Osama to Osama: Al-Qaeda’s transition and the global threat

By Vipul Tamhane

“The United States is committed to using its complete set of counterterrorism mechanisms to counter the threat posed by terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, including Al-Qa’ida of Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as part of our relentless efforts to ensure that terrorists do not use Afghanistan as a platform for international terrorism,” US Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in a statement in December 2020, listing four individuals on the Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs) list.

As a result, all property and interests in property of those designated SDNs that are subject to US jurisdiction have been blocked, and all US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with them.

Among these SDNs were Qari Amjad, the TTP deputy emir in command of operations and terrorists in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Atif Yahya Ghouri, the deputy emir of AQIS, and Muhammad Maruf, who is in charge of the group’s recruiting department. The fourth name on the SDN list was that of Osama Mehmood, the emir of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), a.k.a. Usama Mahmoud.

Osama is a Pakistani-born Islamic preacher and instructor who has been the spokesperson for AQIS since its genesis in 2014. He rose to prominence in the months following the death of AQIS’s original commander, Asim Umar, in September 2019. In recent news releases, he has been referred to as the franchise’s core leader. As AQIS’s spokesperson, he had issued threats against India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In addition, he has urged for strikes on Western targets in the Indian Subcontinent.

Al-Qaeda’s existence in Afghanistan is being debated in 2020, with some claiming that the organization is a “shadow of its former self”. But a deeper look into al-Qaeda’s core organization and provincial branches in Afghanistan, however, reveals a distinct pattern.

Despite internal group and counterterrorism efforts to change course, the AQIS’s Afghanistan-based leaders have maintained the group’s focus on fighting the US. Despite the availability of more permissive possible locations and the significant danger of US counterterrorism activities, key members of al-Qaeda’s top leadership continue to perceive Afghanistan as a strategically essential base.

AQIS has increased its political ties with other Afghan factions, matching its operational pace with the Afghan Taliban’s since the US pullout from Afghanistan. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other Central Asian factions in the nation have also maintained links with the group.

Under the leadership of Osama Mahmood, al-Qaeda has regenerated its capabilities in Afghanistan. The United Nations believes that al-Qaeda is operating in 12 Afghan districts, possibly occupying the country’s eastern and southern borders.

According to reports, AQlS is also constructing new training facilities in eastern Afghanistan and supporting a combined unit with the Haqqani Network. Al-Qaeda retains important weapons capabilities, like a cash-rich cell in Afghanistan and Pakistan led by Luqman Khubab, the son of former al-Qaeda head Abu Khabab al-Masri. These cells even have capabilities to transport unsecured nuclear materials and material aid through Iranian territory and into Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to Colin Jackson, a Pentagon South Asia officer, AQIS’s Afghanistan-based leadership is still focused on external assaults on the US and its allies. The elimination of US-focused counterterrorism monitoring and direct action in Afghanistan would almost certainly result in a fast increase in ISIS-Khorasan and Al Qaeda capabilities, increasing the possibility of directed or inspired strikes against US and ally homelands.

Al-Qaeda’s expanding capabilities may be used for regional operations against Pakistan, India, and China. According to the United Nations’ July 2020 report, AQIS is preparing operations in the region to punish the 2019 US targeting of its head, Asim Umar. 

AQIS also collaborates closely with the TTP in Afghanistan, and if the TTP intensifies its attacks on Pakistani soldiers, al-Qaeda may provide help from Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, is an umbrella organisation for numerous Islamist armed insurgent organisations operating along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The group, which was formed in 2007, shares the same philosophy as the Afghan Taliban and aided them throughout the 2001–2021 conflict.

Al-Qaeda may exploit Afghanistan for its Kashmir objectives on its own or in collaboration with Pakistan-sponsored terrorist organizations such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Affiliates and associates of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan have also shown interest in targeting China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan and Central Asian republics.

A recent UN Security Council report revealed that Daesh’s Khorasan branch, ISIL-K, has moved into other provinces of Afghanistan, including Nuristan, Badghis, Sar-e-Pul, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Kunduz, and Kabul, where fighters have formed sleeper cells. The group has strengthened its positions in and around Kabul, where it conducts most of its attacks, targeting minorities, activists, government employees, and personnel of the Taliban’s Security.

The strength of Daesh’s Khorasan branch ranges widely, with one member state reporting between 500 and 1,500 fighters and another stating that it may rise to as many as 10,000 over the medium term.

Al-Qaeda is also active in at least 15 Afghan provinces, particularly in the east, south, and southeast. The UN Monitoring Team reported that Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) operates under Taliban protection in Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimroz provinces.

Under Mahmood, AQIS could become more independent, making it harder for the US and its allies to track and disrupt its activities. He is on the Taliban’s radar with his growing powers and subsequent ambitions in the region. The conflict between AQIS and the Taliban could provide an opportunity for other groups, such as the Islamic State, to gain power in Afghanistan.

Mahmood has also urged for strikes on Indian targets in J&K, making such assaults more difficult to avoid. The real impact of Mahmood’s authority is unknown, and it will be determined by situational variables and the world community’s reactions. But this band of terrorists might become more active in J&K in times to come, and coordinate with other terrorist groups in order to target people in the state.

It is clear that this transition of power from ‘Osama to Osama’ and the subsequent anticipated conflict that follows, has a potential for a significant adverse impact on the future of the South Asia region of which governments must take note of.

Vipul Tamhane is a counter terrorism expert and a visiting faculty with Pune University (SPPU) at Dept. of Defense and Strategic Studies (DDSS). He is also founder and Editor-in-Chief at Diplomacy Direct, a public interest Think Tank based in India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

Images courtesy of Long War Journal and Provided

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