An Afghan man walks past a wall painted with photo of Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, in Kabul, Afghanistan (REUTERS)
Terror outfits such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has gripped 210 countries and territories, to rebuild themselves. As the governments across the world are busy fighting a more immediate, deadlier and invisible enemy, these two terror outfits, deemed as vanquished by many, are rearing their heads in various parts of the world, regrouping and rearming.
This is of concern for India because among the many countries where these two outfits have become active, three are in India’s immediate neighbourhood: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Maldives.
While in the Af-Pak region — the area overlapping the Afghanistan-Pakistan border — Al-Qaeda has become active, in the Maldives, Islamic State has surfaced and has even claimed responsibility for an attack in which five speedboats were set on fire.
Al-Qaeda’s activities in the Af-Pak region gathered pace from the beginning of March when the coronavirus had started expanding throughout the world.
Thabat, a pro-Al-Qaeda media outfit, published images highlighting the outfit’s operations worldwide. This publicity drive made it clear that its prime focus was on Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Somalia, Kenya, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan is what should catch India’s attention.
Al-Qaeda’s thrust area is Afghanistan, where, according to Thabat, it conducted 343 operations, in which 520 people were killed, over 200 injured, and 35 armoured vehicles were destroyed. These figures were for the first week of March. For the week that ended on April 2, the numbers were: 200 people killed, over 50 injured and eight car bombs detonated. This shows that the group is active in the country.
Al-Qaeda rarely publicises its actions in Afghanistan in this manner — and what makes this significant is that it seems to be tom-tomming its attacks in Afghanistan weeks after a historic deal between the Taliban and the United States.
Thabat’s figures for Al-Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan show that in the month of March it conducted nine attacks and killed 21 people.
On April 16, in Al Naba, Islamic State’s weekly newsletter, the group claimed responsibility for the attack in the Maldives. Though this was a low magnitude attack, it is a significant development because this was the first time ever that Islamic State openly claimed responsibility for an attack in the Maldives.
While this may be the first officially claimed attack by Islamic State in the Maldives, it might not be its first operation in the archipelago. On February 6, three alleged Islamic State operatives were arrested after stabbing two Chinese nationals and one Australian citizen in Hulhumale Island of the Maldives.
Why India Should Be Concerned?
The threat Al-Qaeda poses for India has been highlighted several times in the past. This time, however, what makes the threat serious is the geopolitical shifts in the Af-Pak region. With the US-NATO forces pulling back becoming a reality after the US-Taliban pact, Afghanistan could once again become fertile ground for terror groups.
If Al-Qaeda is able to cement its position in Afghanistan, we know what great harm it can unleash on India if it were to gang up with the Taliban and Pakistan’s secret service Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). One must not forget that India’s worst period in terms of cross-border terrorism was from 1996 to 2001 when the Taliban was ruling Afghanistan.
Similarly, Islamic State developing its base in the Maldives, a small Indian Ocean archipelago with a population of just 400,000, can cause a big headache to India, considering the Maldives' geographical proximity with India’s southern states, particularly Kerala.
India will be ignoring the twin threat posed by Al-Qaeda and Islamic State at its own peril, even if one were to presume that the claims of its resurgence are vastly inflated and deliberately exaggerated to bolster the morale of their cadre.Rajeev Sharma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst. Twitter: @Kishkindha. Views are personal.