"By 2017, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent boasted several hundred members and had cells in Afghanistan's Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Paktika, Ghazni, and Nuristan Provinces. Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan was almost certainly larger and more expansive than five or even ten years ago," said Seth G Jones, a strategic expert.
He was speaking during his Congressional testimony before US' House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence yesterday.
This expansion, Mr Jones said, may have been partly due to Taliban advances in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda's relationship with operatives from the Taliban and other groups, such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e Jhangvi. "Al Qaeda operatives in Bangladesh were particularly active, conducting a range of attacks. In addition, Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent conducted a steady propaganda campaign from its media arm As-Sahab," he said.
In September 2014, Al Qaeda terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had announced the creation of regional affiliate Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, taking advantage of sanctuaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. "A new branch of Al Qaeda was established -- Qaeda al-Jihad in the Indian subcontinent, seeking to raise the flag of jihad,...and return the Islamic rule across the Indian subcontinent," al-Zawahiri had said.
The group was led by Asim Umar -- a former member of Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami -- a Pakistan-based terrorist group with branches across the Indian subcontinent. Umar was flanked by Abu Zar, his first deputy.
In October 2015, US and Afghan forces targetted a large training camp in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province, killing over one hundred operatives linked to Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Mr Rhodes said.
According to Katherine Zimmerman, research fellow, American Enterprise Institute, the Al Qaeda presence in the Indian subcontinent remains weak after Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the launch of a new affiliate in September 2014.
Al Qaeda divides the Pakistani theatre by ethnic group, she said. The Pashtun are part of its Khorasan theater, which includes Afghanistan and Iran, and Punjab is under Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Ms Zimmerman said.
"A recent surge in propaganda from AQIS leadership may indicate an attempt to revive the group," Ms Zimmerman told the lawmakers.
Ms Zimmerman said Al Qaeda never fully lost its sanctuary in Pakistan and used the country as a base to project forward into Afghanistan again as the US drew down militarily.
"By 2015, Al Qaeda was running large training camps inside Afghanistan. The US began revising its assessments of Al Qaeda's strength in Afghanistan based on the discovery of these training camps," she said.
"The US killed senior Al Qaeda leaders operating in Afghanistan in an October 2016 air strike, their presence a telling indicator that Al Qaeda had returned to the country," she added.