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Shattered certitudes and new realities

Praveen Swami

Efforts need to be made to explore the ideological landscape in which the Karnataka jihadis moved on

Ahmed was drawn around 1999-2000 to the Salafi movement

Tablighi Jamaat attracted elite groups in search of legitimacy

New Delhi: “I take pride,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a June 2005 interview, “in the fact that, although we have 150 million Muslims in our country as citizens, not one has been found to have joined the ranks of Al-Qaeda or participated in the activities of [the] Taliban.”

Just two years after he made that assertion, the certitudes which underpinned it have been blown apart. News that three Karnataka residents possibly spearheaded an Al-Qaeda plot to bomb Glasgow and London suggests that the global jihad might have deeper roots in India than most people ever imagined.

All the Glasgow suspects are the kind of upper-middle class Indian Muslims who policy-makers imagined had been made immune to Islamist seduction for reasons of privilege and prosperity. Effort must now be made to explore the ideological landscape which led them to join al-Qaeda’s war-without-fronts, analysts point out.

Journeys into the jihad

Days before he is believed to have rammed a burning Jeep Cherokee into the Glasgow terminal, Kafeel Ahmed phoned home to say he was about to face a difficult examination. His first presentation had been unsuccessful, the postgraduate engineering student said – a possible reference to the fact that the cellphone-triggered fuel-canister bombs he had placed in two Mercedes-Benz cars parked in central London had failed to work. “Pray for me,” he asked his mother Zakia Ahmed.

The belief system that led Kafeel Ahmed to the hospital burns unit where he is now battling for his life is unknown, bar one fact: at some point he began to journey into the strange and subterranean world of the jihadist movement.

By some accounts, Ahmed was drawn around 1999-2000 to the Salafi movement, a sect inspired by the 18th century preacher, Saudi Arab Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Salafis, who take the Prophet Muhammed’s companions and the two generations of Muslims after them to be exemplary models of the practice of Islam, became active in South Asia in the 19th century. Known in South Asia as the Ahl-e-Hadith, or followers of the Prophet’s traditions, the Salafi sect grew spectacularly because of Saudi Arabian support.

Different approaches

While some Salafi groups urge their followers to support or endure the regimes they live under, others call for armed struggle against non-Islamic regimes and Muslim states opposed to the Sharia. Perhaps the most active of these pro-jihad Salafi factions is the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the attack on the Indian Institute of Science right in Bangalore. In the Lashkar’s variant of mainstream Salafi ideology, the Koran is a manifesto for a perpetual jihad against unbelievers, in the pursuit of the construction of an ideal Islamic state.

Some, though, say Ahmed was in fact drawn to the Tablighi Jamaat – a pietist organisation that has often been involved in acrimonious ideological exchanges with the Salafis. Perhaps the fastest-growing Islamist organisation worldwide, the Tablighi Jamaat urges Muslims to discard what it perceives as corrupt influences that have permeated South Asian Islam. Its founder, Mohammad Illyas, privileged the jihad bin-nafs, or the war for the conscience, over the jihad bin-Saif, or holy war by the sword. Most South Asian Muslims reject the neoconservative theology and politics of organisations like the Tablighi Jamaat: their faith includes syncretic Barelvi-school practices like the veneration of saints and the worship of relics.

While the Tablighi Jamaat once used to be criticised for its apolitical stand, the links between some Tablighi Jamaat followers and Islamist terror groups has become increasingly clear. In February 1995, Pakistani investigative journalist Kamran Khan quoted a Harkat ul-Mujahideen spokesperson as admitting that “most of our workers do come from the TJ.” He said: “Ours is a truly international network of genuine jihadi Muslims.”

Like Hindu and Sikh neoconservative movements, the Tablighi Jamaat attracted elite groups in search of legitimacy. Lieutenant-General Javed Nasir, who was Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence in Pakistan during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first stint in office, was a Tablighi Jamaat activist. So was Mohammad Rafiq Tarar, President of Pakistan during Mr. Sharif’s second tenure. In 1995, the Pakistan Army arrested a group of 36 officers led by Major-General Zaheer-ul-Islam Abbasi on charges of conspiring to overthrow Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and declare an Islamic state. The conspirators, the Pakistani media reported, were mainly Tablighi Jamaat and Harkat ul-Mujahideen members.

It is not immediately clear if his Salafi or Tablighi Jamaat leanings led Ahmed – as well as his arrested brother, the Liverpool-based doctor Sabeel Ahmed, and cousin, Mohammad Haneef – into the embrace of Al-Qaeda. But this much is clear: others from the Tablighi Jamaat have traversed much the same road as Ahmed.

Preacher’s role

Earlier this month, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) secured the conviction of several members of an Islamist cell led by Maulana Sufiyan Patangia – a Tablighi Jamaat preacher who used to run in the Waliullah seminary in old-city Ahmedabad’s Kalupur area. Patangia is thought to have recruited cadre for the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad after the 2002 communal pogrom in Gujarat. According to the CBI, the preacher played a key role in organising the assassination of one-time Gujarat Home Minister Haren Pandya.

Salafi clerics, like their Tablighi counterparts, steer clear of endorsing terrorism. But their stances have proved attractive to many angry young people. Investigations into the 2006 serial bombings in Mumbai showed that top Lashkar-e-Taiba organisers Rahil Ahmed Sheikh and Zabiuddin Ansari often met at the Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) in Mumbai’s Dongri area. IRF librarian Feroz Deshmukh, their contact there, turned out to be a key member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba cell which executed the bombings.

Zakir Naik, a popular Salafi television evangelist who heads the IRF, had no role in the Mumbai serial bombings. But his teachings, which include calls for Muslims not to participate in Hindu and Christian festivities, have considerable symmetries with those of organisations advocating violence. Interestingly, the IRF is listed as an approved religious information resource on the official website of the Lashkar’s parent organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa.


While figures like Zakir Naik are emphatic in their rejection of terrorism, others are less so. Tablighi Jamaat preachers in Gujarat, for example, have been deeply inspired by the South African cleric Ahmed Deedad. While Deedad’s target was syncretism, his work contained the seeds of violence praxis. Deedad’s Durban-based Islamic Propagation Centre International received large financial contributions from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden. In 2001, South Africa’s Sunday Times reported that Deedad’s son and successor, Yusuf Deedad, had distributed anti-Jewish literature emblazoned with pictures of Adolf Hitler at the World Conference Against Racism.

Ahmed and his relatives, then, might well have picked up the foundations of their ideology through Tablighi Jamaat teachings. It is also possible that experiences of communal hatred reinforced their beliefs. The son of an unemployed factory worker, Jalees Ansari graduated from Mumbai’s Sion Medical College in 1972. Despite his professional success, Ansari felt embittered by what he perceived as pervasive religious intolerance. Students and staff at his college, Ansari told investigators later, often insulted Muslims. Later, Ansari came to believe that his Hindu colleagues did not treat their Muslim patients with care. Although Ansari claimed to have been a “secular-minded person,” successive communal massacres and the demolition of the Babri Masjid led him to snap. He executed 50 bombings nationwide.

From east to west

In the weeks to come, investigators will seek to piece together just what led Kafeel Ahmed to snap. Most likely, he came into contact with the rest of Glasgow group through Bilal Abdullah, an Iraq-trained doctor who sat with him during the Glasgow airport attack. Abdullah is believed to have had active links in the Hizb ut-Tehrir, a U.K.-based Islamist group that has long supported Osama bin-Laden.

When Abdullah was a student at Cambridge, Ahmed studied at the nearby Anglia Polytechnic. Abdullah possibly put Ahmed and his relatives in touch with the overall head of the car bombing plot, Saudi national Mohammed Jamil Asha.

Experts note that no similar collaboration between South Asian and Arab Islamists has ever been seen before – but it is, in fact, no surprise. Groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Harkat ul-Mujahideen and Harkat ul-Jihad Islami are affiliates of bin-Laden’s International Islamic Front. In April 2006, bin-Laden expressly linked Al-Qaeda’s campaign against the West to these organisations, by referring to a “a Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against the Muslims.” Since then, Arab-South Asian alliances have been increasingly evident.

For example, a French court recently convicted Pakistani national Ghulam Rana for funnelling funds to terror groups with the assistance of two French citizens of Arab origin.


For many in India, it will be tempting to attribute these new alliances to the anger generated by the war in West Asia. While it is a tempting theory, this is only half the truth. Shiraz Maher, a friend of Abdullah, told British television that he “actively cheered the deaths of British and American troops in Iraq.” “One of his best friends had been killed by a Shia militia tank while he was at medical school,” said Maher, himself a former member of the Hizb ut-Tehrir.

“He was clearly very angry about what was happening. But to say it was just all about Iraq or foreign policy is mistaken. It feeds off a much wider ideological infrastructure.”

India, home to a not-insignificant part of that ideological infrastructure, needs to listen to Maher’s words with the greatest care.

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