Recruiters for Jihad
THE INDICTMENTS of American Taliban John Walker Lindh and "shoebomber" Richard Reid will have broader consequences than many Americans imagine. As important as these cases are for the investigation of al Qaeda and related terrorist activities in Afghanistan, they should also make it possible to trace, identify, and shut down Islamic extremist recruiting networks with which both men had contact in the United States and Britain. These groups continue to operate with impunity in non-Muslim countries as well as in the Islamic world.
According to Lindh's own disclosures, he was trained by the Pakistani-based Harakat ul-Mujahidin (HUM), or Movement of Jihad Fighters. HUM has been identified as a terrorist organization by the State Department. Its main target area has been Kashmir. But the trail does not stop there. How did Lindh find his way to HUM?
The intermediary that introduced Lindh to HUM is a secretive international Islamic group that both Lindh and Reid joined, known as Tablighi Jamaat (TIJ), or Call to the Community. Lindh attended a small mosque in San Francisco run by TIJ.
Tablighi Jamaat presents itself as nothing more than a prayer and study circle. Media accounts of Lindh's involvement with TIJ have quoted a University of California specialist, Barbara Metcalf, who recycles the movement's claim that its obsessive rhetoric about jihad refers only to "the jihad of personal improvement." Though it gets less mention, Metcalf herself has acknowledged in print having heard that the group is also committed to military action.
Government investigators do not seem to have taken much interest in TIJ's activities, perhaps fearful that agents will be seen as persecuting a religious group. An FBI representative in San Francisco comments vaguely, "It doesn't appear at all that [Lindh] was recruited here, that there were any cells or groups that told him to go over there and fight."
Such a remark betrays a misunderstanding of recruiting practices in the Islamic milieu. Joining the extremist worldwide jihad of the violent Muslim sect known as Wahhabism is not a matter of filling out a form. One does not have to go to a recruiting office to sign up. Mosques in Western countries (most of them funded by the Saudi government) are permeated with Wahhabist jihad rhetoric, encountered the minute one walks in the door. Some imams preach jihad; some tolerate it sympathetically; some oppose it privately but are intimidated into permitting it. But it is everywhere. If the imam does not advocate jihad, activists hang out on the premises, or on the sidewalks and in the parking lots nearby, spreading the word.
Young Muslims in the mosques of Western countries generally fall into two categories: children of immigrants uncertain about their identity, and new Muslims, or converts. To both, the Wahhabi message is simple and, for many, dazzling: You want to be one of the best Muslims; you must defend the victims of the wars on Islam in Bosnia, Chechnya, Israel, Kashmir, and more obscure places that have yet to make it into the media, like Burma. The way to jihad begins by joining a circle of likeminded people.
Tablighi Jamaat is such a movement. TIJ was founded in India in the 1920s, at a time of aggravated conflict between Muslims and Hindus, which has always been a pretext for the spread of Wahhabism in the subcontinent. In the past TIJ rejected the Wahhabi label while also claiming to stay out of politics. But in recent years it has undergone a transformation. It infiltrated the Pakistani government, and was left off President Musharraf's recent list of banned extremist organizations. However, Indian sources claim that it was a major supplier of recruits for the terrorist groups Musharraf has suppressed--groups that also supported Harakat ul-Mujahidin, which trained Lindh and sent him to Kashmir. American Muslim sources say TIJ indoctrinated its followers to fight for the Taliban and al Qaeda as well.
Whatever the fate of John Walker Lindh and Richard Reid, it is not enough to say that the war on terrorism will be a long one, fought on battlefields around the world. There is also an internal battlefield in the United States that has remained out of the limelight. That battlefield consists of groups like TIJ that the U.S. authorities seem to have overlooked, even after September 11, out of fear they would seem to be meddling in the protected area of purely religious endeavors. TIJ cells are recruiting on our soil as you read these words.