Sajid Mir's war against the world

The inside story of the Lashkar-e-Taiba commander who built the Lashkar's international networks.

May 30, 2011 11:15 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 01:11 pm IST

A picture of Sajid Mir, as part of the U.S. government's exhibits in the Headley case.

A picture of Sajid Mir, as part of the U.S. government's exhibits in the Headley case.

In the summer of 2005, Sajid Mir had been at the Feroze Shah Kotla stadium in New Delhi, packed amidst the hundreds of ecstatic Pakistani cricket fans who cheered their team as it powered its way to a record 159-run victory over India.

Mir, though, was in India for a game of his own.

The top Lashkar-e-Taiba commander's undercover visit was the first of a series of surveillance missions which culminated in the November, 2008, attacks on Mumbai. The Lashkar intelligence operative whose reconnaissance enabled the attack, Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley, reported to Mir. From a safehouse in Karachi, Mir guided the assault team using a voice-over-internet line, personally ordering the execution of several hostages.

Now, western intelligence sources have told The Hindu , Mir is being held in a safehouse run by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, along with the man who travelled with him to New Delhi — a former Pakistani military officer and military trainer called Abdur Rehman Hashim.

Focussed on securing counter-terrorism cooperation against terrorist groups operating against the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the United States has refrained from pushing Pakistan to put figures like Mir on trial, even though its intelligence services have sharply escalated operations targeting the Lashkar.

But unless Pakistan can be compelled to begin dismantling the Lashkar, the ISI's oldest and most trusted jihadist ally, India will not be the only country at risk. Mir's story helps understand why.

Sajid Mir's war

Little is known about Mir — and much of what is available comes from Headley's custodial testimony to India's National Investigations Agency. Born in 1976, according to documents filed to obtain his Indian visa, Mir grew up in a middle-class ethnic Punjabi home.

Mir's father, according to Indian intelligence officials, earned enough working in Saudi Arabia to build a comfortable family home near Lahore airport, set up a small textile business, and put his sons through college. In time, Mir married the daughter of a retired Pakistan army chaplain; the couple are thought to have two sons.

Like the Lashkar's supreme leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, Mir's father, Abdul Majid, was a Partition refugee; more likely than not, he nursed hatreds shared by many on both sides of the border.

But Mir was among a new generation of Lashkar leaders who believed the organisation needed to move beyond Saeed's obsessive focus on India, and, following the vision of his co-founder, Osama bin Laden's mentor Abdullah Azzam, participate in the global jihadist project.

Lashkar cadre fought alongside Islamist groups in Tajikistan from 1992-1997, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a 1993 interview to the Lashkar-affiliated magazine al-Dawa , a commander called Abu Abdul Aziz argued that the Bosnia campaign would help “Islam enter Europe through jihad.”

In December 1998, the Pakistani newspaper Jang reported that jihadists from more than 50 countries had attended a convention organised by the Lashkar's parent organisation, then called the Markaz Dawat wal'Irshad.

The invitation left little to the imagination: “You can go to any jihadi frontline in the world and you will find Markaz Dawat wal' Irshad mujahideen crushing the infidels and destroying the fortresses of the devil.”

“Mir understood,” says an Indian intelligence official familiar with the Mumbai investigation, “that the Lashkar was competing for resources and support with organisations like al-Qaeda and the Taliban — and that simply pursuing its old, anti-India agenda would lead to its marginalisation.”

No-one knows for certain just how Mir rose up the Lashkar's ranks: unlike his contemporaries, notably the military commander responsible for training the Mumbai assault team, Muzammil Butt, he never served in Kashmir.

In the aftermath of 9/11, though, he was made responsible for training the growing number of western jihadists knocking on the Lashkar's doors.

French national Willie Brigitte, a Guadeloupe-born convert who was awn to the Islamist movement in Paris, was among Mir's first finds. In the wake of 9/11, Brigitte travelled to the Lashkar's headquarters in Muridke. Later, he was assigned to a combat training camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Brigitte later told French intelligence his instructor was a man with long black hair and a thick beard who wore a Russian-made automatic pistol on his hip, and swaggered through the camp with two bodyguards

Fluent in English, Urdu and Arabic, he was known to the foreign jihadists as “Uncle Bill”—a reference to Mir's affable manner.

The evidence, the French judge who invested the Brigitte case, Jean Louis Bruguiére, later recorded, showed “that Sajid Mir was a high-ranking officer in the Pakistani Army and apparently also was in the ISI.”

In 2003, Brigitte arrived in Australia, carrying instructions from Mir to tie up with Fahim Lodhi, a Pakistan-born architect. He married a former Australian intelligence officer who had converted to Islam, who is alleged to have passed him maps and photos of potential targets. Before the two men could realise their plans, though, they were arrested in a joint French-Australian intelligence effort.

Mir's recruits also included four jihadists from the suburbs of Washington DC, who were inspired to fight against ISAF troops in Afghanistan by a local cleric, Ali al-Tamimi. The men travelled to Pakistan, arriving at a Lashkar office in Lahore which was adorned with the slogan: “yesterday we saw Russia disintegrate, India will be next, and then America and Israel will burn.”

In the event, intense pressure by the United States led the Lashkar to shut down its camps to foreigners. It continued to flirt, though, with global jihadist causes. In 2004, British troops in Basra held Danish Ahmad, a Lashkar commander who had earlier served in Kashmir. He, and another Lashkar operative who sought to fight in Iraq, are now believed to be held in the Bagram prison in Kabul.

Lashkar networks overseas also expanded east, with Mir setting up a restaurant in Bangkok and a textile business in Bangladesh to serve as cover businesses. Ever mindful of secrecy, Mir even underwent plastic surgery in 2005 after his visit to India — though Headley observed it did little to alter his appearance.

Headley had arrived at Mir's camp just after the foreigners were evicted under ISI pressure — and was used to target India alone. Later, though, he broke with the Lashkar after Mir refused to go forward on an agreed operation targeting the Jyllands Posten newspaper in Denmark, which had angered many Muslims by publishing cartoons purported to be blasphemous.

In an intercepted September 17, 2009 phone conversation with Hashim, Headley railed against Mir who, he asserted, had “rotten guts.” “I am just telling you,” he lectured Hashim “that the companies in your competition have started handling themselves in a far better way.”

The competing company belonged to Muhammad Illyas Kashmiri — the head of the al-Qaeda affiliated Harkat ul-Jihad Islami. Having visited Kashmiri's headquarters in 2009, and securing his support, he wrote approvingly that the area was “bustling with Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Bosnians, some from European Union countries and, of course, our Arab brothers.”

Educated in jihadist institutions born of the Pakistan army's anti-India covert war, trained at facilities set up to execute it, Headley ended up being a threat to the west. In recent years, numbers of Lashkar-trained cadre have fought alongside Taliban units in Afghanistan Kunar province; others have defected to jihadists fighting the Pakistani state, which Saeed has been careful never to target.

From his safehouse in Pakistan, Mir has likely been following the course of the Headley case, and contemplating its lessons. The world needs to do so, too: the products made in Pakistan's jihad factor, after all, are not just a threat to India.

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