Jihad Comes to India?

Why Zawahiri Vowed to Take His Fight East

Indian army soldiers walk after a gunbattle with suspected militants at Khrew, south of Srinagar, April 13, 2014. Danish Ismail / Courtesy Reuters

When al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri vowed last week to “raise the flag of jihad” in India, it was tempting to dismiss the announcement as an idle threat. India has a significant Muslim population -- approximately 14 percent of the total -- but it has mostly been insulated from violent extremism. Indian Muslims have generally not been among the foreign fighters who have joined the transnational Islamist cause; they haven’t been prominent among the militants who aided the Taliban in Afghanistan or those who have more recently traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. And although India has had its share of Islamist terrorist attacks, they have mostly been linked to Pakistani extremist groups. Indian Muslims, by and large, have tended not to be attracted to Islamic extremism.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that jihadists could never gain traction there. With the recent election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ground is more fertile for Islamic militancy than at any time in recent memory. Modi’s election will not lead to the radicalization of the majority of Indian Muslims -- but it will galvanize India’s fringe Islamic extremist groups, increase their recruitment, and create an opening for al Qaeda to make more inroads among them.

For most of its history as an independent state, India’s government has emphasized a pluralist understanding of Indian identity. The Indian National Congress (INC), which was the leading party of the Indian independence movement and has dominated the country’s politics since, derived its power from its claim to represent a multi-religious -- rather than a strictly Hindu -- India. INC leaders paid public tribute to all of India’s religions, and the state offered financial support to diverse religious organizations and endeavors. The public broadly supported this tolerant approach to politics. In the past, INC’s main political competitor, the BJP, could gain national power

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