“Liberating the Muslim nation,” wrote Ayman Muhammad Rabi al-Zawahiri in Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, a digital manifesto released by al-Qaeda on the eve on 9/11, “confronting the enemies of Islam and launching a jihad against them, require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land, that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it”.
The quiet, bespectacled scholar also had careful words of warning: “Without achieving this goal, our actions will mean nothing more than mere, repeated disturbances.”
Ever since 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in a United States raid on his safehouse in Abbotabad, the man who leads al-Qaeda has been trying to extricate his organisation from the rubble of 9/11.
The ferocious US response to the attacks decimated the Islamic state Zawahiri understood held the keys to power — and the mantle has since been seized by a successor, the Dawlah Islamiyya, which has decimated al-Qaeda’s ranks in Iraq and Syria.
In the years he has led it, al-Qaeda has remained a fighting force, represented through powerful regional affiliates that have seized control of swathes of territory from Mali to Libya and Yemen — but none have come close to taking control of the state.
The formation of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent could prove a last throw of the dice, with domination of the global Islamist movement as its prize.
In the autumn of 1999, as al-Qaeda’s influence in Afghanistan reached its peak, Osama bin Laden emerged as a charismatic cult figure for Islamists across the region. That October, seven-year-old Gulrez Siddiqui was reported to have been trotted out in front of 20,000 cheering Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) supporters in Mumbai, to read this couplet: “Islam ka ghazi, butshikan/ Mera sher, Osama bin Laden” (Warrior for Islam, destroyer of idols/ My lion, Osama bin Laden)”.
The men in the audience included several who would go on to become key figures in the Indian Mujahideen (IM) –among them, Riyaz Shahbandri, the group’s Karachi-based military commander, and Abdul Subhan Qureshi, a key lieutenant and ideologue.
At another time, the men might have reached out to al-Qaeda — but its mind was firmly focussed on a far enemy, the United States of America. Bin Laden believed destroying the US was critical to the advance of Islamism — and ignored enemies who cautioned against acts that could lead the US to attack the Islamic emirate ruling Afghanistan.
Following 9/11, much