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Indian states on high alert after al Qaeda announces local wing formation

NEW DELHI: India puts several provinces on heightened alert on Thursday after al Qaeda announced the formation of a wing of the militant group in India and its neighbourhood, a senior government official said.

In a video posted online, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri promised to spread Islamic rule and “raise the flag of jihad” across the "Indian subcontinent".

New Delhi regards the message as authentic and has warned local governments, said an official who attended a security briefing in which it was discussed with Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who is responsible for policing and internal security. “This matter has been taken very seriously,” the official told Reuters. “An alert has been sounded.”

Indian security forces are usually on a state of alert for attacks by home-grown Islamist militants and by anti-India groups based in Pakistan. It was not immediately clear what additional steps were being taken.

Until now there has been no evidence that al Qaeda, the group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 airliner attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre, has a presence in India.

The timing and content of the video suggests rivalry between al Qaeda and its more vigorous rival in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State, which anecdotal evidence suggests is gathering support in South Asia.

According to media reports, Islamic State pamphlets have been distributed in Pakistan in recent days. “Al Qaeda has seen its authority eroded by the fact that it is no longer able to independently carry out large-scale attacks anywhere in the world, and by the emergence of rival factions,” Omar Hamid, head of Asia analysis at security research firm IHS Country Risk, wrote in a report.

Al Qaeda's establishment of a local branch seeks to take advantage of the planned withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, which may lead to an influx of battle-hardened militants into India, Hamid added.

The SITE monitoring service quoted AQIS spokesman Usama Mahmoud as saying the group's goals include “waging jihad against America and the 'system of global disbelief', and uprooting it, in order to establish Sharia-based governance,” according to an audio speech.

It also sought to "revive the Caliphate on the prophetic methodology", SITE said, in a possible challenge to the Caliphate announced by the Islamic State.

Zawahri’s announcement made two references to Gujarat, the home state of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist. Modi has long been a hate figure for Islamist groups because of religious riots in 2002 when he was chief minister of the state. More than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in the spasm of violence.