While al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) may be regionally focused, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says “that doesn’t mean AQIS can be divorced from al Qaeda’s aspirations to attack the West.” In an interview with The Cipher Brief, Gartenstein-Ross also said he believes the group may be looking to expand into Myanmar.
The Cipher Brief: What is your assessment of the threat Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) currently poses in South Asia?
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: In the region, AQIS is a highly significant group. This is an assessment that’s shared by top officials within the U.S., such as General John Nicholson, Commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, who talked about this recently in an interview with CTC Sentinel.
AQIS was formally announced in September 2014, but its origins go back before the formal announcement. Al Qaeda has had longstanding relationships in the region for some time, as is well known. The center of gravity for al Qaeda, and for its senior leadership, was in Afghanistan-Pakistan and South Asia for around 15 years, so the group maintained longstanding relationships, not just in the post-9/11 world but also prior to the 9/11 attacks. They were able to cultivate strong ties with sectarian and Kashmir-focused militant factions, and the network spans several countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
In terms of their actual output, looking at AQIS’ operations, there may not be a whole lot visible to the naked eye that suggests that they are a major force. But if one looks under the surface, there is a lot more going on than terrorist attacks alone might indicate. For example, in October 2015, U.S. forces in Afghanistan raided an AQIS camp in Kandahar Province, which spanned 30 square miles. It was an enormous camp.
Further, AQIS has a relationship with the Taliban, and not all of the group’s operations are terrorist attacks. Some of its fighting is insurgent-style warfare designed to advance the Taliban’s objectives. As General Nicholson said, AQIS helps the Taliban in its operations, and it gets a quid pro quo in return, in that the Taliban helps to cement AQIS’ presence inside of Afghanistan.
TCB: What is the level of coordination between AQIS and core al Qaeda?
DGR: As General Nicholson has said, there is a linkage between AQIS and al Qaeda’s senior leadership. Major U.S. military raids have turned up a considerable amount of information on AQIS. The best example is the October 2015 raid, which I mentioned before. This operation in Kandahar uncovered a 30 square mile AQIS camp, one where AQIS and the Taliban were said to be coordinating. In that raid, the U.S. discovered a lot of material, which provided information about the inner workings of AQIS and its coordination with core al Qaeda. It has been publicly revealed that there is coordination between the two, but the documents that provide insight are classified and are not publicly available at present. So the answer is that there is coordination, but the details cannot be assessed yet.
TCB: How are governments in the region working to combat this threat?
DGR: Currently, efforts to combat the group appear to be conducted on a country by country basis, although there may be some coordination. To date, there is no announced unified effort outside of occasional agreements between countries in the region that already cooperate on intelligence and the like. The fact that India and Pakistan – two countries where AQIS has a presence – are at odds with each other, to put it mildly, certainly impedes efforts at coordination.
TCB: Do you see AQIS expanding further eastward or to additional countries in the region?
DGR: I believe that AQIS will try to expand to Myanmar. The Rohingya issue has loomed large in al Qaeda’s messaging. There is one quite visible (though not necessarily large) militant organization currently operating in Myanmar, Harakah al-Yaqin, though it’s not clear if that group is linked to outside organizations. But given al Qaeda’s messaging about Myanmar, I suspect AQIS will make a play to move into that space.
TCB: Who are AQIS’ primary targets? Does the group aim to attack the West, or is it more regionally focused?
DGR: Right now it is regionally focused, but that doesn’t mean AQIS can be divorced from al Qaeda’s aspirations to attack the West. The targets AQIS is choosing in Bangladesh appear consistent with al Qaeda’s playbook in Tunisia, which is a good example of how al Qaeda tries to move a theater from disparate dawa efforts on the part of some of the jihadists, all the way to an active battlefield. (Obviously, Tunisia is not an active battlefield today, but it has seen much more jihadist violence, and has become a much more dangerous country in this regard since the revolution.)
Early on, one thing that an al Qaeda affiliated group in Tunisia called Ansar al Sharia (AST) undertook was violence that can be regarded as “hisba” violence. “Hisba” is a difficult term to translate, but it relates to the notion of “commanding right and forbidding wrong.” So in undertaking hisba attacks in Tunisia, AST was trying to appeal to people who were religious conservatives or who had extremist tendencies. They targeted secularist politicians. Other hisba attacks focused on things that were viewed as blasphemous or religiously questionable. (Though it is difficult to assess attribution for many of the hisba attacks that occurred prior to AST’s ban in 2013, they were consistent with AST’s strategy at the time.) There were attacks on restaurant, bars, and Sufi shrines.
Similarly in Bangladesh, the targeting of atheist bloggers and of people with open LGBT identities should be understood as hisba violence. As in the case of Tunisia, hisba violence is not the end in an of itself. It’s not the stopping point. It’s early targeting, which is designed to rally sympathy for their cause because the targets are seen as acceptable by the audience AQIS is appealing to – people who reject God, or who are critical of Islam, or who identify as LGBT. AQIS’s constituency is people who they think that targeting these groups is justified.
In terms of further targeting, how they expand and where the West plays a role may differ from one county to another. In Tunisia, the jihadists pretty quickly moved on to attacks against Western tourists, such as the notorious 2015 Sousse massacre, which killed 38 people along the beach, including 30 British citizens. That attack served a dual purpose: killing Europeans is an end in itself for jihadists, but it also significantly hurt the Tunisian tourist economy.
Right now a number of al Qaeda’s affiliates are regionally focused, because they have a lot of opportunities in the regions where they operate. But the fact that al Qaeda has more regional opportunities now doesn’t mean that it has given up its ambitions to strike at the U.S. and the West. It hasn’t given up those ambitions.
So given the relationship between AQIS and al Qaeda’s senior leadership, the most persuasive reading, bearing in mind the limitations of available evidence, is that AQIS fits into al Qaeda’s global strategy. They have designs for the region, but they also have more global designs that include the West. To that extent, I don’t see regional violence as truly separate from their plans to combat the West. Obviously, al Qaeda killing people in Bangladesh (such as the atheist bloggers or LGBT people) does not pose an immediate threat to the West, but it’s still part of a broader set of designs that the group has. The killings that al Qaeda is perpetrating now in the region are tragedies in themselves, but can also be seen as canaries in a coal mine.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DaveedGR.