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India on alert as Al Qaeda claims expansion in South Asia

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September 4, 2014: In this image taken from video, Ayman al-Zawahri, head of Al Qaeda, delivers a statement in a video which was seen online by the SITE monitoring group. (AP Photo/Al-Qaida via SITE via APTN)

Promising to "storm your barricades with cars packed with gunpowder," Al Qaeda announced Thursday it had created an Indian branch that the terror network vowed would bring Islamic rule to the entire subcontinent.

The announcement by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri brought few signs of increased security in India even after the government ordered states to be on alert. Instead, al-Zawahri's announcement by online video appeared directed more at his own rivals in the international jihad movement, analysts said.

"This is really very personal," said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics. "You cannot understand this announcement without understanding the fierce rivalry between Islamic State and Al Qaeda central."

Al Qaeda has been increasingly overshadowed by the Islamic State group, a renegade Al Qaeda offshoot that was expelled amid internal divisions and which has gone on to capture vast territory in Syria and Iraq, including oil wells and other income-generating resources, and has inspired thousands of fighters to join its jihadist mission. Al-Zawahri, in turn, has found his own influence pale beside that of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In India, where terror threats have largely come from Pakistan and Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region where Al Qaeda's influence is thought to be minimal, many derided the creation of the group -- Qaedat al-Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent -- as a publicity stunt.

Al Qaeda "is struggling for its legitimacy in the eyes of the radicalized Muslim world," said Ajai Sahni, a top Indian security analyst with the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

"Osama bin Laden has been killed and (Al Qaeda's) entire top leadership, apart from Zawahri and a few others, one by one have been decimated by the American drone attacks," he said. "This statement is meaningless."

But Gerges noted Al Qaeda has long tried to nurture as many cells as possible, using affiliates in places like Yemen and East Africa to take pressure off relentless American attacks on its core operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

India, with its badly underfunded and desperately ill-trained security infrastructure, can also be a tantalizing target for terrorists. In 2008, a small group of Pakistani militants attacked Mumbai, India's financial hub, effectively shutting down the city for days and killing 166 people. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, which was behind the 9/11 attacks in the United States, has long proven itself to be a formidable enemy.

"The problem is not these threats," said Sahni. "The problem is India's vulnerability."

Al-Zawahri said the new group "is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity," adding it would fight for an Islamic state and laws across the region, "which was part of the Muslims' territories before it was occupied by the infidel enemy."

While al-Zawahri's statement referred to the "Indian subcontinent" -- a term that most commonly refers to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal -- his comments were widely seen as directed at India, a predominantly Hindu nation with a large Muslim minority.

In an audio recording released with the video, the leader of the new group, Essam Omar, said that Jews and Hindus -- who he referred to as "apostates of India" -- "will watch your destruction by your own eyes."

Fighters will "storm your barricades with cars packed with gunpowder," Omar said, decrying what he called the region's "injustice toward Muslims."

Until recently, India had largely seen itself as beyond the recruiting territory of international jihadists like Al Qaeda. Over the past few months, however, the Islamic State group has grown in prominence in India, and has gained at least a handful of followers here. Last month, an Indian engineering student who had traveled to Iraq with friends, and who was thought to have joined the Islamic State, was reported killed.

A spokesman for India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said the statement was "a matter of serious concern. But there is nothing to worry about."

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