Within hours of US President Joe Biden announcing the death of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a precision drone strike, speculation circled around a possible successor, with another Egyptian Al Qaeda figure, Mohammed Salahaldin Zidan, who goes by the assumed name of Saif al-Adel, emerging a likely candidate, according to security officials who monitor the region. (Also Read | What the killing of al-Zawahiri reveals)
There is no clarity on current whereabouts of Adel, who for long was rumoured to be in Iran.
The people cited above also said that al-Zawahiri’s death will hit morale of the group’s supporters and cadres in India but there is also the concern of disenchanted fighters possibly shifting allegiance to the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP).
An official involved in tracking global terrorism and the activities of international terror groups, on condition of anonymity, said: “Considering the operational capabilities of ISKP to mount spectacular attacks, any possible tilt from Al Qaeda ranks to Islamic State warrants serious attention.”
The Indian intelligence community is keeping a close watch on Al Qaeda’s activities as Adel, a veteran field expert and former lieutenant colonel in the Egyptian special forces, has spearheaded brazen attacks such as the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Adel also fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s and reportedly trained some of the hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks despite having initially opposed the operation.
There was no official word on Zawahari’s death from the Indian government, which recently re-established a diplomatic presence in Kabul.
Nonetheless, Zawahiri’s death is likely to hamper al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates such as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Ansar al-Islam (AAI), the official added.
The UN sanctions monitoring team’s latest report in July this year concluded that AQIS reportedly has 180-400 fighters, primarily from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan.
AQIS fighters are also represented among Taliban combat units. The affiliate is led by Osama Mehmood and his deputy Atif Yahya Ghouri, and has a presence in several Afghan provinces.
Intelligence agencies have lately received inputs that Al Qaeda cadres in India were behind propaganda campaigns and efforts to rebuild the organisation, particularly after the controversy over remarks made against Prophet Mohammed by two former BJP spokespersons.
AQIS had threatened in June to carry out attacks at several places, including Delhi, Mumbai, UP and Gujarat, in response to statements by former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma.
One of the last messages issued by al-Zawahiri was a video released in April this year, in which he spoke about the hijab controversy in Karnataka and asked Muslims in the subcontinent to fight the assault on Islam “intellectually, using the media, and with weapons on the battlefield”. He also spoke about Kashmir a few times, including in July 2019, when he asked “mujahideen in Kashmir” to inflict unrelenting blows on the Indian Army and the government in Jammu and Kashmir.
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year, there were concerns in India that the strength of Al Qaeda would increase and trained fighters could be sent to India since the main fighting arm of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, was behind several attacks on Indian interests. Another official said, “The extremely close ties between Taliban and Al Qaeda are evident from the fact that al-Zawahiri was stationed in a posh Kabul neighbourhood. This close Al Qaeda-Taliban tie-up is totally against Indian interests, especially in the backdrop of Al Qaeda’s intentions to target India.”