When al-Qaeda announced the formation of its new affiliate in South Asia earlier this month, as an analyst of the region, I was aghast as I viewed the stream of instant analysis and reporting pouring out on the web. Virtually every commentator seems to have gotten it wrong when it came to the goals and area of operation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and head of President Barack Obama’s 2009 Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review, wrongly described the new group as simply focused on India. He even suggested, via hearsay from unnamed Indian intelligence sources, that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is hiding al-Zawahiri.
Vikram Sood, the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (India’s CIA), also claimed that the ISI is is hiding al-Zawahiri. Going further than Riedel, he argued that AQIS gives Islamabad the necessary deniability to continue supporting terror attacks in India. Sood, who misconstrues AQIS as being based in India, argued that the new affiliate “absolves Pakistan of the charge that there is an Al Qaeda in Pakistan.”
India’s Times Now news channel had a prime time discussion centering on the question of why Pakistan, in its view, is siding with al-Qaeda. Amid the media hysteria, several Indian states were put on high alert, despite the absence of an imminent threat.
This is all terrible hogwash. I watched the 55-minute al-Qaeda video in full and reviewed portions of the transcript. Al-Qaeda makes fairly clear to all those who understand Arabic or Urdu (the two languages in which the release is available) and have the requisite background knowledge, that it was launching a war for all of South Asia, and its focus would be Pakistan. Maulana Asim Umar, the AQIS’s amir or leader, said that the “caravan of jihad” would begin in Pakistan and spread through India all the way into Burma. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri described the borders separating all countries in South Asia as not just false, but also injurious to the subcontinent’s Muslims, as they are now divided and weaker.
Indeed, the press reports appear to have also frustrated the new al-Qaeda affiliate’s spokesman, Usama Mahmood, who issued a press release on September 8th to rebut claims that his group is not targeting Pakistan. Mahmood bluntly stated that Pakistan is “the gateway” and “our first objective” in the war for all of South Asia. He also chided members of the media, suggesting that they are ignorant of both history and geography. I would have to agree with him.
Confirming that Pakistan is its focus, AQIS today claimed responsibility for two attacks this month: the assassination of a Pakistan Army brigadier in Sargodha on September 2, 2014; and the failed attack on a naval base in Karachi on Saturday. And so the first two attacks claimed by AQIS targeted the Pakistani military—the very entity Riedel and Sood claim is supporting the group.
Now, why did these analysts and journalists, for whom the general public relies on understanding global developments, drop the ball?
Well, for one, they didn’t bother to pay attention to the details. They clearly worked off of translations of the original materials, and most likely, they simply viewed excerpts of those translations released by companies like SITE Intelligence Group, some of which has been published in the press. Few in the commentariat bothered to watch the original content, which al-Qaeda has made available in Arabic and Urdu audio and video clips, as well as print transcripts.
Two, even if they had watched the video, many of these experts would have been unable to understand it. Most U.S. observers of terrorism in South Asia, including Riedel, don’t understand Urdu. While there is a sizable community of experts on Middle East terrorism who are fluent in Arabic, the standards are much lower when it comes to South Asia. How can one understand a group without paying attention to what they are saying? Imagine being an expert on U.S. politics without understanding English.
Three, language proficiency is not enough—and Western analysts of South Asia, even if they are fluent in Hindi or Urdu, tend to have difficulty understanding religion, particularly Islam. Since last year, I have been keenly observing the changes in the jihadist discourse in Pakistan as various jihadi groups work to develop a new narrative for their war after the U.S. ends combat operations in Afghanistan. Last year, I wrote that the Pakistani Taliban is reframing its war against Islamabad as Ghazwa-e Hind, or the battle for historic, undivided India (which includes most of Pakistan). It was an important development as generally pro-Islamabad jihadist groups have used this term, which comes from a prophetic tradition, to anchor their attacks on present-day India. But now, the Pakistani Taliban has been using the tradition as a means to legitimize its attacks on Islamabad as well. And lo and behold, al-Zawahiri mentioned the tradition at the tail end of his address in the AQIS announcement video.
Four, there’s a tendency among former government officials, particularly from the intelligence and military worlds, to see a state hand in what’s going on, even if there isn’t one. Riedel, in a guarded fashion, accused the ISI of guarding al-Zawahiri. Granted, elements within Pakistani intelligence did reportedly give advance warning to Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2006 of an impending U.S. drone strike, saving his life. And Osama bin Laden was hiding around a mile away from Pakistan’s West Point. But there are no indications that the advanced notice given to al-Zawahiri or the refuge bin Laden enjoyed in Abbottabad were green-lighted by Pakistani officialdom. In fact, since 2007, al-Qaeda has actively fueled the Pakistani Taliban’s war against Islamabad, which has killed tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians and security personnel. Indeed, Mahmood, the AQIS spokesman, said that the jihad against the Pakistani state was launched in 2007 “at the directive” of Osama bin Laden. Yes, the Pakistani state has historically supported jihadist groups in the region. And it continues to do so to some degree today. But Al-Qaeda is a strategic competitor and foe of Islamabad, not an ally.
Finally, we must blame our contemporary clickbait media culture, which incentivizes being first to react, even if it means being wrong, and offers no disincentives for shoddy analysis. The priority when it comes to most news on the web is cheap content development. Quantity over quality. But real analysis requires observation over time, immersion, and judicious restraint.
As the flawed reporting on AQIS and the hysteria surrounding ISIS demonstrate, our public discourse lacks these very qualities. And, on the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, it is particularly scary that many of the voices we regard as experts continue to get it wrong on al-Qaeda and the broader phenomenon of takfiri jihadism.
Note: Feel free to read my analysis on AQIS in The New Republic.