ramana, I will limit your question to just the Indian subcontinent because the Al Qaeda is now reduced to operating only in two theatres, Indian subcontinent and parts of West Asia.
However, we need to understand the dynamics of jihadi terrorism in the Indian subcontinent as well as West Asia to decipher the PA's game.
I have always believed that AQIS and IS are two different entities in our neighbourhood competing for dominance and space.
Clearly, the friends of one are the enemies of the other. It is also my belief that AQIS was a creation of the ISI and contains the remnants of AQ and lumpen elements of the 'bad Taliban' who [were] split from TTP by end of c. 2014.
Some of the splittists went back to their 'parent' groups like Muawaiya who went back as commander to JeM. Some took a neutral position, some continued to swear allegiance to Osama and by implication to Zawahiri and some joined the fledgling IS in Khorasan. My detailed post on this
was made Nov 7, 2014 and events have gone along the same lines since then. There is a view here that the ISI is behind IS in our subcontinent. I believe this to be incorrect.
Let me explain. The reason that the ISI had to create AQIS is also simple
. After 26/11, LeT
gained a notoriety
and the UN sanctions, after concerted efforts to stall it through China had failed, meant that the PA couldn't use them in pan-India terror operations.
Border areas or J&K were all right for LeT operations but PA is a pan-India targeting terrorist setup. There was also a risk of India retaliating, even the docile Man Mohan Singh government, if LeT was traced to one more operation. After 1993, PA had gradually given up the 'plausible deniability' ruse and begun to leave clues in crime scenes as a matter of challenge to India, bravado, prestige and swagger. As a next version, it began to openly employ the terrorist as its proxies. Then, the proxies became virtually an extension of the army taking part along with its BAT teams in border operations. 26/11 was the culmination of this integrated operation.
For several reasons, PA hoped that it could weather the backlash. It largely did, but the UNSC resolution 1267 and India's determination (though we failed to retaliate) created problems in using LeT any further. Even the Americans said that they could understand India's retaliation if there were to be one more attack. It is reasonable to expect that China, for its own reasons, would have also advised PA to rein-in LeT. All these meant that the PA had to give up its swagger & bravado in being 'open' about its involvement in terrorism and go back to its older version, using proxies. They needed to create another organization.
The only other pro-PA jihadi tanzeem, therefore, was JeM, but it was not a strong enough, and continues to remain a weak, terrorist organization unlike LeT. It was on death-bed due to a mass exodus in c. 2007.
JeM was flying high when Osama was supreme because Maulana Masood Azhar was quite close to him, but after c. 2002, JeM was weakened. Musharraf's joining hands with the Americans led to a group of JeM cadres even trying to assassinate him. Masood Azhar could not control his own men. This group later split from JeM, after Lal Masjid and joined the 'bad Taliban'. This was one component of the disparate group, commonly known as the 'Punjabi Taliban'. JeM
was weakened and was confined to Masood Azhar's sprawling complex in Bahawalpur until it was revived early c. 2015 upon the return of commander Muawaiya back into the folds.
By early 2014, there was increasing pressure on Pakistan to take action in North Waziristan. Though the US and Afghanistan have been demanding action by the PA in NWA just like its operation in South Waziristan in c. 2009, Kayani had been dodging the request. But, the decapitation of 23 soldiers of the FC, the assassination of a PA Major Gen. in KP earlier, the assaults on various cities, the Karachi Airport attack, the approaching denouement in Afghanistan which demanded that PA had to take definitive positions, all meant that the time was ripe for action in NWA too. The PA/ISI approach was three fold, in the following order. One,
get back old hands to become pro-PA as much as possible (Muawaiya), get as many to become neutral
(the Sajna group of the Mehsuds of SWA) and attack the rest
. The rest split into two
groups. One, carrying the TTP banner under Fazlullah
and the other crossing over to IS
(Shahidullah Shahid and nine other commanders). But, JeM alone was not a force to reckon with
. That is where the moribund AQ came in handy. It had an operational plan that was not in conflict with the PA, the PA knew its leaders, those leaders were more or less compliant, the AQ had not much of an alternative especially as a more militant group had broken away from it and was becoming a challenge to its very parental organization, it knew the charismatic Mullah Omar was dead and the ISI had a chance to influence the selection of the new Emir whenever Mullah Omar's death was announced etc. Acts by AQ in India would become part of global jihad and would not be pinnable on the PA/ISI.
The return to 'plausible deniability' is just one aspect of the ISI endorsing AQIS, though it might be its most important objective as of now. Why do I say 'as of now'? That's because one can visualize the internecine conflict (it is already happening mostly as war of words
and sometimes otherwise too) between the parent body AQ and the IS. This forced the ISI to take sides
even though the actual fighting was taking place elsewhere. As everyone knows, Abu Mosae'b Al Zarrqawi was a member of AQ but his violence was too much even for Osama bin Laden who asked him to take it slightly easy, an advice the former spurned. But, the relationship between Zarqawi's group and AQ continued. After the Americans handed power back to the Iraqis, the elements of Zarqwi group, the Al Qaeda in Iraq or AQI (its emir being Abu Bakr al Baghadadi), out-of-favour and revengeful Baathist Iraqi Army officers and men, some tribal groups etc came together and this gelled into ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) as they began seizing territory. This ISI then merged with the Syrian al-Nusra front in April 2013. The al Nusra front itself had been formally announced as an AQ franchisee in Syria in January 2011, helped initially by AQI and later by Zawahiri himself directly in c. 2012.
However, when ISI announced the merger with al-Nusra in April 2013 and announced the formation of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq & al-Sham), Zawahiri felt he was losing control and ordered al Baghdadi in May 2013 to rescind the announcement, which he refused to do. Though the al-Nusra leadership continued to owe allegiance to AQ, al Baghdadi's announcement and the latter's more violent approach attracted thousands of al Nusra fighters and an internecine war broke out between the two factions, the usual scenario among jihadi Islamists. Though ISI itself was announced without taking the AQ central leadership into confidence, the ISIS was too much to bear for Zawahiri. So, a formal split between AQ & IS formally ensued in February 2014 and soon thereafter al Baghdadi announced himself as the Caliph after routing the Iraqi army in June 2014, thus directly posing a challenge to Zawahiri. Khorasan plays an important role in the Islamist discourse, especially in jihadist circles.
Besides, al Baghdadi
and his IS have now an implacable enemy in Zawahiri
who had implied in his denunciation of the new Caliph that the new Caliph was once just a member of his group and that rebellion against the leader is unIslamic inviting severe punishment. The stage is therefore set for a showdown between the two.
The attractiveness of the IS worries the ISI. However much we non-Muslims study about these things, only Islamists would appreciate the magnet-like attraction to violent jihadism to establish dar-ul-Islam and presently the IS seems to be winning the contest.
This worries the ISI for several reasons
. The IS would not be accommodative like the AQ, the ISI practically has no contact with IS leadership, the IS has territory and would not depend upon the PA for any support, the IS is far more violent and ruthless than PA itself and AQ put together, the IS has far more worldwide following than the AQ, and the most significant of all, the IS will totally assimilate the PA and the latter would no longer exist after that
. By his own admission, the then DG, ISI, Lt. Gen Mahmoud Ahmed admitted as far back as circa 2000 to a RAND Corp analyst, that 15 to 16% of the army officer corps were religious extremists. One can imagine what would happen when IS more firmly establishes itself in Khorasan.
The PA Generals only want a well-controlled, uni-focussed jihadism to achieve their personal, professional goals. Why would a material-minded top leadership of PA Generals blow it all up by taking a liking to the IS?
It was in this milieu in c. 2014 that PA
had to formulate / revise its short & long term policies. Of course, its long term policy of disintegrating India remains valid forever. The short-term policy was to purge elements from the Af-Pak theatre that were attacking it, like the Uzbeks, Chechens, Uyghurs, TTP etc. to be in time for taking control in Kabul and thwart the IS plans.
That, to me, explained the Zerb-e-Azb, the relocation of Haqqanis, the creation of AQIS and a lot more. AQIS would be the force, for Zawahiri, to fight the IS in Khorasan and AQIS would be the global jihadi force to carry out terrorism in India though under the rubric of 'plausible deniability' paradigm of the PA/ISI.
There are two very clear differences between AQ and IS, though ideologically both are Salafi Sunni and both want to establish Dar-ul-Islam worldwide through jihad. The AQ wants to fight the Great Satan, the 'far enemy' and take on the locals later while the reverse has been true of the IS. The accumulation of territory, confined fighting in Iraq & Syria, and its ability to mount only lone-wolf attacks in Europe (leave alone the exceptional Paris attack) prove that point for IS. The AQ is top-down and the IS is bottom-up.