soldiers of the Islamic Emirate and its triumphant emir, Allah permitting, Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid,” Zawahiri said in September 2014. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda opens branch in the ‘Indian Subcontinent’.]

State also notes that Asim Umar is “a former member of US designated Foreign Terrorist Organization Harakat ul Mujahideen.” Umar also served as a commander in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan as well as a sharia official in al Qaeda’s branch in Pakistan, before it merged into AQIS.

Umar’s previous positions in Harakat ul Mujahideen and the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan should come as no surprise. Al Qaeda has relied on what it used to call the “deep bench” of jihadist groups in South Asia to bolster its ranks after suffering losses from US drone strikes and counterterrorism operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

AQIS includes elements from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, Harakat-ul-Muhajideen, Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and Brigade 313, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Indian Mujahideen (a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Turkistan Islamic Party, Junood al Fida, and other groups based in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent incorporates regional jihadist groups.]

The State designation also noted some high-profile AQIS attacks in the region, including the Sept. 6, 2014 attempt to hijack a Pakistani frigate in Karachi. AQIS used Pakistani naval personnel to aid their plot.

“AQIS has also claimed responsibility for the murders of activists and writers in Bangladesh, including that of US citizen Avijit Roy, US Embassy local employee Xulhaz Mannan, and of Bangladeshi nationals Oyasiqur Rahman Babu, Ahmed Rajib Haideer, and A.K.M. Shafiul Islam,” State notes.

AQIS emir Umar claimed those killed in Bangladesh were “blasphemers” as they were atheists, homosexuals, and other activists who insulted Islam. Umar also said the attacks were order by Zawahiri. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent leader says attacks on ‘blasphemers’ ordered by Zawahiri.]

AQIS expands

While State notes the high profile attacks executed by AQIS, it omitted two key threats posed by AQIS: the re-establishment of training camps in Afghanistan, and a burgeoning cadre of fighters and operatives loyal to al Qaeda.

While the State Department recently described al Qaeda’s network in Pakistan and Afghanistan as “severely degraded in the region,” al Qaeda is know to have operated three training camps in Afghanistan over the past year. One of the two camps, in Shorabak, Kandahar province, was a massive facility that was well stocked and covered over 30 square miles. In October 2015, a large US military strike force took four days to clear the two al Qaeda camps in Shorabak and killed over 150 al Qaeda operatives. The US military was shocked by the size of the facility. [See LWJ reports, US military strikes large al Qaeda training camps in southern Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda’s Kandahar training camp ‘probably the largest’ in Afghan War.]

The Shorabak raids forced the US government and military to admit that its previous long-held estimates on al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan were wrong. Since 2010, US officials have claimed that al Qaeda has been “decimated” in Afghanistan and has maintained a consistent minimal presence of 50 to 100 operatives in contry. In April, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, the top spokesman for Resolute Support, told The Washington Post that al Qaeda has forged close ties to the Taliban and is resurgent in the country.

Additionally, Buchanan told CNN that al Qaeda may have upwards of 300 operatives in the country, “but that number does include other facilitators and sympathizers in their network.” [See LWJ report, US military admits al Qaeda is stronger in Afghanistan than previously estimated.]

In addition to underestimating al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan, US officials have maintained for years that the jihadist group has been weakened in Pakistan due to drone strikes, and that no more than 400 operatives were in country. But The Washington Post shattered that long-held estimate on June 3 when it reported on al Qaeda’s growing presence in Karachi, Pakistan. Hundreds if not thousands of al Qaeda operatives and recruits are thought to be operating in that Pakistani city alone.

“Counterterrorism officials in Karachi have a list of several hundred active al Qaeda members, which makes them assume there are at least a few thousand on the streets,” the Post reported. “In Karachi, AQIS has divided itself into three operational segments — recruitment, financial and tactical — made up of four-to-six-person cells. The recruitment cells work in madrassas and schools, casually preaching Islam before targeting certain students for potential recruitment, officials said.”

The Post report did not touch on al Qaeda’s presence in other traditional areas of Paksitan, such as the tribal areas, Peshawar, Lahore, and a host of Pakistani cities.

Al Qaeda’s massive expansion in Pakistan and Afghanistan can be directly attributed to AQIS emir Umar and Zawahiri, who carefully plotted al Qaeda’s path in the Indian Subcontinent.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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