"Kashmir on the Thames": British - Pakistanis in Focus
by Peter Bergen & Paul Cruickshank
August 25, 2006: The New Republic
In New Year's Eve in 1999, Islamist militants had plenty to celebrate. At the Taliban-controlled Kandahar airport, a planeload of hostages was being swapped for terrorists held in India. The hijackers--Kashmiri militants--had managed to secure the freedom of three key allies. Two, Maulana Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, were Pakistani; but the third, a man named Omar Sheikh, was the scion of a wealthy British Pakistani family and had studied at the London School of Economics.
That a British citizen figured so prominently in the Kandahar hostage crisis was disturbing but far from anomalous. The eleven people charged this week with conspiring to blow up planes using liquid explosives are all British citizens. So were the terrorists who attacked London in 2005, almost all of the plotters who allegedly conspired to detonate a fertilizer bomb in England in 2004, the suicide bombers who attacked a beachfront Tel Aviv bar in 2003, and an alleged Al Qaeda operative who, along with would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, planned to explode a plane in the fall of 2001.
Besides holding British citizenship, most had one other thing in common with Omar Sheikh: They were of Pakistani descent. For terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda--which, in the years since American troops deposed the Taliban, has reconstituted itself in Pakistan--ethnic Pakistanis living in the United Kingdom make perfect recruits, since they speak English and can travel on British passports. Indeed, in the wake of this month's high-profile arrests, it can now be argued that the biggest threat to U.S. security emanates not from Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan--but rather from Great Britain, our closest ally.
necdotal evidence for the influence of Muslim extremism on British Pakistani communities is not hard to come by. We visited the Al Badr Health & Fitness Centre in East London on a balmy June night to hear Abu Muwaheed--a leader of the Saviour Sect, an Islamist group--discuss who was to blame for the 2005 London bombings. His answer? Just about everyone but the bombers themselves--the British government, the British public, even moderate Muslims who betrayed their co-religionists by cooperating with the government. The evening included a video montage of fighting in Iraq that ended with footage of Osama bin Laden calling for jihad. One Pakistani man attending the session told us he considered the lead suicide bomber in the London attacks to be "a glorious martyr." Two months later, five of the Fitness Centre's regulars would be among those arrested in connection with the plot to bomb transatlantic flights.
How did Al Qaeda's militant worldview become so popular among a subset of British Pakistanis? For one thing, there is the generational divide in the community. Just as in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons--which depicts the rift between an older generation of nineteenth-century Russian liberals and their more militant, socialist sons--some of Great Britain's young Pakistanis are filled with contempt both for the moderation of their parents and for a British society that won't quite accept them. For many, this leaves a vacuum in their identities that radical Islamist preachers have been all too glad to fill. Now, young disciples of those preachers--Abu Muwaheed, for instance--have come into their own, and they are often even more radical than their mentors. Add to this the fact that one-quarter of young British Pakistanis are unemployed, and you have a population that is especially vulnerable to the temptations of radicalism.
Still, homegrown militancy can only partly account for the problem. That's because it is primarily in Pakistan--not the United Kingdom--where British citizens are being recruited into Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. About 400,000 British Pakistanis per year travel back to their homeland, where a small percentage embark on learning the skills necessary to become effective terrorists. Several of the British citizens recently suspected of plotting to blow up airliners reportedly went to Pakistan to meet Al Qaeda operatives. According to a government report released this year, British officials believe that the lead perpetrators of the 2005 attacks in London--Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer--met with Al Qaeda members in Pakistan. Several individuals allegedly involved in a 2004 plot to explode a fertilizer bomb in Great Britain also spent significant time in Pakistan. In April 2003, Omar Khan Sharif, whose family immigrated to Great Britain from Kashmir, attempted to carry out a suicide attack in a bar in Tel Aviv after visiting Pakistan. In 2001, according to British prosecutors, he e-mailed his wife from there, writing, "We will definitely, inshallah, meet soon, if not in this life then the next." And, in the fall of 2001, Sajit Badat plotted to explode a transatlantic airliner with a shoe bomb shortly after spending time in a Pakistani training camp.
But how to explain the lure of militancy for those who travel to Pakistan to become terrorists? The answer, in many cases, is Kashmir. A disproportionate number of Pakistanis living in Great Britain trace their lineage back to Kashmir. Though conventional wisdom holds that anger toward U.S. foreign policy is most responsible for creating new terrorists, among British Pakistanis, Kashmir is probably just as important. What's more, for the small number of British Pakistanis who want terrorist training, the facilities of Kashmiri militant groups have become an obvious first choice--as well as a gateway to Al Qaeda itself.
Al Qaeda's ties with Kashmiri militant groups date to the Afghan war against the Soviets, when bin Laden's forces fought alongside Pakistani groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, many of those groups turned their attention to Kashmir--the key reason why the Kashmiri conflict re-erupted in the 1990s. These ties endured throughout the decade and grew closer after Al Qaeda left Sudan and settled in Afghanistan in 1996. President Clinton's August 1998 cruise-missile strike against an Al Qaeda base in eastern Afghanistan killed a number of members of Harakat Ul Mujihadeen, one of the largest Kashmiri militant groups--suggesting that it was sharing training facilities with Al Qaeda.
Since September 11, the relationship between Al Qaeda and Kashmiri groups has only deepened, as demonstrated by the fact that Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was arrested in an LeT safehouse in Pakistan in 2002. Al Qaeda has been able to regroup in Pakistan after losing its base in Afghanistan in part by cooperating with Kashmiri militants. A senior American military intelligence official told us that there is "no difference" between Al Qaeda and Kashmiri terrorist organizations. Al Qaeda has also attempted to fit the Kashmir dispute into its anti-American narrative: Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist who is writing bin Laden's authorized biography, told us that Al Qaeda propaganda accuses Pakistan's government of selling out Kashmir under pressure from George Bush and Tony Blair.
The danger to the United States of the nexus between British Pakistanis, Al Qaeda, and Kashmir is becoming clear. One of the alleged ringleaders of the recently exposed plot to blow up transatlantic flights is Rashid Rauf, a Pakistan-born British citizen whose family immigrated to Great Britain from Kashmir. According to the Associated Press, Rauf is married to a sister-in-law of Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the Kashmiri terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (and one of the men released as part of the deal that ended the Kandahar hostage standoff in 1999). Previously, in 2004, British authorities had charged eight men--many of Pakistani descent--with planning terrorism, including a plot to blow up the New York Stock Exchange. The cell's alleged leader, Abu Issa Al Hindi, a British convert to Islam, wrote a book explaining how he was radicalized by his experience fighting in Kashmir. In March 2006, British citizen Mohammed Ajmal Khan was sentenced to nine years for fund-raising on behalf of terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Khan admitted attending a terrorist training camp run by LeT. The judge in Khan's case described him as "a terrorist quartermaster" for LeT. According to The Daily Telegraph, he was a frequent visitor to the United States and talked about attacking U.S. synagogues. American prosecutors say Khan was in touch with a group of Virginia militants also tied to LeT.
ll of this should raise two concerns for American officials. The first is that American Pakistanis could pose a similar threat. "Homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like Al Qaeda, if not more so," FBI Director Robert Mueller warned in June. There are reasons to worry that he is right. Two and a half months ago, an FBI affidavit contends, Syed Haris Ahmed, an American citizen of Pakistani descent, traveled from Atlanta to Ontario to meet with a terrorist cell. The FBI alleges that Ahmed, now in U.S. custody, planned to attend a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. In 2003, Iyman Faris, an American citizen born in Kashmir, pleaded guilty to helping Al Qaeda plan attacks in the United States. Faris admitted to meeting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed--the mastermind of the September 11 attacks--in Pakistan to plan those operations in 2002.
Yet it seems unlikely that radicalism in the American Pakistani community could pose as large a threat as radicalism in the British Pakistani community. American Muslims are, on average, more politically moderate than their British counterparts. According to a 2001 survey, 70 percent of American Muslims strongly agreed that they should participate in U.S. institutions. By contrast, a recent Pew poll found that 81 percent of British Muslims considered themselves Muslims first and British citizens second.
Of more concern, then, is the likelihood that British Pakistanis will continue to target Americans--both in the United States and abroad. To address this problem, the Bush administration should encourage the British government to monitor more closely the activities of U.K.-based extremist groups. Simply banning these organizations is not enough. Weeks after we attended one of their meetings, the Saviour Sect was outlawed by British Home Secretary John Reid. But, when we spoke to one of the organization's leaders, Anjem Choudhary, by phone, he told us, "Of course we don't use that name anymore. We just hold our meetings under another name." In addition, Great Britain must step up efforts to identify its own citizens who attend Kashmiri or Al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan.
Unfortunately, there are limits to what the British government can do alone. It will need help from moderate Muslims, some of whom are waking up to the threat posed by the radicals in their midst. "These people are ill," says Ghulam Rabbani, the imam of the mosque adjoining the Fitness Centre, where the Saviour Sect held meetings. "I say very categorically and very clearly that they are misguided and they don't know the basics of Islam."
Rabbani faces a steep challenge: According to a recent poll, a full quarter of British Muslims consider the 2005 London bombings justified. And anyone who doubts how dangerous the intersection of such sentiments, Al Qaeda, and Kashmiri militants can be should consider what became of Omar Sheikh, the former London School of Economics student who won his freedom on New Year's Eve in 1999: Two years later, he was under arrest for orchestrating the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New American Foundation and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know. Paul Cruickshank is a fellow at New York University Law School's Center on Law and Security.