NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India ordered several provinces on Thursday to be on increased alert in response to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri announcing the formation of a branch of his militant group in India and its neighbourhood, a senior government official said.
In a video posted online, al Zawahri promised to spread Islamic rule and “raise the flag of jihad” across the Indian subcontinent. The government believes it is authentic and has warned local governments, said an official who attended a security briefing in which the video was discussed with the home (interior) minister.
“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 Islamic militants and by anti-India groups based in Pakistan. It was not immediately clear what additional steps were being taken.
The timing and content of the video suggests rivalry between al Qaeda and its more vigorous rival in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State, which has started gathering support in South Asia.
Zawahri’s announcement also made two references to Gujarat, the home state of India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist.
Modi has long been a hate figure for Islamist groups because of religious riots on his watch as chief minister of the state in 2002. More than 1,000 people died, mainly Muslims.
“In the wake of this al Qaeda video, we will be on a higher alert. We will work closely with the central government to tackle any threat posed to the state,” S.K. Nanda, the seniormost bureaucrat in the home department of Gujarat, told Reuters. A high security alert in the state involves activating informer networks in sensitive areas.
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 an Indian state where religious tensions are high and that has suffered massacres of Muslims in the past two years by tribal populations.
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.
Muslims account for 15 percent of Indians but, numbering an estimated 175 million, theirs is the third-largest Muslim population in the world.
Tensions between Hindus and Muslims on the sub-continent 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.”
Intelligence sources in Indian-held Kashmir told Reuters on Thursday that they had so far detected no traces of al Qaeda in the Himalayan region that borders Pakistan and China.
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 been stirring sectarian tensions in recent weeks, claiming there is an Islamist conspiracy to seduce Hindu women and convert them to Islam.
Additional reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in Srinagar, writing by Frank Jack Daniel, editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan