(Adds comments from AQIS spokesman, Indian Muslim umbrella group)
By Rupam Jain Nair
NEW DELHI, Sept 4 (Reuters) - India put several provinces on heightened alert on Thursday after al Qaeda announced the formation of a wing of the militant group in India and its neighbourhood, a senior government official said.
In a video posted online, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri promised to spread Islamic rule and “raise the flag of jihad” across the “Indian subcontinent”.
New Delhi regards the message as authentic and has warned local governments, said an official who attended a security briefing in which it was discussed with Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who is responsible for policing and internal security.
“This matter has been taken very seriously,” the official told Reuters. “An alert has been sounded.”
Indian security forces are usually on a state of alert for attacks by home-grown Islamist militants and by anti-India groups based in Pakistan. It was not immediately clear what additional steps were being taken.
Until now there has been no evidence that al Qaeda, the group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 airliner attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, 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.
“Al Qaeda has seen its authority eroded by the fact that it is no longer able to independently carry out large-scale attacks anywhere in the world, and by the emergence of rival factions,” Omar Hamid, head of Asia analysis at security research firm IHS Country Risk, wrote in a report.
Al Qaeda’s establishment of a local branch seeks to take advantage of the planned withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan, which may lead to an influx of battle-hardened militants into India, Hamid added.
The SITE monitoring service quoted AQIS spokesman Usama Mahmoud as saying the group’s goals include “waging jihad against America and the ‘system of global disbelief’, and uprooting it, in order to establish Sharia-based governance”, according to an audio speech.
It also sought to “revive the Caliphate on the prophetic methodology”, SITE said, in a possible challenge to the Caliphate announced by the Islamic State.
Zawahri’s announcement made two references to Gujarat, the home state of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist.
Modi has long been a hate figure for Islamist groups because of religious riots in 2002 when he was chief minister of the state. More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in the spasm of violence.
“In the wake of this al Qaeda video, we will be on a higher alert,” S.K. Nanda, the senior bureaucrat in the home department of Gujarat, told Reuters. A high security alert in the state involves activating informer networks in sensitive areas.
A senior police official said that Gujarat has been high on the list of militant organisations, including al Qaeda, since the 2002 riots. “It will be more so now because Narendra Modi is prime minister,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
Zawahri 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 state, which borders India’s arch-rival, Pakistan.
Assam is a state in India’s far-flung northeast where 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.
Muslims make up 15 percent of the Indian population but, numbering an estimated 175 million, theirs is the third-largest Muslim population in the world.
Tensions between Hindus and Muslims on the subcontinent have grown since Pakistan was carved from Muslim-majority areas of India in 1947, a violent partition in which hundreds of thousands were killed.
Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan, has long attracted foreign mujahideen fighters as well as home-grown separatist militants. In June, al Qaeda released a video urging young radicals in Kashmir to draw inspiration from militants in Syria and Iraq and join the “global jihad”.
The All India Muslim Majlise Mushawarat, an umbrella body of mainstream Muslim organisations, vowed to fight al Qaeda if it appeared in India. “Indian Muslims are loyal citizens of their country and they will fight al Qaeda if it ever tried to create a presence here,” said the group’s president Zafarul-Islam Khan.
Intelligence sources in Indian-held Kashmir told Reuters on Thursday that they had so far detected no trace 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.
India has suffered several large-scale attacks by Islamist militants, most recently the 2008 Mumbai rampage by Pakistani fighters that left 166 people dead.
Smaller domestic militant groups regularly detonate small bombs, but have so far failed to launch a major attack. Earlier this year, Indian intelligence agencies said a handful of Indian men had joined the militancy in the Levant, among the first known cases of Indians joining foreign jihad.
Hindu nationalist groups sympathetic to Modi have stirred sectarian tension in recent weeks, claiming there is an Islamist conspiracy to seduce Hindu women and convert them to Islam.
At one of the world’s most influential Islamic seminaries, Darul Uloom Deoband, in northern India, an official said that extremist groups routinely try to recruit young, uneducated and poor Muslim boys as militants.
“We inform our students about the dangers faced by Islam, and rising militancy is one of the key subjects discussed in the seminary,” said Ashraf Usmani from the seminary, which is known for its conservative Muslim thought.
“I can say this with confidence that no student from Deoband can be recruited by al Qaeda or any other terror groups.”
Additional reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in SRINAGAR and Biswajyoti Das in GUWAHATI; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Dominic Evans