Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri on Wednesday announced the formation of an Indian branch of the militant group with the aim of spreading Islamic rule across the subcontinent and beyond.

Announcing the formation of “Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent,” Zawahri said the new wing would defend Muslims in Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.

“This entity was not established today but is the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian sub-continent into a single entity,” he said in an online video.

Zawahri singles out three parts of India with large Muslim populations – Assam, Gujarat and Kashmir – as territories to be targeted by the new organization.

While millions of Muslims left India for what became Pakistan in 1947 – when the British partitioned the two countries at independence – tensions remain between those left behind and the Hindu majority.

Some regional flashpoints

In addition to an armed insurgency in Kashmir, which lies on the disputed border with Pakistan, there have been extremist attacks in other parts of India – most notably the Mumbai attacks on 2008, which left 166 people dead.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks caused a shock in terms of their scale, and the way they were carried out
Hundreds of Muslims died during the 2002 Gujarat riots, in violence led by Hindu extremists. India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi, who was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time, has long been accused of using anti-Muslim rhetoric and of doing little to halt the violence at the time. In Myanmar, the stateless Muslim Rohingya minority have been subjected to regular attacks by Buddhists.

In his video, Zawahri also renewed an oath of loyalty to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar – apparently a snub to the “Islamic State” (IS) armed group’s claim to lead transnational Islamic militancy.

Meanwhile, according to officials, booklets calling for support for IS have been distributed in Pakistan. “The booklet is in the Pashto and Dari languages,” a police official told the DPA news agency.

Observers have claimed the distribution of the literature might be aimed at exploiting the weakness of local militants in the wake of a recent military offensive against them.