09/10/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Why India Should Take Al Qaeda's Threat Very Seriously


On the heels of the carnage spread by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Al Qaeda released a video declaring the creation of a South Asian wing to wage terror in India. India, of course, has suffered from protracted religious strife between its native Muslims and Hindus, who outnumber the former by 6 to 1. The nation also has an uneasy relationship with its Muslim neighbor, Pakistan, factions of whose government continue to sponsor terrorism in the disputed territory of Kashmir and the mainland.

Even though the U.S. has downplayed the threat posed by Al Qaeda, which has made such claims before, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be wise to take this particular instance more seriously. Unlike previous saber rattling by Al Qaeda or even Pakistan, this latest threat is more dangerous because of its timing and agenda.

Dividing the Nation

Judging by its rhetoric, Al Qaeda is trying to take advantage of the staunchly Hindu foundation of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party to foment fear and suspicion amongst the Muslim community in India, and use this as a wedge to recruit and brainwash Muslims to the terrorist cause. While Modi has explicitly stated that he wants his government to be a unifying force for the nation, the ghost of the infamous Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat (which happened under his watch as Chief Minister of the state) and the stubbornly provincial mindset of some members of the BJP still leaves India vulnerable to division.

Just as Middle Eastern terrorist groups have managed to recruit American and British Muslims by convincing them that their beliefs and values are being persecuted, Al Qaeda will try to instill alarm in the minds of Muslims in India that they can never attain equal status in a country where 81 percent of the population is Hindu and where, unfortunately, many Muslims still lack a decent standard of living.

Derailing the Economy

This second factor, namely poverty, is actually even more important from Al Qaeda's perspective since it exacerbates the plight of Muslims in India and creates an environment that permits indoctrination and fundamentalism. This has, after all, been the model that terrorist organizations everywhere have used to grow their ranks over many decades, and which continues to be effective today. It is this status quo that Al Qaeda wants to preserve and why its leaders are acting out at this moment in time.

India's new prime minister came to power this year on the back of an economic promise to the people of India. Long held back by inefficient government bureaucracy, anti-business regulations, and corruption, the Indian markets have been waiting for a capitalist renaissance that finally seems to be emerging due to the visionary government of Narendra Modi. Modi, a firm proponent of free markets, is gradually opening up the Indian business landscape to increased foreign investment and to private sector best practices, while also working to reduce corruption in the Indian government that has made it difficult for honest businesses to function profitably.

These initiatives have already started to show an impact, with GDP accelerating to 5.7 percent in the second quarter and inflation trending down. Foreign direct investment in India in the six months leading up to Modi's election alone was $16 billion. What these statistics say is that India's economic reforms have a chance of success and can create a vibrant business landscape in the future.

More importantly, rising economic prosperity will eventually help everyone, including the Muslims, to attain a better standard of living. This last is what scares Al Qaeda the most, as a better-off Muslim population will lead to better education and less dissatisfaction, and make it harder for the group to find foot soldiers amongst the community.

This isn't farfetched. It is the simplicity and potential effectiveness of the ploy that makes it credible, and deadly. India's economic growth is dependent heavily on stability and visibility for the business community and foreign investors in particular. Terror attacks and the political instability that would accompany them can derail the nation's economic reforms at this nascent stage. That is what Al Qaeda wants and why it is imperative for the Indian government to put counter-terrorism actively on the agenda now instead of later -- when it would consume a much larger share of the administration's energy and resources, and divert its attention from the economy.

India's Response

Broadly speaking, there are two things Modi must do, the first of which he is already doing -- which is taking an uncompromising stance with Pakistan on the issue of terrorism.

The nexus between the terror group Lashkar-e-Toeba (LeT) and Pakistan's notoriously corrupt intelligence service, ISI, as well as the link between Al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and LeT, are well established. Moreover, the political upheaval in Pakistan right now has put President Nawaz Sharif's civilian government on the firing line and reduced its ability to influence either the ISI or the military. A former CIA analyst who is now with the Brookings Institution has accused both the ISI and the military of deliberately targeting India for terror attacks in order to further decimate Sharif's credibility.

In this landscape, Modi has to be exceptionally cautious in his dealings with Pakistan and step up security measures at home, keeping in mind that Al Qaeda's seemingly idle threat can get rocket fuel from sources within the Pakistani government and destabilize the core mission of his administration, which is to make India an economic powerhouse.

The second thing the Modi government should do is create an active program of outreach to the Muslim community in India to help understand their problems and grievances, and take steps to address them. This is not going to be easy given the BJP's own Hindu roots, but will be essential to bring Muslims firmly into the fold of mainstream Indian life and reduce friction based on religion between otherwise compatible communities.

In the long run, smoother relations between Hindus and Muslims as well as the tide of a robust economy will lift all religious boats and put the Muslims in India out of the reach of radicalization by groups like Al Qaeda or LeT. That may not be guaranteed but is still a very worthwhile goal for the Modi administration to pursue.

Sanjay Sanghoee is an Indian author. He has written two thrillers which are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Follow him on Twitter @sanghoee.