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India on Alert After Al-Qaida Announces Local Branch


In this image taken from video, Ayman al-Zawahri, head of al-Qaida, delivers a statement in a video which was seen online by the SITE monitoring group, released Sept. 4, 2014.

India ordered several provinces to be on increased alert Thursday, after al-Qaida announced the formation of a wing of the militant group in India and its neighborhood, a senior government official said.

The move follows al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's announcement that the Islamist extremist movement has launched an offshoot in the Indian sub-continent could pose a challenge to India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi.

In a 55-minute video released Thursday, Zawahiri said al-Qaida has been preparing for more than two years to set up the new branch.

"This entity was not established today, but is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity," he said.

Al-Qaida is already active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but Zawahiri said the group would now take the fight to India, Myanmar, also known as Burma, and Bangladesh.

The government believes it is authentic and has warned local governments, according to 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.

Until now there has been no evidence that al-Qaida has a presence in India.

The timing and content of the video suggests rivalry between al-Qaida and its more vigorous rival in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State, which anecdotal evidence suggests is gathering support in South Asia. According to media reports, Islamic State pamphlets have been distributed in Pakistan in recent days.

Challenges for Modi

The al-Qaida announcement could pose a challenge to India's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has already faced criticism for remaining silent about several incidents deemed anti-Muslim while he was governor of Gujarat state.

National University of Singapore India analyst Kanti Prasad Bajpai tells VOA that Zawahiri's announcement will not be received well in Hindu-dominated India.

"[Zawahiri] is an old antagonist going back to his links to Afghanistan, so his message that India is included in the horizon -- it will underscore what people have always feared, but of course this very explicit stance towards India means that Indian security planners must take note," Bajpai said.

Muslims account for about 15 percent of Indians but, numbering an estimated 175 million, theirs is the third largest Muslim population in the world.

Modi has not commented on Zawahiri's announcement, but a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said it was a matter of "serious concern."

Myanmar

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, a senior official in President Thein Sein's office told VOA that his government will work with regional and international authorities to fight against terrorism. The official, who did not give his name, warned that terrorists may try to "instigate religious violence" in Myanmar, where there has been rising tensions between Muslims and Buddhists.

Many analysts see Zawahiri's statement as further evidence al-Qaida is facing serious competition from the Islamic State jihadi group, which controls vast areas of Iraq and Syria.

Professor Greg Barton at Australia's Monash University tells VOA the announcement is al-Qaida's attempt to outflank the growing popularity, within extremist circles, of the Islamic State group.

"Al-Qaida's star is seen to be declining while IS' star is rising," Barton noted. " I think Zawahiri is trying to get back in the game, and one area they haven't paid attention to in the past has been South Asia beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. So they likely will pick up a presence [there]. It's about a sense of importance and it's about their credibility and their brand image."

Al-Qaida has been under pressure since the death of its founder Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. commandos in May 2011.

Some material for this report came from Reuters

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