Going Native: The Pakistanization of Al-Qaeda


On February 13, 2010, an explosion ripped through the German Bakery in Pune, India, killing 17 and injuring scores more. Suspicion immediately fell on the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba and on its quasi-affiliate, the Indian Mujahideen (IM) —an indigenous jihadist network motivated by communal grievances, but built with external support. Ahmed Siddi Bapa (aka Yasin Bhatkal), the IM’s field commander, was captured on a closed-circuit video camera walking into the German Bakery carrying a backpack containing the bomb. Unlike previous attacks, however, the IM did not claim responsibility.

Another group did: al-Qaeda. A month after a drone strike killed al-Qaeda’s third-in-command Sheikh Sai’d al-Masri (born Mustafa Abu al-Yazid) in May 2010, a posthumous audio statement was released in which he declared:

I bring you the good tidings that last February’s India operation was against a Jewish locale in the west of the Indian capital, in the area of the German bakeries — a fact that the enemy tried to hide — and close to 20 Jews were killed in the operation, a majority of them from their so-called statelet, Israel. The person who carried out this operation was a heroic soldier from the ‘Soldiers of the Sacrifice Brigade’, which is one of the brigades of Qaedat al-Jihad in Kashmir, under the command of Commander Illyas Kashmiri, may Allah preserve him.

Kashmiri also e-mailed a Pakistani journalist and implied his own involvement, but it remains unclear whether he actually had anything to do with the German Bakery bombing. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that he was planning attacks against other targets in Pune at the time.

Based on Siddi Bapa’s interrogation, two of India’s most well-respected journalists reported the attack was “partial fallout of an earlier order to bomb and attack places frequented by foreigners, including Israelis.” The IM Ground Commander also allegedly dropped another bombshell. He reportedly told Indian investigators that a handful of IM members currently sheltering in Pakistan wanted to “join hands with the al Qaeda [sic] for ‘joint operations’ in India” and had held talks with a senior al-Qaeda leader.

Such reporting should be treated with significant caution. However, even if this is not the case, Kashmiri was clearly interested in launching attacks in India (on which more below) and al-Qaeda readily claimed the operation on his behalf. This speaks to a larger issue: the Pakistanization of “al-Qaeda Central” and its implications for the United States and South Asia.

Drone strikes have decimated al-Qaeda in Pakistan, killing more than 30 leaders and high-level operatives since 2008, and leaving only a handful of senior Arabs alive. These strikes have also created an incredibly hostile environment for those who have yet to meet a Hellfire missile, and some Arab members have fled for greener pastures. The depletion of al-Qaeda’s senior ranks in Pakistan and growing strength of its branch in Yemen (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP) may help to explain why Ayman al-Zawahiri recently appointed that group’s leader, Nasir al-Wihayshi, as al-Qaeda’s general manager for global operations.

Already reliant on an array of Pakistani militant groups for safe haven and survival, al-Qaeda has added locals to its own leadership ranks. Ilyas Kashmiri is among the most infamous. A Pakistani militant who belonged to Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and led its 313 Brigade, he became al-Qaeda’s chief of operations in Pakistan before he too was reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike (his death is yet to be confirmed). Additionally, the head of al-Qaeda’s media department, Ustad Ahmad Farouq, is Pakistani. Maulana Asam Umar, dual-hatted as a propagandist for the Pakistani Taliban, helps to shape al-Qaeda’s messaging.

The rise of individuals like Farouq and Umar helps to explain why al-Qaeda’s media operations have increasingly developed a regional focus, at the expense of a global one. According to IntelCenter, a plurality of the recent videos produced by al-Qaeda’s media wing, as-Sahab, have focused on Pakistan and India.  Moreover, it reports, this year Urdu displaced Arabic as the predominant language in al-Qaeda propaganda releases.

The focus on Pakistan and India is not just rhetorical. Al-Qaeda has been contributing to anti-state violence in Pakistan since at least 2003, when it provided guidance for attempted assassinations of then-President Musharraf. It works closely with the Pakistani Taliban, which leads the insurgency against the state, as well as a motley crew of other anti-state militants. The decision to promote and support revolutionary jihad in Pakistan fits with al-Qaeda’s ideology, which views the Pakistani regime as apostate, but it also stems from strategic calculation. Destabilizing the country is a means of protecting its own safe haven and creating difficulties for America. To this end, al-Qaeda provides ideological, strategic and operational support to anti-state Pakistani militants. Involvement in the insurgency is also undoubtedly influenced by the influx of anti-state Pakistani militants into its ranks.

Ilyas Kashmiri is a prime example. Once a prized asset for Pakistan’s army in its proxy war against India, he was detained in connection with the December 2003 assassination attempts on Musharraf, but released several months later only to be detained again in 2005. Upon his release, Kashmiri shifted his operations to FATA and his 313 Brigade became responsible for a number of attacks in Pakistan.

This brings us back to the German Bakery. IM leaders clearly executed the bombing and it remains unknown whether they did so unilaterally, as part of a relationship with al-Qaeda, or in league with LeT, which almost always denies involvement in operations against India. We do know that before his death, Kashmiri also sought to expand attack capabilities in India. His efforts included recruiting Abdur Rehman Syed, a former Pakistani army officer and LeT member who launched an outfit called Jund-ul-Fida [Army of Fidayeen]. It operated under Kashmiri’s command and was intended to carry out operations primarily in India. Syed subsequently introduced David Headley, the LeT operative who conducted reconnaissance missions for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, to Kashmiri. Headley remained in LeT, but began freelancing. For Kashmiri and Syed, he performed surveillance in India, including a Chabad House in Pune as well as other sites at which Israelis or other foreigners were present.

Does this mean that al-Qaeda is becoming just another Pakistan-based militant group? No. Al-Qaeda is more than just the members in Pakistan. It includes AQAP as well as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, Jahbat al-Nusra, al-Shabaab, and assorted senior operatives scattered elsewhere. That’s al-Qaeda, and Ayman al-Zawahiri still oversees this sprawling enterprise from Pakistan even if he is not able to exercise the level of command-and-control he might like. The capability to provide guidance and claim attacks in regions around the world makes the al-Qaeda senior leaders based in Pakistan and the organization surrounding them distinct from any other run-of-the-mill jihadist group operating there.

However, although able to claim attacks in other regions, the power projection capabilities of al-Qaeda in Pakistan have been severely degraded. Power within the al-Qaeda family has shifted to its branch in Yemen and to its affiliates. As this trend continues, analysts will need to rethink what we mean when we say “al-Qaeda Central” or “Core al-Qaeda.” These terms have been synonymous with the organization in Pakistan. But as Arab senior leaders in Pakistan die off or flee this terminology risks becoming outdated. Indeed, as other analysts have noted, Nashiri’s promotion suggests we should recognize that the “core” is expanding. When the day comes that Zawahiri is killed or captured (Insha’allah), Nashiri might assume the top slot. At that point, “al-Qaeda Central” could become “al-Qaeda in Pakistan.”

This is about more than nomenclature. We should not expect al-Qaeda in Pakistan to give up entirely on transnational attack planning. But given its addition of Pakistanis at senior leader levels and its increasingly limited capabilities, we should expect a continued growing focus on the insurgency in Pakistan and possibly on striking foreign targets in India. Regionally, that has important implications for U.S. counterterrorism practices in South Asia. Globally, it means that AQAP is not simply the most lethal arm of al-Qaeda, but also increasingly its center of gravity in terms of leadership and coordination.


Stephen Tankel is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is an Assistant Professor at American University and a non-resident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.


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