New Delhi: Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, has released a new video message focussing on the Hijab controversy raging in Karnataka, which he claims has exposed “the reality of Hindu India and the deception of its pagan democracy”. The video, the first statement made by the world’s most-wanted jihadist since September, was posted to al Qaeda online groups late on Tuesday night.
In the eight-minute statement, al-Zawahiri hails Muskan Khan — the Karnataka student who became famous for her pro-hijab protest in February — for having “challenged a mob of Hindu polytheists with defiant slogans of Takbeer [God is the Greatest]”.
“May Allah reward her for showing a moral lesson to sisters plagued by an inferiority complex via-a-vis the decadent Western world,” al-Zawahiri says.
Al-Zawahiri’s last video, released in September, 2021, came on the back of rumours that he had died, and did not reference the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, which had taken place the previous month. The Taliban’s victory had been hailed by al Qaeda as the jihadist movement’s “greatest victory”.
In Tuesday’s statement, al-Zawahiri tells Indians in the subcontinent to “avoid being deceived by the pagan Hindu democracy of India which, to begin with, was never more than a tool to oppress Muslims”. “It is exactly the same tool of deception the true nature of which was exposed by France Holland and Switzerland when they banned the Hijab while allowing nudity,” he says.
“We must understand the way out is by holding on to our Shariah (Muslim religious law),” al-Zawahiri goes on, “uniting as a single Ummah (Arabic word for community) from China to the Islamic Maghreb, from the caucuses to Somalia.”
He also lashes out at other South Asian states, saying that “Governments imposed on us, specifically in Pakistan and Bangladesh, do not defend us, rather they defend the very enemies they have empowered to fight against us”.
India on his mind
Al-Zawahiri’s last India-focussed video had been released in 2014, to announce the formation of the Jamaat qaidat al-jihad fi’shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya, or Organisation of The Base of Jihad in the Indian Sub-Continent. The organisation was led by Asim Umer, an Uttar Pradesh-born, Deoband-educated seminarian, who had left for Pakistan in 1995. Umer is believed to have been killed in a United States military raid in Afghanistan’s Musa Qala in 2019.
In the 2014 video, al-Zawahiri had said the formation of al-Qaeda’s South Asia wing was “a message that we did not forget you, our Muslim brothers in India”. He vowed that the jihadist group will “break all borders created by Britain in India”, and called on the region’s Muslims to “unite under the credo of the one god”.
For many years before that, however, India had played a larger role in al-Zawahiri’s statements, than in those by other al-Qaeda leaders. In a 2001 book, for example, al-Zawahiri had called on Muslims to discharge “a religious duty of which the nation had long been deprived, by fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya”.
Again, in September, 2003, al-Zawahiri invoked India to warn Pakistanis that their then-President, General Pervez Musharraf, was plotting to “hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret accounts”.
In spite of al-Zawahiri’s efforts, however, al Qaeda had had little success in building operational capabilities in India. Last summer, though, United Nations’ sanctions monitors reported that al-Qaeda’s South Asia wing remained active in Afghanistan, under Taliban protection. The organisation, it said, was made up mainly of “Afghan and Pakistani nationals, but also individuals from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar”.
Born into an upper middle-class family from suburban Cairo, al-Zawahiri is said to have excelled as a student, been drawn to poetry, and hated organised sports, seeing them as “inhumane”.
Drawn to the teachings of the Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb as a teenager, al-Zawahiri joined the Muslim Brotherhood — a transnational Sunni Islamist organisation — when he was just 14. Qutb, whose works Milestones and In the Shade of the Quran are foundational texts for the global Islamist movement, was executed in 1966.
In the years that followed, al-Zawahiri trained as doctor and surgeon. He married Cairo university philosophy student Azza Nowari in 1978. Their wedding, held at the Continental Hotel there, attracted attention in the liberal Cairo of the times — men were segregated from women, photographers and musicians were kept away, and joking and banter was discouraged.
Following the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981, Zawahiri was among hundreds arrested and tortured. Released after three years in prison, he fled the country, and began practising medicine in Saudi Arabia. There, he came into contact with Osama bin Laden. He first travelled to visit bin Laden-funded jihad facilities in Pakistan in 1985, a relationship that would slowly mature until 2001, when the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group formally merged with al Qaeda.
Azza, al-Zawahiri’s wife, and his youngest daughter Aisha would both die in November 2001, pinned under the debris of an al Qaeda guesthouse hit by American bombs in Afghanistan.