MULTAN, Pakistan/ISLAMABAD — Pakistani militant Asim Umar has been handed a very tough job.
Thrust into the limelight after being named leader of al-Qaeda’s newly created South Asian wing, he has been entrusted with reviving the network’s fortunes at a time when Islamic State is generating grisly headlines and luring recruits.
Little is known about the man whose thinking was shaped in radicalized seminaries and madrassas of Pakistan and who will now spearhead al-Qaeda’s activities from Afghanistan to Burma.
In a video address aired last week, the group’s chief, Ayman al-Zawahri, named him as the “emir” of a new branch of the network that masterminded the 2001 attacks on the United States.
Interviews with militant and intelligence sources reveal that Umar, thought to be in his mid-forties, has a reputation as an Islamist ideologue rather than a fighter, and is known in South and Central Asian Islamist circles as an intellectual and excellent orator.
One jihadist source in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas on the Afghan border who knew Umar personally said that Zawahri first caught sight of his talents around the time of the death of Osama bin Laden in a secret US raid in 2011.
“After the killing of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s new chief al-Zawahri started the reorganization of al-Qaeda, with its main focus on South Asia,” the source said.
“Al Qaeda started recruiting and training fighters in Afghanistan and now Maulana Asim Umar has been appointed as South Asia chief. … He has strong connections with Islamic seminaries in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Illustrating Umar’s close ties to the top al-Qaeda command, the source said it was Umar who facilitated bin Laden’s move to a safehouse in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, where he lived undetected for years before US forces finally detected him.
Zawahri’s announcement was widely interpreted as an attempt to seize back the initiative from militant group Islamic State, which has swept across swathes of Syria and Iraq.
That movement has galvanized young followers around the world, using brutal methods including crucifixions and beheadings, some of which have been filmed in propaganda videos.
In contrast, Zawahri delivered his latest message via a lengthy speech directed at the camera.
Al-Qaeda does have close ties to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, meaning it has a deep presence in South Asia.
Observers say it may seek to broaden that reach as most of the US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan prepare to leave at the end of the year, freeing up fighters to move elsewhere.
But until now there has been no evidence that the group has a presence in India, home to around 175 million Muslims.
Islamic State, meanwhile, has begun to make inroads into the region—its supporters have been spotted distributing leaflets in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and its flags have been seen fluttering at anti-India rallies in Indian-held Kashmir.
Al-Qaeda’s announcement last week prompted India to put several provinces on high alert and rattled nerves in a region already destabilized by a persistent Taliban insurgency and sectarian strife.
Deep Convictions, “Can Deliver”
Sources familiar with Umar speak of a man with deep Islamist convictions who has written at least four books promoting jihad. One of the books, about US private security firm Blackwater, is titled “The Army of Anti-Christ.”
He has had his eyes on the Indian subcontinent for many years, issuing a number of video appeals to Kashmiri Muslims to join militant battlefields and fight “infidels.”
In one video released in June last year, Umar reminded his viewers of India’s past glories under the Islamic Mughal empire, which ruled parts of India for centuries.
“From the land of Afghanistan, a caravan is heading toward India,” said Umar, who spent at least 16 years in Afghanistan, according to Pakistani sources.
“Not on someone’s directive. Not on the basis of some governmental policy. But simply on the basis of abiding by God’s command.”
Umar first appeared on the global jihadist radar when he studied at Jamia Uloom-e-Islamia, a Pakistani seminary in the teeming port city of Karachi.
One of its top clerics, Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, was a supporter of the Taliban who called for jihad after US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and urged Muslims to target foreigners. He was assassinated as he drove to his madrassa in Karachi in May 2004.
Umar also studied at Darul Aloom Haqqania, a huge Islamist madrassa in northwest Pakistan run by Maulana Sami-ul Haq, known as the “father of the Taliban” as many top Taliban commanders studied under his wing, according to militant sources.
Celebrated for his exceptional language skills, Umar translated his books into several languages including Pashto, Uzbek and Arabic. “He is said to be a good writer and orator,” said one source.
Later, like many other graduates of Darul Aloom Haqqania, he travelled to Afghanistan where he is said to have met bin Laden, and then joined forces with Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), a radical group with branches across South Asia, to fight against Indian forces in Kashmir.
Known mainly for his propagandist work and fiery speeches, it is unclear how much he was involved in actual fighting.
But after HUJI fell apart following the demise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, its former leader Ilyas Kashmiri joined ranks with al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban commanders holed up in the lawless areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The purpose of bringing him as the head of al Qaeda in South Asia is to strengthen the terror network in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar [Burma],” said the militant source.
“Since Asim’s mother organization, HUJI, used to run branches in Myanmar and Kashmir, he already has strong links over there and can deliver for Zawahri.”
Umar’s current whereabouts are not known.