Militant Flourishes in Plain Sight
A barrage of U.S. cruise missiles several years ago didn’t sap Fazlur Rehman Khalil’s devotion to holy war, and two subsequent bans issued by Pakistan’s government haven’t silenced his invective against Jews and Americans.
But Khalil, who co-signed Osama bin Laden’s 1998 edict that declared it a Muslim’s duty to kill Americans and Jews, is not leading his holy warriors from inside a secret mountain cave. He lives comfortably with his family in this city adjacent to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, next to his Koranic girls’ school and bookshop, just down the street from a police checkpoint.
And he still is urging his followers to fight the United States.
President Pervez Musharraf has been promising to dismantle militant groups since early 2002, shortly after he allied Pakistan with President Bush’s campaign against Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks. He went a rhetorical step further on Jan. 19, calling for “a jihad against extremism.”
Bin Laden is presumed to be hiding along the mountainous Afghan border, but several militant groups remain active in Pakistan. None of their leaders has been prosecuted, and some may be under the protection of senior government officials.
Afrasiab Khattak, former head of Pakistan’s human rights commission, said he believed Musharraf was more determined to fight militants after surviving two assassination attempts in December. But the general faces opposition in his own government, Khattak said.
“Certainly, there are elements in the state system that still have relations with, and support for, militant groups,” Khattak said from Peshawar. “Musharraf has taken a stance. But a stance is one thing. Action is something else.
“There has to be a comprehensive strategy. There is no strategy to demobilize these militant groups, to disarm them, to rehabilitate their members into some new profession, some new way of life.”
When Al Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, killing 224 people, the United States retaliated by firing cruise missiles at two terrorist training camps run by Khalil in Afghanistan. Khalil vowed revenge. After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, he re-established himself in Pakistan. Islamabad has banned his militant groups twice in the last three years, but it left him free to regroup. He renamed his organization and continued to preach hatred.
Khalil and his organization’s latest incarnation, Jamiat ul Ansar, or Group of Helpers, openly defy the most recent ban, imposed in November. One of the platforms for his message is a stridently anti-American monthly magazine, Al Hilal, which identifies Khalil as its “chief patron.” Khalil uses it to raise funds, notify supporters of meetings and activities and urge volunteers to fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The back cover of November’s issue was an ad for the “All-Pakistan Training Convention of Jamiat ul Ansar Activists” at Khalil’s headquarters, the Jamia Khalid bin Waleed Mosque, across from an army base on the edge of Islamabad. Last month’s cover showed a giant fist holding a sword, rising from flames in the desert to slash the U.S. flag.
The issue features a call to arms in which Khalil says Muslims should be united into one nation, or caliphate, that would replicate the Khilafat-i-Rashida, the model governance of the four caliphs who ruled immediately after Muhammad -- an often-stated goal of Bin Laden.
A headline says that “moujahedeen attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan have bankrupted America politically, economically and mentally,” and adds: “Due to the blessings of jihad, America’s countdown has begun. It will declare defeat soon.”
“Eagles of Jamiat ul Ansar: Our motto is to impose Khilafat-i-Rashida on the whole world to get rid of the cruel and powerful,” Khalil writes. “We have to retire the debt of our martyrs. We should promise to sacrifice our life, property and heart for the mission of the people who have sacrificed their lives.
“This is your moral and religious obligation -- to help financially those few people who are sacrificing their lives so that they can concentrate on their battlefront and ultimately de- feat non-Muslims.”
The magazine’s December and January issues were on newsstands despite the ban. They carried a notice that the national training convention scheduled for December had been postponed and that new dates would be announced later.
The announcement also said the organization’s provincial and district programs would continue, and a smaller notice called for Jamiat ul Ansar’s district officers to submit reports on “jihadi activities” so the magazine could publicize them. The notice didn’t define “jihadi activities,” but the expression is commonly understood to include the militants’ fight against Indian rule in Kashmir, recruitment of guerrillas and fundraising.
‘Very Small Fry’
Khalil’s magazine lists his address and the phone number of his militant group’s office. Yet Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat, who controls civilian security forces, says he doesn’t know where Khalil is and doesn’t consider him a threat.
“We haven’t heard of [Khalil] doing anything significant -- even, I would say, half-significant,” Hayat said last week.
“I can assure you,” he said, “there are many more people who pose greater threats than this gentleman. He would be very small fry if you compare him to the others against whom we have directed our security apparatus to keep a strict watch on.”
In Washington, a senior State Department official said that despite some problems, the U.S. did not see “cause or justification to doubt the sincerity of President Musharraf’s commitment to fight terror, root and branch.”
“We all recognize that there are still bad guys out there -- a lot of them,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And Pakistan is definitely a place where there is a higher density of them than other places. But it’s not as if you can do everything at once.”
Khalil’s family members and Abdul Rehman, a clerk at Khalil’s Islamic Bookstore, confirmed that the cleric lives in a corner house in Rawalpindi’s Khayaban district, next to his Khadijatul Kubra madrasa, or school, for girls.
About four miles away, a sign on another walled compound identifies it as the office of Al Hilal Trust, a charity that shares the name of Khalil’s magazine. In November, Khalil told supporters he needed donations to counter enemies of Islam.
“Jews and Hindus, in their enmity for Islam and protection of their religions, are spending huge sums,” he wrote. “The so-called superpower of the world America is aiding in every way the protection of India and Israel, and the massacre of Kashmiri and Palestinian Muslims.”
The definition of terrorism under Pakistan law includes anyone who “incites hatred and contempt on a religious, sectarian or ethnic basis to stir up violence or cause internal disturbance.” Under the Anti-Terrorism Act, banned groups are to be monitored constantly to ensure that they don’t raise funds, operate under a new name or otherwise violate the ban.
Khalil and his followers are acting within those restrictions, the interior minister said.
“Until and unless they violate that ban, they simply choose to remain as peaceful citizens. Then there certainly will be no reason to go after them,” Hayat said.
Pakistan’s security forces have arrested more than 500 Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects, most of them minor figures, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Several high-ranking foreign Al Qaeda suspects, including the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, have been handed over to U.S. custody. But longtime Pakistani allies of Bin Laden remain free and authorities have released thousands of suspected Pakistani militants without charge on promises of good behavior.
Holy War Against U.S.
Khalil joined Bin Laden in signing the Feb. 23, 1998, fatwa, or religious ruling, that declared “jihad against Jews and Crusaders.” Bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, who also is being hunted by U.S. forces, signed it as well.
The fatwa stated: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” Khalil has never publicly renounced it.
After the 1998 U.S. airstrikes against his bases in Afghanistan, Khalil warned: “We will hit back at them [Americans] everywhere in the world, wherever we find them. We have started a holy war against the U.S. and they will hardly find a tree to take shelter beneath it.”
One of the charges against John Walker Lindh of California, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for fighting on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan, was that he attended one of Khalil’s training camps.
Family members contacted last week at Khalil’s Rawalpindi home said he had flown to the southern port city of Karachi for a brief trip. When he returned a few days later, they said he was too tired for an interview.
Times reporters visited the mosque listed in Khalil’s magazines as his headquarters to request an interview. Men who identified themselves as senior teachers from an adjacent Koranic school detained them and roughed them up, releasing them only after Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed intervened.
State-run print and broadcast media, which answer to the information minister, then launched a campaign in defense of Khalil’s headquarters, portraying it as nothing more than a school for children with no links to any militant organization.
Another of Pakistan’s radical Muslim clerics, Maulana Masood Azhar, has an alliance with Bin Laden dating to the 1993 attacks on U.S.-led forces in Somalia.
Musharraf banned Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed, in early 2002, and ordered his detention after an attack on India’s Parliament that left 14 people dead, including the five attackers.
India accused the Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of the Pure and Righteous, of carrying out the attack, and Pakistani authorities detained its leader, Hafiz Saeed. A year later, Pakistani judges ordered the release of Azhar and Saeed because the government had not charged them.
In October, Azhar went on a fundraising tour for his militant army, renamed Khuddamul Islam, or Servants of Islam. Traveling from one mosque to another, he preached holy war at widely publicized “jihad conferences.” Local reports said he collected sacks full of cash.
Less than two months later -- and two years to the day after Azhar’s arrest -- two suicide bombers tried to kill Musharraf by ramming minivans packed with explosives into the general’s motorcade. Investigators say one of the attackers belonged to Azhar’s banned militant group.
Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, an Azhar disciple on death row for the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl two years ago, is being interrogated for information on the attempts to kill Musharraf.
Pakistani police said they went looking for Azhar and Saeed after their renamed militant groups were outlawed in November, but couldn’t find them. Last week, the interior minister said he didn’t know where either man was. Police have questioned and released dozens of suspected militants, including Azhar supporters, in recent days.
A government document viewed by The Times leaves little doubt that Pakistani intelligence agencies have tracked Azhar’s organization for a long time. The intelligence report is dated Sept. 15, 2002, more than eight months after Azhar’s group was first banned. It lists 21 district offices, including several mosques, in the eastern city of Lahore alone.
Among five requirements for recruits, it listed: “Willingness to sacrifice (even suicide bombings/attacks).” The three-page brief also gives details of the group’s membership form, the name of its weekly newspaper, and the names and phone numbers of its chief financiers.
Azhar’s spokesman, Umair Ahmed Naqshbandi, said he hadn’t seen the militant leader in more than two months and suspected he may have been held along with other members, such as Azhar’s brother and aide Mufti Abdur Rauf.
The last time Azhar was in custody, he spent most of his detention under house arrest, guarded by the military’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency, which helped foster militant Islam in Pakistan. It’s unclear whether detainees are now in the custody of less sympathetic authorities, Azhar’s spokesman said in a phone interview.
“We have yet to chalk out our future strategy,” he added, saying they would do so soon.
Human rights activists, and Pakistan’s mainstream political opposition, say Musharraf has done very little to reform madrasas, which continue to teach thousands of children a radical version of Islam, or to control the extremists’ fundraising.
Musharraf, who has made a series of deals with hard-line Islamist politicians to consolidate his position after coming to power in a 1999 military coup, must also rethink his strategy, said former human rights commission chief Khattak.
“Musharraf has failed to link up with liberal political forces in the country who could have provided him with mass support for meeting the menace of militancy,” Khattak said. “It’s a paradox: On one hand, he declares a holy war against extremism, while in the political area, his closest allies are religious fundamentalists.”
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.