As the so-called Islamic State (IS) suffers devastating setbacks in Syria and Iraq, al-Qaeda continues to pose a formidable threat, principally through its regional affiliates in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Seventeen years after the September 11 attacks, al-Qaeda has survived due in large part to a deliberate strategy focused on gaining the support of the masses by “going local.” This strategy also means that al-Qaeda has avoided the brunt of United States and Western counterterrorism efforts for several years, allowing it to resuscitate once dormant networks of allies while building broad-based support and a robust logistics infrastructure.
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the youngest affiliate of al-Qaeda, is in many ways the realization of that strategy. Believed to be operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, the AQIS affiliate presents an ideal blueprint for core al-Qaeda to use as a litmus test for current and future franchise groups and affiliates. In many ways, AQIS is a throwback to core al-Qaeda in the 1990s, a patchwork of militant groups with a shared ideology and common enemies. Given the potential it has already demonstrated, AQIS could very well lead al-Qaeda into its next decade.
Between 2014 and 2015, AQIS’ leadership suffered heavy losses at the hands of Pakistani and U.S counterterrorism operations. After a string of defeats, many observers believed that AQIS would eventually fade into oblivion. However, like core al-Qaeda, its South Asian progeny demonstrated remarkable resilience and now seems to be on course for a comeback, not just in South Asia, but perhaps beyond the region.