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Will Al-Qaida Find Followers In India?

Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is shown here in a still image posted online in 2011. In a video released this week, he announced that al-Qaida was establishing a faction in the Asian subcontinent with a focus on India.

After a year of silence, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has exhorted his "Muslim brothers" to join a newly established South Asia faction that would "defend the vulnerable in the Indian subcontinent."

He listed Burma and Bangladesh, and specifically named three states in India — Assam, Gujarat and Kashmir. In disputed Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state — which is claimed by both Pakistan and India — an insurgency agitates for independence. Assam has its own separatist movement and Gujarat was the site of religious riots in which 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in 2002.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was then Gujarat's chief minister.

Friday's headlines in Indian newspapers reflected the general worry: "Clear and Present Qaeda Danger," said The Times of India. "India Now In Al Qaeda sights," wrote The Hindu.

But Wilson John, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, says al-Qaida's decision to start an arm in the subcontinent may be the result of a bitter turf war and should be seen through the prism of a fading franchise.

John says al-Qaida is being eclipsed by the younger, more brutal Islamic State. Once a part of Osama bin Laden's jihadist organization, IS has gained ground in Syria and Iraq — and infamy with the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

"Obviously [al-Qaida] is feeling threatened by the emergence of IS and the possible copycat emergence of other groups which may challenge AQ," John said. "So AQ is in a desperate attempt to move to stop these rebellions within the group. These are all the attempts to stem the bleeding of AQ's dominance."

John also says al-Qaida could feel the pressure to do something spectacular in this part of the world.

"The possibility of an attack in the near future is quite high," he said.

No Previous Inroads In India

But Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, says the Islamist group has had India in its sights since before 2006, when bin Laden spoke of a "Crusader-Zionist-Hindu" conspiracy against the Muslim world.

Sahni says the fact that many of India's 176 million Muslims have grievances with the state does not mean they are ripe for recruitment by al-Qaida. He says some one dozen Indian Muslim youths traveled to Iraq to take up the cause of the Islamic State, but there is little evidence of a groundswell of Islamist recruits in India.

"Islam in India has grown in an extremely organic fashion over centuries. And it has evolved ways of accommodation with other faith systems and communities which are unique to India," he added. "So it becomes very difficult to dehumanize the other. And if you're to wage jihad versus the unbeliever, you have to dehumanize him in some measure."

The online video alarmed the government which said the threat from al-Qaida to India was quote "very real and imminent."

But retired Commodore Uday Bhaskar calls that an overreaction.

"The content of the video put out by the al-Qaida cannot be ignored," he said. But, he added, "we do not have to swing to the other extreme wherein you have pushed the panic button and interpreted this as a major national security threat."

Follow NPR's Julie McCarthy on Twitter @JulieMcCarthyJM

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