Prophet Muhammad row: What is AQIS, the Al-Qaeda affiliate which has threatened suicide blasts in India?

India’s security agencies are on alert after Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) issued a letter warning of suicide bombings in Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat to ‘fight for the honour of the Prophet’. The outfit established in 2014 has been increasing activities in the country

The controversial remarks over Prophet Muhammad, which have earned the ire of the Islamic world, have now caught the attention of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). The affiliate of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, the AQIS issued a threat letter dated 6 June, warning of suicide attacks across India.

What does the letter say?

The AQIS said it would launch suicide attacks in Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat to “fight for the honour of the Prophet”.

“A few days ago, the propagators and flag bearers of Hindutva – a system and philosophy hostile to the religion and Shariah of Allah – insulted and slandered the purest of beings, the most honourable after God himself, Muhammad al Mustafa, Ahmad al Mujtaba, and his noble and pure wife, the mother of the believers, Sayyidah Ayesha bint Abu Bakr as Siddeeq in the most vile and evil manner on an Indian TV channel. In response to this affront, the hearts of Muslim all over the world are bleeding and are filled with feelings of revenge and retribution,” the letter says.

Even though the letter mentioned the debate on the news channel, it did not name Bharatiya Janata Party’s now- suspended spokesperson Nupur Sharma and expelled leader Naveen Kumar Jindal, who are at the centre of the controversy.

Issuing a warning to “Hindutva terrorists occupying India”, the AQIS said in the letter, “we should fight for the dignity of our Prophet, we should urge others to fight and die for the honour of our Prophet, we should kill those who affront our Prophet and we should bind explosives with our bodies and the bodies of our children to blow away the ranks of those who dare to dishonour our Prophet”.

What is the AQIS?

A United States-designated and globally banned terrorist outfit, the AQIS is one of the newest affiliates of the Al-Qaeda, formed in 2014. It was set up by Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri to expand the terror group’s influence in the Indian sub-continent.

The AQIS operates under the Taliban umbrella from Afghanistan’s Nimruz, Helmand, and Kandahar provinces. The outfit’s earlier chief India-born Asim Umar was reportedly killed in September 2019 in Helmand’s Musa Qala in a joint operation by the United States and Afghan military. He was succeeded by the Pakistan-born Osama Mahmood, who is “not listed” under the United Nations Security Sanctions.

Where does the AQIS operate?

The AQIS reportedly operates in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

According to security analysts, AQIS’s Bangladesh branch is officially known as Ansar al Islam and has claimed responsibility for a number of the attacks against secularists in the country. It has claimed responsibility for the killings of secular activists, writers, professors, and doctors in Bangladesh.

Al-Qaeda officials have called on AQIS to carry out attacks in Myanmar in response to violence against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, according to Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a non-profit international policy organisation.

The group attempted the seizure of a Pakistani frigate in Karachi’s naval dockyard in September 2014.

In July 2020, a report published by the UNSC alleged that around 150 to 200 AQIS members from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan in Afghanistan.

How active is the AQIS in India?

The presence of AQIS in India was confirmed after the arrest of three operatives in Delhi in 2015. The Delhi Police later arrested Maulana Abdul Rehman Kasmi, an AQIS operative, and claimed that the group had set up a training camp “somewhere in Jharkhand forests”, according to a report in The Diplomat.

The group has been reaching out to Muslims in the country, attempting to draw their attention to the atrocities in Kashmir, India’s dominance in South Asia, undermining “Muslim values and culture” and its alliance with the United States and Russia, the report says.

In India, the crackdown on AQIS is ongoing. In July 2021, the Uttar Pradesh police arrested two operatives of the Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Kashmir, who were planning attacks in crowded places in Lucknow ahead of Independence Day. In October 2021, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) filed a chargesheet against an alleged AQIS operative for furthering the activities of the banned terrorist organisation in India. Abu Sufiyan of West Bengal’s Murshidabad was charged under sections of the Explosives Substance Act, an official of the premier investigation agency had said.

In Assam, six operatives were arrested in April 2022 for trying to develop the Barpeta district in the state as a base for the jihadi work and unlawful activities of Al-Qaeda and its related organisation. Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has vowed to dismantle the jihadist network in the state. The Assam Police will take up the matter with Interpol.

Director-general of police Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta told The Economic Times, “Their leaders are all from Bangladesh. We have already taken up the matter with the Bangladesh government informally. We will also take up the matter through the Interpol soon.”

How deadly is the AQIS?

In 2020, a top counter-terrorism official told US lawmakers that AQIS was probably capable of only “small-scale regional attacks”.

“In South Asia, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) has struggled to rebound from the death of its leader, Asim Umar, in a US military raid in Afghanistan in September 2019 and is probably only capable of small-scale regional attacks,” Christopher Miller Director, National Counterterrorism Center, had told a US Senate committee.

Analysts have downplayed the threat of AQIS and Al-Qaeda central to the subcontinent. “Al-Qaeda first mentioned India as a target in 1996, when (Osama) bin Laden made a reference to both Jammu and Kashmir and Assam,” said Ajai Sahni of India’s Institute for Conflict Management, reports CEP. “Since then, it has not been able to achieve anything significant in both these Indian states.”

While AQI has not been able to have much influence on youth in India, it could capitalise on the decline of the Islamic State, which once drew recruits from the country, reports The Diplomat. It has also stepped up its propaganda activity in the country.

The threat letter after the Prophet controversy has now put central intelligence agencies on alert. After verifying the warning, Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat have been briefed about it and have been asked to be on a watch out.