The BBC has uncovered worrying links between Muslim extremists and mainstream Deobandi mosques in the UK. What follows are two articles from the BBC website that have been compressed into one. I have engaged in cosmetic surgery for reasons of clarity of expression, etc.
A BBC investigation has found that Sabir Ali, head of religious events at Glasgow Central Mosque, was president of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP). SSP is a political party now proscribed by the Home Office. Links to the group have also been made to Hafiz Abdul Hamid from the Polwarth Mosque in Edinburgh.
Glasgow Central Mosque said it would not remove Ali from his role until the links were proved. But it said it condemned terrorism of any kind. It is understood Ali denies the allegations. Hamid declined to comment.
The BBC has obtained evidence that both men continued to be involved with SSP after it was banned in the UK in 2001. It is not clear whether the two men are still involved.
SSP is a militant anti-Shia political party formed in Pakistan in the 1980s. The group and its armed off-shoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), have accepted responsibility for deadly sectarian attacks against Shia Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan. SSP has links to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and was banned by the Home Office in 2001, and in Pakistan one year later.
An official UK government document describes the group’s purpose: “The aim of both SSP and LeJ is to transform Pakistan by violent means into a Sunni state under the total control of sharia law. Another objective is to have all Shia declared kafirs (non-believers) and to participate in the destruction of other religions, notably Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism.”
The BBC has obtained copies of the group’s in-house magazine, Khalifat-e-Rashida, spanning the years both before and after its proscription. They show that both the men in Scotland used their mosques to hold events in SSP’s honour and further its teachings. And they show that, in the case of Polwarth Mosque in Edinburgh, financial support was provided to the group after it was banned. Donations from abroad are believed to be a key funding source for SSP.
Sabir Ali, also known as Chaudhry Sabir Ali, is a member of the executive committee at Glasgow Central Mosque – Scotland’s largest mosque – where Sunni Muslims of Pakistani origin are the largest group. He has held the position of Ishat-e-Islam, or leader of religious events, for a number of years, making him a key link between the imams and the mosque community. Documents obtained by the BBC list him as “President of SSP Scotland”.
In October 2003, after SSP was banned, an article in Khalifat-e-Rashida describes a memorial service at Glasgow Central Mosque for the former leader and co-founder of SSP, Azam Tariq, who had been assassinated in Pakistan that same month. At the meeting, the magazine says, Sabir Ali told those attending that Azam Tariq had “won the hearts of the Muslim world” and that “the enemies of Islam killed him” before vowing to continue his mission. That same year in July, SSP’s armed off-shoot, LeJ, admitted responsibility for an attack at a mosque which killed 50 Shia Muslims.
One month before the meeting, an article in the magazine carries an advert to commemorate the sister of Sabir Ali after her death in Pakistan. Sabir Ali is described as the “convenor of Ishat-e-Islam” at Glasgow Central Mosque.
According to the magazine, before his death in 2003, Azam Tariq had been hosted by Sabir Ali in Glasgow on a number of occasions, as had another SSP leader, Zia ur Rehman Farooqi.
Lawyer Aamer Anwar has called for reform at Glasgow Central Mosque. “These are very serious allegations,” he told the BBC. “There needs to be an investigation and the individuals concerned are entitled to due process. But the attitude almost seems to be that you can have a cut-off line, that if it’s in Pakistan it doesn’t really concern us over here, but it does. Even worse than that, is the impact on the community to be tagged with an organisation that regularly engages in murder and terrorism in Pakistan.”
A member of the mosque community, who did not wish to be named, told the BBC: “We have to do something. This is all unacceptable. This is un-Islamic – this is not the Islam I know, that I’ve been brought up with.”
It is understood Sabir Ali denies the allegations. In a statement, Glasgow Central Mosque said: “Islam is a faith of peace and we openly reject and condemn terrorism and extreme views of any kind. Glasgow is a proud beacon of how Muslim communities can engage with the wider society and the Central Mosque will continue to take a lead in promoting integration.”
Glasgow Central Mosque has recently been the subject of controversy. Last week the BBC and “The Herald” newspaper revealed that the lead imam at Glasgow Central Mosque, Habib ur Rehman, had praised Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed last month in Pakistan after murdering the governor of Punjab over his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Imam Habib ur Rehman said his words had been taken out of context and that he was voicing his opposition to the death penalty.
The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) is currently investigating the financial situation at the mosque after seven members of its executive committee resigned amid claims they had been threatened and intimidated by more conservative figures at the mosque. These claims were denied by those who were accused.
Anwar said: “There is no point preaching religious tolerance, talking about unity of the communities, condemning terrorist attacks, and then to be found that, privately, you are involved in supporting or showering praise on individuals who actually commit atrocities. Where extremism is exposed, we have to unequivocally condemn it.”
Hafiz Abdul Hamid is the founder and leader of Idara Taleem-ul-Qur’an Mosque in Edinburgh, often referred to as Polwarth Mosque. The documents obtained by the BBC list him as the leader of SSP in the UK in 2004.
In 1999, there was an attempt at the Court of Session in Edinburgh by other figures at the mosque to remove Hamid from his post. The judge found that he was the UK president of SSP, but that, as the organisation was legal in this country at the time, he could not remove him from the charity which runs the mosque.
The BBC can reveal that Hamid, who claims to have memorised the Qur’an, continued in his role and continued with his ties to SSP past the date that it was banned. In January 2004, he gave an interview to Khalifat-e-Rashida in which he says: “The party work should continue in all circumstances. However, we should try to get SSP restored so that the religious work can continue with the same zeal and fervour. This party will work for the political dominance of Islam.” His mosque also paid for a series of adverts in the magazine after the group was banned, and a November 2003 edition details a phone call in the mosque in which Azam Tariq’s brother Alam thanks the mosque for its financial support.
Hamid did not respond to numerous requests from the BBC for comment.
SSP is part of the Deobandi movement, which espouses an orthodox interpretation of Islam and whose followers include the Taliban. Since its formation, the group has waged a campaign of sectarian violence in Pakistan attacking Muslims whom it considers to be heretics as well as non-Muslim religious minorities.
In 2013, SSP’s armed wing, LeJ, named after one of the organisation’s founders, claimed responsibility for a bombing targeting Shia Muslims in the Pakistani city of Quetta, which killed 100 people. The group is said to have killed hundreds of Shias in the country, mainly in the province of Punjab, where at the weekend a bombing attack on Christians celebrating Easter killed more than 70 people, including children. Christians have also been targeted by SSP in Punjab.
Masood Azhar, today the head of one of Pakistan’s most violent militant groups, was once the VIP guest of Britain’s leading Islamic scholars. Innes Bowen asks: “Why?”
When Azhar, one of the world’s most important jihadist leaders, landed at Heathrow airport on 6th August 1993, a group of Islamic scholars from Britain’s largest mosque network was there to welcome him. Within a few hours of his arrival, he was giving the Friday sermon at Madina Mosque in Clapton, east London. His speech on the duty of jihad apparently moved some of the congregation to tears. Next stop – according to a report of the jihadist leader’s own magazine – was a reception with a group of Islamic scholars where there was a long discussion on “jihad, its need, training and other related issues”.
Today, Azhar is wanted by the Indian authorities following an attack on the Pathankot military base in January this year. In 1993 he was chief organiser of the Pakistani jihadist group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.
A BBC investigation has uncovered the details of his tour in an archive of militant group magazines published in Urdu. The contents provide an astounding insight into the way in which hardcore jihadist ideology was promoted in some mainstream UK mosques in the early 1990s – and involved some of Britain’s most senior Islamic scholars. Azhar’s tour lasted a month and consisted of over 40 speeches.
According to an account of the visit, after a series of speeches at east London mosques, Azhar headed north. Zakariya Mosque in Dewsbury, Madina Masjid in Batley, Jamia Masjid in Blackburn and Jamia Masjid in Burnley were among the venues for his jihadi sermons in his first 10 days in Britain. Such was Azhar’s popularity in those northern towns that wherever he went he accumulated more scholars as part of his entourage.
The most surprising engagement of the tour was the speech Azhar gave at what is arguably Britain’s most important Islamic institution, a boarding school and seminary in Lancashire known as Darul Uloom Bury. It is also home to Britain’s most important Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Motala.
According to the report of the trip, Azhar addressed the students and teachers, telling them that a substantial proportion of the Qur’an had been devoted to “killing for the sake of Allah” and that a substantial volume of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad were on the issue of jihad.
By the time Azhar arrived at Darul Uloom Bury there could have been little doubt about his agenda. A few days earlier, several scholars from the seminary had attended the inauguration ceremony for the Jamia Islamia Mosque in Plaistow where Azhar spoke on “the divine promise of victory to those engaged in jihad”.
Recordings from the trip, uncovered by the BBC, give a flavour of the message at some of the venues. “The youth should prepare for jihad without any delay. They should get jihadist training from wherever they can. We are also ready to offer our services,” Azhar told one audience in a speech entitled “From jihad to jannat (paradise)”.
The story of Azhar’s trip to Britain does not fit the narrative promoted by Muslim community leaders and security experts alike. According to them, the spread of jihadist ideology in Britain had nothing to do with the UK’s mainly South Asian mosques. The source of all the trouble, they say, was a bunch of Arab Islamist exiles – the likes of Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammad. These Wahhabi preachers, who operated on the fringes of Muslim communities, certainly played an important role in radicalising elements of Britain’s Muslim youth. But it was Azhar, a Pakistani cleric, who was the first to spread the seeds of modern jihadist militancy in Britain – and it was through South Asian mosques belonging to the Deobandi movement that he did it.
The Deobandis control more than 40% of British mosques and provide most of the UK-based training for Islamic scholars. They trace their roots back to a Sunni Islamic seminary founded in Deoband in 19th century India. Today it is a diverse movement – the original seminary in India has issued a fatwa against terrorism – but some Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan have propagated jihadist ideology.
Among the congregations of many of Britain’s Deobandi mosques, knowledge of Azhar’s 1993 fundraising and recruitment tour is something of an open secret. But talking publicly about such events is not the Deobandi done thing. So, to the wider world, the details have remained a mystery – until now.
Azhar was 25 years-old when he was given the red carpet treatment by some of Britain’s Deobandis. His cause was the disputed territory of Kashmir. Azhar and other mujahideen leaders recast what had been a Pakistani-Indian nationalist struggle into a jihad of Muslims versus Hindus. In 1993, Al-Qaeda was yet to declare war on the citizens of the United States and its allies, but after it did, Azhar’s group became an affiliate.
The consequences of the British Deobandi link with Azhar became more obvious in December 1999. An Indian Airlines plane was hijacked and grounded at Kandahar in Afghanistan. The passengers were held hostage pending the release from an Indian prison of Azhar and two of his jihadist associates – one of whom was a 26 year-old student from London, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.
Saeed Sheikh had been jailed for kidnapping Western hostages in India. After the three men were released, Azhar founded his own militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed. Saeed Sheikh went on to be involved in the 2002 kidnap and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
One of the first recruits to Azhar’s new militant group was Mohammed Bilal from Birmingham. Bilal blew himself up outside an army barracks in Srinagar, killing six soldiers and three students in December 2000.
But there was another serious consequence of the Azhar connection – the training camp facilities and logistical support he provided to British Muslims willing to carry out attacks in the UK. Several UK-based plots including 7/7, 21/7 and the attempt in 2006 to smuggle liquid bomb-making substances onto transatlantic airlines are now thought to have been directed by Rashid Rauf, a man from Birmingham who married into Azhar’s family in Pakistan.
The views of Britain’s Deobandi congregations toward Azhar after his alliance with Al-Qaeda are not revealed in the archive of jihadist publications seen by the BBC. Did British support for him evaporate or just go underground?
One man with a rare combination of inside knowledge and a willingness to talk is Aimen Dean, a former member of Al-Qaeda. He was recruited by Britain’s intelligence services in 1998 after he started to have doubts about Osama bin Laden’s agenda. Dean maintained his links with Al-Qaeda in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan while working undercover for MI5 in Britain for eight years.
“Pre-9/11, there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan to the hilt,” Dean says. The Taliban, like Azhar, regard themselves as Deobandis.
Dean preached in many Deobandi mosques in the UK. “Even after 9/11, there were many mosques still stubborn in their support for the Taliban,” he says, “because of the Deobandi solidarity.” Dean did not make open calls for jihad from the pulpit. He would instead give a talk on an innocuous topic such as Islamic history. Through his speaking engagements, Dean came into contact with jihadist sympathisers who would invite him to gatherings in private homes.
Among the top-ranking Deobandis in Britain, one name appears in the publications of several different militant groups. The jihadist archive reveals that Manchester-based scholar Dr. Khalid Mehmood’s connections with Azhar pre-dated the 1993 UK tour. At the 1991 gathering in Pakistan of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Mehmood was among the speakers. He says he was there to discuss theological issues and in no way condoned acts of terrorism and violence.
As with other British Deobandi scholars, references to Mehmood disappeared from the pages of Azhar’s magazines well before 9/11. However, his name appears in the magazine of SSP, the militant group responsible for killing Shia Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan.
According to one report, when SSP’s leader Azam Tariq visited the UK in 1995, Mehmood spoke at the same events as him on a tour of Scotland. Mehmood says that he did not attend these events in their entirety and therefore could not know what was said by other speakers, Azam Tariq included.
The preface to the first volume of a pro-SSP history, published in 2000, is attributed to Mehmood. He says that his name has been used falsely. Despite the fact that SSP was banned in the UK in 2001, Mehmood addressed a conference in South Africa in December 2013 at which the head of SSP, Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, also spoke. Mehmood says he has always been involved with a public exchange of ideas, which inevitably means sharing a platform with those with whom one disagrees.
Mehmood’s name appears in the publications and conference programmes of Aalami Majlise Tahaffuze Khatme Nubuwwat (AMTKN), a sectarian group that campaigns against Islam’s minority Ahmadiyya sect. The literature published on the Pakistani website of AMTKN states that Ahmadis who refuse to convert to mainstream Sunni Islam are wajib al-qatl, which means deserving to die. AMTKN is a legal organisation in the UK, registered with the Charity Commission.
There appear to be connections between Azhar, SSP and AMTKN. The late leader of SSP, Azam Tariq, was a close associate of Azhar. Furthermore, some of those mentioned in the publications of SSP also appear to have been associated with AMTKN. A senior Deobandi scholar based in Saudi Arabia, Abdul Hafiz Makki, appears in the records of all three movements.
Britain’s most important Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Motala, was, according to the groups’ own publications, involved in both the forerunner to AMTKN and in SSP before it was banned.
What, though, does Motala now make of these groups and of Azhar’s jihadist message? In a handwritten note in Urdu, he said he had always hated such activities and had published his thoughts on the matter in a book: “During the last several decades, I have neither uttered Masood Azhar’s name in my speeches, even by mistake, nor mentioned his group, nor talked about any nihilistic terrorist action.”
Indeed, the ethos at his seminary in Bury appears to be far removed from the jihadist sermons of Azhar. An unannounced Ofsted inspection in January 2016 found that pupils had a deep understanding of “fundamental British values such as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths”. It is a moderate approach which is in evidence elsewhere in Deobandi circles. At a fundraiser in London for a new Islamic seminary, a popular young preacher educated at Bury spoke respectfully of other faiths. A part-time academy for children run by young Deobandi graduates in London makes a point of adopting a non-sectarian approach and attracts non-Muslim children.
But the influence of Pakistan’s far right, religio-political movements is still deeply embedded in large parts of the Deobandi network in Britain. There are many moderates among the faithful, but they often have little institutional power. The struggle to gain influence seems to be particularly difficult outside London.
When the BBC recently revealed that a senior member of the management committee of Glasgow Central Mosque had been an office bearer in SSP, he was not required by the mosque management to resign.
One member of the Glasgow Central Mosque told us that, appalled as he was by the revelations, he was worried that speaking publicly would put him and his family in danger. His fears were prompted by the resignations that followed intimidation of a new, moderate management committee elected by the congregation. In the Midlands, one practising Deobandi Muslim told me he had been threatened with excommunication and violence for raising concerns about, among other issues, the propagation of sectarian hatred. A niqab-wearing Deobandi woman told a similar story about her attempts to encourage more positive attitudes to other faiths. These religious conservatives, being visibly Muslim, face prejudice from a non-Muslim population concerned about terrorists. But they pay a price for opposing the extremism in their midst. In all three cases, the word “mafia” was used to describe those who had sought to intimidate them.
“Everyone who is working for a just, decent society should contribute in any way they can to tackle these issues,” says one. “It might have been politically incorrect to take on the mosques, but these things should be exposed.”