New Delhi: In the wake of al Qaeda's announcement of the formation of a wing of the militant group in India and its neighbourhood, New Delhi on Thursday ordered several states to be on increased alert.
In a video posted online on Wednesday, al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri promised to spread Islamic rule and "raise the flag of jihad" across the "Indian subcontinent".
Home Minister Rajnath Singh held a meeting with the intelligence agencies over the issue. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was present at the meeting.
Afterwards, Singh said the PMO has been briefed on the issue. He added that the authenticity of the video is still to be verified by the Intelligence Bureau.
However, a news agency quoted an official, who attended the security briefing in which the video was discussed with the Home Minister, as saying that the government believes it is authentic and has warned local governments. "This matter has been taken very seriously," the official told a news agency. "An alert has been sounded."
Until now there has been no evidence that al Qaeda has a presence in India.
The timing and content of the video suggests rivalry between al Qaeda and its more vigorous rival in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State, which anecdotal evidence suggests is gathering support in South Asia. According to media reports, Islamic State pamphlets have been distributed in Pakistan in recent days.
Zawahiri`s announcement also made two references to Gujarat, the home state of new Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Notably, over 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, had died in Gujarat riots in 2002 when Modi was the state's chief minister.
Zawahiri described the formation of "Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent" as glad tidings for Muslims "in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir" and said the new wing would rescue Muslims there from injustice and oppression.
Ahmedabad is the main city in Gujarat, which borders India`s arch-rival, Pakistan.
In Assam, religious tensions are high after massacres of Muslims by tribal populations in the past two years. A senior intelligence officer in the state said security forces there were "well prepared" to face any threats.
Kashmir is the disputed territory between India and Pakistan, and has long attracted foreign mujahideen fighters as well as home-grown separatist militants.
In June, al Qaeda had released a video urging young radicals in Kashmir to draw inspiration from militants in Syria and Iraq and join the "global jihad".
Intelligence sources in Kashmir told a news agency today that they had so far detected no traces of al Qaeda in the Himalayan region that borders Pakistan and China.
The appearance of Islamic State flags at recent protest rallies in Kashmir was the work of an individual and did not point to any involvement of the group there, one said.
In a 55-minute video posted online on Wednesday, Zawahiri also renewed a longstanding vow of loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in an apparent snub to the Islamic State armed group challenging al Qaeda for leadership of transnational Islamist militancy.
Counter-terrorism experts say al Qaeda`s ageing leaders are struggling to compete for recruits with Islamic State, which has galvanised young followers around the world by carving out tracts of territory across the Iraq-Syria border.
Islamic State leader Abu Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi calls himself a "caliph" or head of state and has demanded the loyalty of all Muslims.
The group fell out with Zawahiri in 2013 over its expansion into Syria, where Baghdadi`s followers have carried out beheadings, crucifixions, and mass executions.
However, while al Qaeda is very much at home in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, due to influential contacts and a long presence there, it is a minnow compared to local militant groups in terms of manpower and regional knowledge.
Zawahiri called for unity among militants and criticised "discord" - echoing a common al Qaeda complaint against Islamic State`s record of clashing with rival Islamist groups in Syria.
The statement also warned al Qaeda`s new wing against oppressing local populations - another complaint levelled against Islamic State by critics in Iraq and Syria.
"If you said that you are doing jihad to defend the sanctities of the Muslims, then you must not transgress against them or their money or honour, and not even transgress your mujahideen brothers by word and action," he said.
"Discord is a curse and torment, and disgrace for the believers and glory for the disbelievers," he said. "If you say that by your jihad you do not want but the pleasure of Allah, then you must not race for governance and leadership at the first opportunity."
Earlier this year, intelligence agencies had said that a handful of Indian men had joined the militancy in the Levant, among the first known cases of Indians joining foreign jihad.
Muslims account for 15 percent of Indians but, numbering an estimated 175 million, theirs is the third-largest Muslim population in the world.
(With Agency inputs)