Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Within the United States, the cases of American Taliban John Lindh, the “Lackawanna Six,” and the Oregon cell that conspired to bomb a synagogue and sought to link up with Al-Qaeda, all involve Tablighi missionaries. Other indicted terrorists, such as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, and Lyman Harris, who sought to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge, were all members of Tablighi Jamaat at one time or another. According to Robert Blitzer, head of the FBI’s first Islamic counterterrorism unit, between 1,000 and 2,000 Americans left to join the jihad in the 1990s alone. Pakistani intelligence sources report that 400 American Tablighi recruits received training in Pakistani or Afghan terrorist camps since 1989.
The Tablighi Jamaat has made inroads among two very different segments of the American Muslim population. Because many American Muslims are immigrants, and a large subsection of these are from South Asia, Deobandi influences have been able to penetrate deeply. Many Tablighi Jamaat missionaries speak Urdu as a first language and so can communicate easily with American Muslims of South Asian origin. The Tablighi headquarters in the United States for the past decade appears to be in the Al-Falah mosque in Queens, New York. Its missionaries—predominantly from South Asia—regularly visit Sunni mosques and Islamic centers across the country. The willingness of Saudi-controlled front organizations and charities, such as the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth [WAMY], the Haramain Foundation, the International Islamic Relief Organization [IIRO] and others, to spend large amounts of money to co-opt the religious establishment has helped catalyze recruitment. As a result, Wahhabi and Deobandi influence dominate American Islam.
This trend is apparent in the activities of Tanzeem-e Islami. Founded by long-term Tablighi member and passionate Taliban supporter, Israr Ahmed, Tanzeem-e Islami flooded American Muslim organizations with communications accusing Israel of complicity in the 9/11 terror attacks. A frequent featured speaker at Islamic conferences and events in the United States, Ahmed engages in incendiary rhetoric urging his audiences to prepare for “the final showdown between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world, which has been captured by the Jews.” Unfortunately, his conspiracy theories have begun to take hold among growing segments of the American Muslim community. For example, Siraj Wahhaj, among the best known African-American Muslim converts and the first Muslim cleric to lead prayers in the U.S. Congress, is also on record accusing the FBI and the CIA of being the “real terrorists.” He has expressed his support for the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, and advocating the demise of American democracy.
Tablighi Jamaat has appealed to African American Muslims for other reasons. Founded by Elijah Mohammed in the early 1930s, the Nation of Islam was essentially a charismatic African American separatist organization which had little to do with normative Islam. Many Nation of Islam members found attractive both the Tablighi Jamaat’s anti-state separatist message and its description of American society as racist, decadent, and oppressive. Seeing such fertile ground, Tablighi and Wahhabi missionaries targeted the African American community with great success. One Tablighi sympathizer explained, the umma [Muslim community] must remember that winning over the black Muslims is not only a religious obligation but also a selfish necessity. The votes of the black Muslims can give the immigrant Muslims the political clout they need at every stage to protect their vital interests. Likewise, outside Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Pakistan need to mobilize their effort, money, and missionary skills to expand and consolidate the black Muslim community in the USA, not only for religious reasons, but also as a farsighted investment in the black Muslims’ immense potential as a credible lobby for Muslim causes, such as Palestine, Bosnia, or Kashmir—offsetting, at least partially, the venal influence of the powerful India-Israel lobby.
Not only foreign Tablighis but also the movement’s sympathizers within the United States enunciate this goal. The president of the Islamic Research Foundation in Louisville, Kentucky, a strong advocate of Tablighi missionary work, for instance, insists that “if all the Afro-American brothers and sisters become Muslims, we can change the political landscape of America” and “make U.S. foreign policy pro-Islamic and Muslim friendly.” As a result of Tablighi and Wahhabi proselytizing, African Americans comprise between 30 and 40 percent of the American Muslim community, and perhaps 85 percent of all American Muslim converts. Much of this success is due to a successful proselytizing drive in the penitentiary system. Prison officials say that by the mid-1990s, between 10 and 20 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million inmates identified themselves as Muslims. Some 30,000 African Americans convert to Islam in prison every year.
Tablighi Jamaat has made unprecedented strides in recent decades. It increasingly relies on local missionaries rather than South Asian Tablighis to recruit in Western countries and often sets up groups which apparently model themselves after Tablighi Jamaat but do not acknowledge links to it.
In the United States, such a role is apparently played by the Islamic Circle of North America [ICNA]. Founded in 1968 as an offshoot of the fiercely Islamist Muslim Student Association, ICNA is the only major American Muslim organization that has paid open homage to Tablighi founder Ilyas. The monthly ICNA publication, The Message, has praised Ilyas as one of the four greatest Islamic leaders of the last 100 years. While the relationship between ICNA and Tablighi Jamaat is not clear, the two organizations share a number of similarities. They both embrace the extreme Deobandi and Wahhabi interpretations of Islam. ICNA demonstrates disdain for Western democratic values and opposes virtually all counterterrorism legislation, such as the Patriot Act, while providing moral and financial support to all Muslims implicated in terrorist activities. An editorial in the ICNA organ, The Message International, in September 1989 bemoaned the “uncounted number of Muslims lost to Western values” which was a “major cause for concern.” In 2003 and 2004, ICNA has collected money to assist detainees suspected of terrorist activities, participated in pro-terrorist rallies, and mounted campaigns on behalf of indicted Hamas functionary Sami al-Arian. Like Tablighi Jamaat, ICNA initially drew its membership disproportionately from South Asians. As with Tablighi Jamaat, ICNA demands total dedication to missionary work from its members. Because many ICNA members spend at least thirty hours per week on their mission, their ability to independently support themselves is unclear. Many cannot hold full-time jobs. ICNA’s recruitment efforts have borne fruit, though. All ICNA members are organized in small study groups of no more than eight people, called NeighborNets. As in a cult, these cells provide support and reinforcement for new recruits, who may have sought to fill a void in their lives. Its yearly convocations, patterned on the annual Tablighi Jamaat meetings in South Asia, now attract some 375,000 people.
The estimated 15,000 Tablighi missionaries reportedly active in the United States present a serious national security problem. At best, they and their proxy groups form a powerful proselytizing movement that preaches extremism and disdain for religious tolerance, democracy, and separation of church and state. At worst, they represent an Islamist fifth column that aids and abets terrorism. Contrary to their benign treatment by scholars and academics, Tablighi Jamaat has more to do with political sedition than with religion.
Most of the counter-terrorism experts in the world have been close monitoring the disturbing activities of Tablighi Role and trying to identify its links with global jihadist activities. However, there are indeed some links between Tablighis and the world of jihadism. First, there is evidence of indirect connections between the group and the wider radical/extremist Deobandi nexus composed of anti-Shiite sectarian groups, Kashmiri militants and the Taliban. This link provides a medium through which Tablighis who are disgruntled with the group´s apolitical program could break orbit and join militant organizations.
One apparent manifestation of this nexus was a purported militant offshoot of TJ, Jihad bi al-Saif [Jihad through the Sword], which was established in Taxila, Pakistan. Members of this group were accused of plotting a coup against former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1995. Yet, because of the organization´s extreme secrecy, little is known about it other than that it is believed to have developed in reaction to the TJ´s apolitical, peaceful stance.
The TJ organization also serves as a de facto conduit for Islamist extremists and for groups such as al Qaeda to recruit new members. Significantly, the Tablighi recruits do intersect with the world of radical Islamism when they travel to Pakistan to receive their initial training. We have received reports that once the recruits are in Pakistan, representatives of various radical Islamist groups, such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Taliban and al Qaeda, are said to woo them actively — to the point of offering them military training. And some of them accept the offer. For example, John Walker Lindh — an American who is serving a prison sentence for aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan — traveled with Tablighi preachers to Pakistan in 1998 to further his Islamic studies before joining the Taliban.
Because of the piety and strict belief system of the Tablighis and their focus on calling wayward Muslims back to an austere and orthodox Muslim faith, the movement has offered a place where jihadist spotters can look for potential recruits. These facilitators often offer enthusiastic new or rededicated Muslims a more active way to live and develop their faith. Although the TJ promotes a benign message, the same conservative Islamic values espoused by the Tablighis also are part of jihadist ideology, and so some Muslims attracted to the Tablighi movement are enticed into becoming involved with jihadists.
Additionally, because of its apolitical belief system, TJ seems to leave a gap in the ideological indoctrination of the individual Tablighi because it essentially asks the novice to shun politics and public affairs. The problem in taking this belief system from theory to practice, however, is that some people find they cannot ignore what is happening in the world around them, especially when that world includes wars. This is when some Tablighis become disillusioned with TJ and start turning to jihadist groups that offer religiously sanctioned prescriptions as to how “good Muslims” should deal with life´s injustices.
Once a facilitator identifies such candidates, he often will segregate them from the main congregation in the mosque or community center and put them into small prayer circles or study groups where they can be more easily exposed to jihadist ideology. [Of course, it also has been shown that a person with friends or relatives who ascribe to radical ideology can more easily be radical].
Examples of people making the jump from TJ to radical Islam are the two leading members of the cell responsible for the July 7, 2005, London bombings — Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer. Both had life-changing experiences through their exposure to TJ, though by 2001 the men had left the Tablighi mosque they had been attending in the British city of Beeston, because they found it to be too apolitical. They apparently were frustrated by the mosque’s elders, who forbid the discussion of politics in the mosque.
After Khan and Tanweer left the Tablighi mosque, they began attending the smaller Iqra Learning Center bookstore in Beeston, where they reportedly were exposed to frequent political discussions about places such as Iraq, Kashmir and Chechnya. The store’s proprietors reportedly even produced jihad videos depicting crimes by the West against the Muslim world. Exposed to this environment, the two men eventually became radicalized to the point of traveling to Pakistan to attend a terrorist training camp and then returning to the United Kingdom to plan and execute a suicide attack that resulted in the death of them both.
TJ also is used by jihadists as cover both for recruiting activities, as discussed above, and for travel. Like Khan and Tanweer, many jihadists desire to travel to Pakistan for training, while others want to get to Afghanistan, Kashmir or other places to fight jihad. However, the travel environment is far different today than it was in the early 1980s, when 747 jetliners packed with jihadists from Saudi Arabia and other places flew into Pakistan en route to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
In the spring of 2001, the members of the so-called Lackawanna Six cell traveled to Pakistan under the pretext of studying the Islamic religion and culture at the TJ training center. In reality, the men traveled through Pakistan to Afghanistan, where they attended training at the al-Farooq camp, a training site being run by al Qaeda. Again, the men used TJ as cover for travel, though there is no indication that TJ played any real part in their alleged plot.
Read Part I: The antechamber of fundamentalism and terrorism, writes Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
(The writer is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-jihadist journalist, counter-terrorism specialist and editor of Blitz. The views expressed are personal.)