ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The head of the newly-created South Asia branch of Al-Qaeda, Asim Umar, is a Pakistani ideologue who has produced a number of online calls to jihad but has a relatively low profile.
Umar – an alias – was named by Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a video message as the leader of the network’s new operation which will try to rouse fighters in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
He appears wearing a black turban and beard in several online videos produced by Al-Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the loose coalition of homegrown Islamist militants that have waged a bloody campaign against the Pakistani state since 2007.
An Afghan Taliban source said Umar worked with the Punjabi Taliban, the TTP chapter in Pakistan’s most populous province, for some years before linking up with Al-Qaeda.
“He is basically a propagandist and started his article writing after translating some Jihadi material from Pashto langauge to Urdu,” the source told Agence France-Presse.
Pashto is the language of the Pashtun ethnic group of Pakistan and Afghanistan from which the Taliban traditionally draws many of its fighters.
Amir Rana, a Pakistani expert on militancy, described Umar as an “intellectual asset” of both Al-Qaeda and the TTP but said there was so far no evidence linking him to an operational role as a commander.
Umar, who appears to be middle-aged, does not look Pashtun and most of his online postings are in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan which is closely related to Hindi spoken in northern India.
Analysts say the new Al-Qaeda branch faces a struggle to gain traction in India and Bangladesh, which have large but traditionally moderate Muslim populations.
There is some acknowledgement of this in a video featuring Umar put online by Al-Qaeda last year, titled “Why is there no Storm in your Ocean?”
In it Umar, speaking Urdu, urges Indian Muslims to rise up and fight to establish a caliphate.
The speech is peppered with references to the Islamic Mughal empire which ruled much of what is now India for centuries, urging Indian Muslims to “restore” Islamic rule across the subcontinent.
“Why is it that the Muslims of India are totally absent from the fields of jihad?” he says.
“Rise! Awaken! Participate in this global jihad to give a final push to the collapsing edifice of America.”
The speech also contains a relatively moderate note – he tells would-be jihadists not to force anyone to convert to Islam.
This stands in sharp contrast to the hardline stance taken by members of the Islamic State jihadist group fighting in Iraq and Syria who compelled some minorities to convert.
An intelligence official said Umar had recently visited Syria, though it was not possible to confirm this. – Rappler.com
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