ATbar Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and "Jihad on the Seas"

Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and "Jihad on the Seas"

25/11/2014 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  


The formation of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) was announced by Al-Qaeda "Emir", Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a video released in September 2014. In the announcement, Zawahiri noted that AQIS "is the fruit of a blessed effort for more than two years to gather the mujahideen in the Indian subcontinent into a single entity to be with the main group, Qaedat al-Jihad, from the soldiers of the Islamic Emirate and its triumphant emir, Allah permitting, Emir of the Believers Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid ".[1]

On September 6, 2014, AQIS tried to hijack Pakistan Navy frigates and use them to attack U.S. and Indian vessels. "This was not an attack on the naval dockyard... It was a takeover of ships of the Pakistani naval fleet. And the targets were the American and the Indian Navies,” said a release by As-Sahab Subcontinent, purportedly AQIS’’s media wing.[2]

The attempted raid, which was foiled after a firefight and a suicide bombing, was carried out in part by Pakistan Navy personnel that had been recruited by Al-Qaeda. The raid, in which three militants and one petty officer died, raised fears about the terrorist infiltration of the Pakistani military forces.

AQIS released a nine-page "press release" explaining its "targeting of [the] American and Indian Navies" on September 6. The group stated that the operation was part of "a plan to strike America's military strength on the seas" that was prepared "on the orders of the respected [Emir], Shaykh Ayman al Zawahiri."[3]

The preface to the AQIS press release explained its motivation behind its planned attacks on the two Pakistani frigates, claiming that Pakistan takes part in the Coalition Maritime Campaign Plan (CMCP), making it part of the supposed global "crusade" against Islam.

According to the preface, in addition to securing "maritime trade routes for commercial shipping of America and other major powers of the believers," the CMCP participates "in the so-called war on terror (i.e. the American-led Crusade against the Muslim world)" and prevents "possible attacks by the Mujahideen on the seas." The CMCP also provides "logistical support to the occupying American and allied forces in Afghanistan" and consolidates "their grip on Islamic waters" while "besieging the Muslim world from the seas."[4]

The Karachi raid constituted the first major operation carried out by AQIS. The timing of the raid may have been set to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.


The Plan

The mastermind behind the plot was former sub-lieutenant Oweis Jakhrani, whose father is a senior police officer in Karachi. Jakhrani was fired from his post in the Pakistan Navy several months ago during his probationary training period. Earlier this year, he traveled to Afghanistan to meet militant leaders and receive combat training. He had told his bosses before departing that he needed to take leave to study for exams.[5]

AQIS claimed that the "operation took place under the leadership of two brothers from Al Qa'eda in the [Indian] Subcontinent, namely Oweis Jakhrani (former Second Lieutenant in the Pakistan Navy) and Zeeshan Rafeeq (Second Lieutenant)."[6]

The elaborate plan involved two simultaneous attacks by two groups. The first group was to take over the Pakistani frigate, PNS Zulfiqar, and use it to target and destroy the American oil tanker, USS Supply. The second group’s plan was to take over PNS Aslat that was docked near the Karachi shores and “steer it towards Indian waters in order to attack Indian warships with anti-ship missiles.”[7]

AQIS provided a more detailed version of the plan,[8] according to which the goal of the operation was to take "control of two important warships of the Pakistan Navy," the PNS Zulfiqar and PNS Aslat. There "were several Mujahid brothers" aboard both ships and they were "provided with the necessary weapons and explosives required for this operation".

The first Al-Qaeda team was on board the PNS Zulfiqar, which departed Karachi on September 3 and was allegedly scheduled "to be refueled by USS Supply… one of the most important American naval ships after aircraft carriers."        

While the PNS Zulfiqar was being refueled, "some of the Mujahid brothers present on board...were to target and destroy the American oil tanker [USS Supply] with the 72 mm anti-aircraft guns on their frigate."    

In addition, other Al-Qaeda operatives on board the PNS Zulfiqar "would target the American frigate protecting USS Supply using four anti-ship guided missiles." If they were successful, the Al-Qaeda team would then use whatever weapons were left over to attack or "destroy any American or coalition warship present in the vicinity, and fight on until attaining martyrdom."           

A second AQIS team was present on board the PNS Aslat "with weapons and explosives." According to the plan, the second cadre of AQIS jihadists was going to "take over" the PNS Aslat, which was "near the shores of Karachi," and "steer it towards Indian waters in order to attack Indian warships with anti-ship missiles." If any ships got in their way, including American warships, then the AQIS crew on board would use the PNS Aslat to attack them instead.   

Pakistani officials said that the PNS Zulfiqar was due to sail the same day to join an international naval flotilla in the Indian Ocean. The frigate was equipped with advanced weapon systems, including anti-submarine torpedoes, four guided missiles with a range of up to 120 km, surface-to-air missiles and 72 mm anti-aircraft guns.

On August 15, 2014, Pakistan took over from Britain's Royal Navy the command of Combined Task Force-150, a multinational maritime security coalition that includes the U.S. and is focused on combating terrorism.

It appears that the officers on board were to be joined by other militants who were to arrive by boat from the sea and then stow away on the ship. The plan was to get close to the U.S. and Indian ships and then turn the shipboard weapon systems on the Americans or the Indians.              


Early Warning

According to Pakistani security officials, the alertness of PNS Zulfiqar's guards was probably sharpened due to the security precautions implemented since recent intelligence led to the arrest of a group of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants planning an attack on Pakistan Navy facilities.

In August 2014, militants said to be affiliated with a Mehsud faction of TTP and the IMU launched a synchronized attack on two air bases in the southwest city of Quetta. More than 10 of them died in the fighting that broke out.[9]

Official maps and details of naval facilities were also found on the militants captured in the tribal area of Waziristan on the Afghan border four days before the Karachi attack.[10]


The attack

The weapons used in the attack had already been smuggled into the dockyard and had been stored in lockers by rogue navy personnel.

The militants' plan was foiled primarily by the alertness of PNS Zulfiqar's gunner. The group of would-be hijackers, led by a senior officer, was even saluted by the guard at the bottom of the gangway. But the gunner felt they were too close and their weapons appeared to be AK-47s, which aren't standard Marine issue, a Pakistani security official said. "The gunner turned his sights on them and fired a warning shot. The militants, fearing the game was up, also retaliated with rockets and automatic weapons.

At the sound of the firing, Marines and naval commandos rushed to the ship and were engaged by the renegade officers awaiting the militants on the inflatable boat.

At least four attackers wearing navy uniforms snuck past the patrol boat, arriving at the Zulfiqar as the dawn shift change was due, a navy official said. [11]

While those on board the ship continued to fight it out for a few hours, the ones in the inflatable boat had no chance, security officials said. The gunner ripped apart the boat with his Gatling antiaircraft gun, killing everyone in the boat.

The four rogue naval officers were killed aboard the frigate, officials said. The battle ended when the last surviving rogue naval officer, a young Navy sub-lieutenant, blew himself up after being surrounded.  Among those killed on the inflatable boat was former Pakistan Navy Second Lieutenant, Owais Jakhrani. Four other people involved in the attack were later arrested, Pakistan officials said.

AQIS went on to provide a version of events that is substantially different from that told by official Pakistani sources. The group claimed that the PNS Zulfiqar departed Karachi on September 3 and implied that the firefight between Al-Qaeda militants and others in the Pakistani Navy took place deep in the Indian Ocean. Pakistani sources have said that the attack occurred in the naval dockyard in Karachi.[12]


The Pakistani Taliban - Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

The attempted strike was initially claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, which works closely with Al Qaeda. The Taliban has threatened a bloody response to Pakistan military's assault against insurgents in the lawless North Waziristan. The army claimed to have killed over 900 militants and lost 82 soldiers in the offensive launched in mid-June 2014. The central TTP franchise, led by Mullah Fazlullah, claimed the naval dockyard attack.

"We claim responsibility for the attack on the navy in Karachi,” spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told AFP. “We had support from inside the naval force for this attack. This operation was successful because of this support. We will continue targeting security forces like this in future also,” he added.[13]

As the Pakistani army's offensive in North Waziristan rumbles on, there certainly seems to be a race among the various militant factions to show that they are still alive and kicking.[14]

In hindsight, one would imagine that the TTP is ready to share the accolades with AQIS as it never contradicted the latter's claim.[15]



On September 10, 2014, AQIS issued its own claim. AQIS spokesman, Usama Mahmoud, said that a group of militants had succeeded in seizing control of the Pakistani frigate, PNS Zulfiqar, and tried to use it to attack nearby U.S. vessels. "These mujahideen had taken control of the Pakistani ship, and they were advancing towards the American fleet when the Pakistani army stopped them," he said.  "As a result, the mujahideen, the lions of Allah and benefactors of the Ummah, sacrificed their lives for Allah, and the Pakistani soldiers spoiled their hereafter by giving up their lives in defense of the enemies of the Ummah the Americans".  Mahmoud's statement also provided a picture and a detailed layout of the PNS Zulfiqar. The statement released by As-Sahab Subcontinent said that the elaborate plan involved two simultaneous attacks by two groups.[16]

AQIS presented the Pakistani Navy officers responsible for the September 6 attacks as examples for all Muslims serving in the armed forces. The organization blasted the Pakistani Army, saying its generals demonstrate a "slave's loyalty to his master" and "have devoted the entire Armed Forces to the defense of American interests."[17]
The AQIS statement ended with several messages. The first was addressed to Muslims in Gaza and repeated Al-Qaeda's standard call for "revenge" for the bloodshed in the Palestinian-controlled territories. The statement warned: “This operation gives a clear message to India that Ghazwa-e-Hind has only just begun. We shall never forget your oppression of our brothers in Kashmir, Gujarat, and Assam.”[18]

Other messages were addressed to the Muslim Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims], the mujahideen and the "Officers and Soldiers in the Armed Forces of Muslim Countries." The latter should not forget "to make Jihad on the seas one of their priorities," AQIS said.           

Pakistan’s response

Pakistan’s Navy said that it repelled the attack, killing three militants and capturing four others. Several arrests were made across Pakistan and nearly two dozen sailors were taken into custody for interrogation. All of those detained were either current or former navy personnel.

Following the September 6 raid, three naval officials were arrested in Quetta near the Afghan border. Security officials said that they were captured as they were trying to flee to Taliban and Al-Qaeda-controlled havens along the border or within Afghanistan.



Al-Qaeda, which has been weakened by military and economic pressure in the years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, has not traditionally recruited heavily in India or staged major attacks there. Instead, its ideological focus has been on driving out a “far enemy” — the United States and its allies — from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. Ayman al-Zawahiri's announcement regarding the formation of AQIS was widely interpreted as an attempt to seize back the initiative from the Islamic State.

The September 6 attack, which lasted several hours, showed to what extent Islamist militants are capable of striking at the heart of Pakistan's vast security apparatus and raised questions about the nuclear-armed nation's ability to guard its installations.

The Karachi plot has drawn comparison with the October 2000 attack on U.S. Navy destroyer, USS Cole, by Al-Qaeda in the Yemeni port of Aden, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed.

Al-Zawahiri's announcement regarding the creation a new branch of Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent for the purpose of waging jihad in India (including Kashmir, Gujarat and Assam) should be taken very seriously. From its base in Pakistan and with its close links to Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist organizations, Al-Qaeda is a dangerous menace to India.

The move was part of Al Qaeda's plan to take advantage of the planned withdrawal of U.S. led forces from Afghanistan, and boost its influence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as well as India.

The foiled attack came at a time when regional powers were already concerned about stability as U.S.-led forces continue to withdraw from neighboring Afghanistan, potentially creating a security gap for insurgents to exploit.

It also came against the backdrop of a full-scale operation launched by Pakistan's military against Taliban militants in the lawless region of North Waziristan following a deadly attack on the airport in the city of Karachi in June 2014.



[1] Bill Roggio, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent Incorporates Regional Jihadist Groups, The Long War Journal, and September 5, 2014.

[2] Sanjib Kr Baruah, Al Qaeda’s botched suicide op was against ‘Indian warships’ Hindustan Times, October 02, 2014.


[4] Ibid.                                               

[5] Naval dockyard attack: How significant is the infiltration threat?, October 3, 2014.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sanjib Kr Baruah, Al Qaeda’s botched suicide op was against ‘Indian warships’ Hindustan Times, October 02, 2014.


[9]  Why Pakistan's militants can still strike at will, The Daily Star, October 3, 2014.

[10] Syed Shoaib Hasan, Saeed Shah and Siobhan Gorman, Al Qaeda Militants Tried to Seize Pakistan Navy Frigate, The Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2014.

[11] Naval dockyard attack: How significant is the infiltration threat?, October 3, 2014.


[13] Taliban claim attack on Karachi navy dockyard,, September 9, 2014.

[14] Why Pakistan's militants can still strike at will, The Daily Star, October 3, 2014.

[15] Taliban claim attack on Karachi navy dockyard,, September 9, 2014.

[16] Maria Golovnina, New al Qaeda wing in South Asia claims major attack, Reuters, September 17, 2014.


[18] Sanjib Kr Baruah, Al Qaeda’s botched suicide op was against ‘Indian warships’ Hindustan Times, October 02, 2014.