A new post for my publisher’s blog, exploring the connections between extremist leader Masood Azhar and his links to the UK. Am quite pleased with this piece which has a bunch of new information in it, and will give people a further taster of what’s in the book! Some more on this topic landing soon from a slightly different angle.
January 24, 2013 | Raffaello Pantucci
Kashmir has always played an interesting role in Britain’s jihad. From its earliest days, the presence in the UK of a substantial Kashmiri population meant issues in the Indian sub-continent were important in the UK as well. Most prominently, in 1984, a group of Kashmiris abducted and murdered Rhavindra Mhatre, a diplomat serving at the Indian Consulate in Birmingham. Their demands included the release of imprisoned Kashmiri leader Maqbool Butt, who was instead executed by the Indian government in retribution. In later years, as tensions slowly escalated, a growing number of young Britons were drawn to the fight, following the streams of money that had long filtered from the UK to Kashmiri jihadi groups. In time, this well-trodden path became a direct line to al Qaeda, culminating in the attacks of 7 July 2005.
Fostering connections with the UK was important for Kashmiri groups (and for Pakistani political parties in general, most of whom had and still have offices in the UK). Leaders would regularly come to the UK to rattle fundraising cups and seek moral support. One individual who made this peregrination was Maulana Masood Azhar, a portly bespectacled preacher and the son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher, Master Allah Baksh Sabir Alvi. Born to a religious family in 1968, Azhar undertook the study of Islam from an early age. At four he was given awards for his capacity to recite long tracts from the Koran and was sent to the Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi—a centre of Deobandi learning. From here he slowly moved up the ladder, travelling to Afghanistan before taking on a prominent role as editor of the magazine Sadai Mujahid(‘Voice of the Mujahid’) that extolled the virtues of jihad in Afghanistan and then later Kashmir. In February 1994 he was captured by Indian forces in Kashmir and spent six years in jail before he was freed as part of a deal to obtain the release of a planeload of mostly Indian passengers on their way to Nepal.
Released alongside Azhar was a young Briton named Omar Saeed Sheikh, an LSE graduate, who had sought to fight alongside jihadists in Bosnia in the early 1990s. There he met a Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen fighter (HuM—Masood Azhar’s then outfit) who re-directed him to Kashmir. Upon arrival he attended a training camp in Waziristan near Miranshah where in late 1993 he met Masood Azhar. Seeing some particular value in the Briton, Azhar instructed him to try to obtain a visa to enter India—something Sheikh had difficulty with due to his dual citizenship. Foiled, he returned to the UK and applied for a British passport to replace his Pakistani one and was able to get a visa into India. Once in India he helped HuM attempt a number of kidnappings of foreigners to be held hostage in exchange for detained HuM fighters, until he was caught by Indian police (who stumbled across the cell holding the hostages while on a different mission). Later freed alongside Azhar, he became notorious when in 2003 he was arrested for his role in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. He is still sitting on death row in Pakistan for this crime.
It seems possible that Azhar may have encountered Sheikh earlier. According to some accounts, Azhar knew Sheikh’s father and had met him on a trip to the UK—a trip Azhar may have made to seek support for HuM from Britain’s pro-Kashmir community. How many of these trips Azhar made is unclear, but it seems certain that he went at least once to the UK and spent some time in Birmingham as well as East London. In Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clarke’s recent book, The Meadow, they describe him meeting another young British man and future jihadist in Birmingham, Rashid Rauf. Arriving in Birmingham, Azhar is described as having befriended Rauf’s father Abdul, a baker, former shariah judge in Pakistan and prominent local supporter of the struggle in Kashmir. According to Levy and Scott-Clarke, Abdul Rauf introduced Azhar to ‘his rootless teenage son, Rashid, whom he said was in need of a mentor.’ Many years later in 2002, Rauf would flee the UK after being sought by police in relation to the murder of an uncle. In Pakistan he headed straight to Azhar’s hometown Bahawalpur where he married Azhar’s sister-in-law, the daughter of a prominent local madrassa head. He went on to become an important al Qaeda leader.
Other accounts from Azhar’s trip around the UK describe him as being a passionate and emotive speaker with women taking off their jewelry and handing it over to support the cause in Kashmir after listening to his speeches. The inspirational effect of Azhar’s speeches reportedly transcended linguistic barriers. Waheed Ali, a young Bangladeshi friend of July 7 bomber Shehzad Tanweer, reported that the two boys, from Beeston (near Leeds), would sit around and listen to tapes of Azhar’s speeches that had been given to them at the local Iqra bookshop. Ali said he only understood a little Urdu and was reliant on his friend Tanweer to translate. As Ali put it, ‘I can understand a little bit but what used to happen is me and Kaki [Tanweer] used to listen to it and what he’d do, he’d pause and he’d explain to me what he just said, yeah, and because Maulana Masood Azhar has got a really eloquent way of speaking and he used to be really, you know, like fiery and everything, yeah, so it sounds really nice and Kaki used to explain to me what he said.’
Azhar’s influence over the wider cell around the July 7 group, including the Operation Crevice group who were jailed in 2006 for their role in plotting an attack using a massive fertilizer bomb in Bluewater, is again intelligible in the accounts from a 2003 training camp in Malakand, Pakistan, given by Mohammed Junaid Babar. At this camp, alongside the Crevice plotters, was the leader of the July 7 cell, Mohammed Siddique Khan, and Mohammed Shakil, another Beestonite who helped with the Iqra bookshop and who was later jailed alongside Waheed Ali for trying to attend a training camp in Pakistan in 2007. According to Babar’s account, at this camp the group exercised, fired AK-47s and RPGs and, to wind down, would sit around and read aloud from Masood Azhar’s famous book The Virtues of Jihad. That the young men knew of Azhar is unsurprising. Khan and Ali had first come to Pakistan to train at a HuM camp in 2001, just before 9/11. In Ali’s account they were met at the airport by a vehicle festooned with HuM stickers before being taken by the organization to their camp in Manshera (and later to a base in Afghanistan). In 1999, as part of a year out from university, Mohammed Shakil spent some time in Kashmir near his family’s hometown and spent three days at a low-level training camp. Later that same year, Omar Khyam, the head of the Crevice cell who later helped establish the camp with Mohammed Junaid Babar, ran away from home, telling his parents he was on a school trip to France, when he instead went to join the struggle in Kashmir. His parents ended up sending an aged relation to persuade him to come home, where, he claims, he was welcomed as a hero.
But while Kashmir may have been the bait that drew the young Britons in, Azhar’s specific appeal to the young British jihadists was the fact that he seemed to transcend the often corrupt and confusing struggle in Kashmir, riddled with spies, intrigue and manipulation. In a book which describes his experiences fighting alongside Kashmiri warriors in the mid-1990s, Dhiren Barot, a British Hindu of Gujarati extraction who converted to Islam and fought in Kashmir, to later connect with al Qaeda’s senior leadership, compares Azhar to Abdullah Azzam. A Palestinian jihadi scholar who acted as one of the prime recruiters for the Afghan jihad, Azzam remains an inspirational figure to jihadists the world over. In his book, The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, Dhiren Barot (writing under the pseudonym Esa al Hindi) says ‘Sheikh Mohammed Mas’ood Azhar is one of the few revivers of Jihad in our time who mirrors in the Indian sub-continent what Abdullah Azzam was to the Arab world. His works in many languages have greatly inspired men and women in realizing the low state of the Muslim people and its duty to revive itself through jihad.’
By the end of the book, Barot seems to have taken against the struggle in Kashmir, worried that brave jihadis are being lost in a struggle manipulated by people with darker agendas. The shout-out to Azhar therefore is all the more significant, highlighting Azhar’s appeal to the community beyond Kashmiri nationalists. This appeal was still visible almost a decade later when in January 2006 Umm Musab al-Gharib, aka the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ or Samina Malik, posted Azhar’s book (the same one read at the Malakand camp), The Virtues of Jihad, onto popular Muslim forum www.forums.islamicawakening.com, adding the note ‘it will be of benefit to you all.’ Malik, whose conviction for ‘possessing records likely to be used for terrorism’ was eventually overturned, was in contact with Sohail Qureishi, a dental assistant who was arrested as he tried to go abroad to fight in Pakistan. Other groups from the UK, like the wider cell around Bradford native Aabid Khan, saw Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed group as a good first point of contact when seeking to go fight in Pakistan. Apparently connected to the group, it is believed that Aabid Khan may have been a vetter for the organization, helping to identify suitable candidates to fight alongside it among the over-excited young westerners who drifted to Pakistan seeking jihad in the wake of 9/11.
Azhar is also believed to be responsible for dispatching Britain’s first known suicide bomber. On Christmas in 2000, 24 year old Birmingham native Asif Sadiq, using the pseudonym Mohammed Bilal, drove a car packed with explosives into a checkpoint outside an Indian army base in Kashmiri capital Srinagar, killing nine. Claimed by the newly-founded Jaish-e-Mohammed, the bombing (the first suicide attack in Srinagar) marked the violent birth of the new jihadist organization that Azhar established upon his release from Indian jail with Pakistani backing. Back in the UK, attention-seeking cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed (whose organization al Muhajiroun features as a backdrop to the radicalization of many of the Britons mentioned in this article) stated that his organization regularly sent ‘freedom fighters’ to Kashmir and that a group of 23-24 year olds had made this trip two weeks before Christmas. He thought it ‘quite possible’ that one of them had been involved in the Srinagar attack.
While Bakri Mohammed’s comments need to be taken with a pinch of salt, Azhar’s deadly intent and influence over young Britons, drawn to Kashmir and jihad, is unmistakable. And as time passed and Azhar’s group slowly faded, the connection that he helped nurture seems to have passed seamlessly over to al Qaeda. The archetypal example of this is Rashid Rauf, who Azhar was allegedly asked to mentor as a young man and who later married Azhar’s sister-in-law. Having re-connected with Azhar in 2002, Rauf seems to have moved effortlessly into al Qaeda’s ranks, going on to act as the coordinator for the July 7 attack, one of the key masterminds of the August 2006 plot to bring down about eight airliners on transatlantic routes (the plot that means we are still unable to take liquids onto planes) and involved in a whole series of later plots targeting the UK and US. Rauf is now believed to be dead, killed by a drone strike in November 2008 as he plotted with al Qaeda to carry out an attack on the New York subway.
What Azhar would have made of his young protégé’s demise is unknown. In fact, specifics on what Azhar is doing now are unclear. Wikileak’s Cablegate revealed that in late 2009 the Indian government had pushed for adding him to the list of known terrorists held by the UN, but this was stalled by Chinese objections—presumably to support their close allies in Islamabad. He remains at large in Pakistan regularly delivering speeches and with active personal and organization (Jaish-e-Mohammed) Facebook pages online. In late 2011 the fundraising wing of the group, the al Rahmat Trust, was identified as having made a push to raise money in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But since the revelation in May 2011 that the Indian government continue to believe Azhar is at large in Pakistan, little more has been heard about him. For the UK, however, this is a moot point. Azhar has long since moved on from being directly implicated in Britain’s jihad, acting instead as an inspirational figurehead whose jihadi writings have entered the canon of required reading. Watching his slow transition into this role and his influence on the development of Britain’s jihad highlights the sometimes confusing role that Kashmir has played in its development.
Nowadays, jihad in Kashmir is a shadow of its former self. Largely burned out after the brutal battles of the 1990s, the struggle remains an issue, but it is no longer the focus amongst Britain’s jihadi community. Many of the young men initially drawn to it walked away disillusioned by the degree of influence the intelligence services held over it and how geopolitical games were being played by brave idealistic souls seeking to fight in God’s name to protect the Muslim ummah. But as the conflict wound down, as Dhiren Barot correctly predicted in his book, ‘there will of a surety be those who will feel cheated, humiliated and let down.’ And they developed into the community that connected with al Qaeda to launch repeated attacks against the West and helped kindle a civil war in Pakistan that rages to this day. While Masood Azhar may have gone into seclusion since his 1990s hey-day, his rhetorical influence can still be felt and his key role in bringing jihad to the UK seems clearer than ever.