Al Qaeda's South Asian branch will target Pakistan too: Ex-MI6 director

By Kamna Arora | Updated: Sep 16, 2014, 21:50 PM IST

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's announcement of the creation of a South Asian branch of his outfit to "raise the flag of jihad" in the Indian subcontinent has already sent jitters across India and other South Asian countries.

In a 55-minute video posted online earlier this month, Zawahiri, the successor of Osama bin Laden, said this "would be good news for Muslims in Burma, Bangladesh and in the Indian states of Assam, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir where they would be rescued from injustice and oppression".

The announcement, which came days ahead of the anniversary of 9/11 carnage, is gauged to be more serious in the wake of the increasing influence of another terror group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, on Muslims. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi describes himself as a "caliph" and has urged support of Muslims from around the world.

India, which is the target of terrorism emanating from the Pakistani soil, has already alerted states after the video threatened India.

In an e-mail interview with Kamna Arora of Zee Media, Richard Barrett, a counter-terrorism expert, discussed al Qaeda's intention behind the new video threatening India, and whether the terror group is competing with ISIS to gain more attention.

Richard Barrett is an ex-British diplomat and former counter-terrorism chief at MI6. From March 2004 to December 2012, Richard was the coordinator of the al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team at the United Nations in New York, appointed by the UN Secretary-General.

Kamna: How do you read al Qaeda's video announcing the formation of a South Asian wing?

Mr Barrett: Like others, I see it as an attempt to regain some of the initiative and attention that al Qaeda has lost to the Islamic State. I believe that it is more aspirational than operational. I do not think it means that al Qaeda is suddenly able to mount major attacks in South Asia.

Kamna: India's Home Minister Rajnath Singh had last week said that the government was still authenticating the al Qaeda video. If its veracity is proved, what is India dealing with?

Mr Barrett: India is dealing with an intention to attack that the new al Qaeda group will be keen to turn into fact in order not to lose additional credibility. I do not think however that there is likely to be a network of al Qaeda support cells across India.

Kamna: Is Pakistan's ISI behind al Qaeda's video?

Mr Barrett: I do not think so. Pakistan has suffered considerably from al Qaeda attacks and if it had a chance, it would capture its leaders. The South Asia branch would presumably target Pakistan as much if not more than any other part of South Asia. After all, that is where it is the strongest.

Kamna: Is al Qaeda battling with ISIS for global jihadist leadership?

Mr Barrett: Al Qaeda appears to be playing a longer game. It cannot compete with ISIS in the short term, but is hoping that its durability and consistency will help it to regain a leading position as ISIS faces setbacks and loses its leaders. Al Qaeda remains a global terrorist threat (albeit a very much weakened one) while ISIS is focused on Iraq (and Syria). From the point of view of al Qaeda, at least ISIS is promoting the extremist ideas that al Qaeda shares.