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Tablighi Jamaat: An Indirect Line to Terrorism

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By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Spanish police conducted a series of raids on apartment buildings, a mosque and a prayer hall in Barcelona on Jan. 19, seizing bombmaking materials and arresting 14 men who allegedly were planning to attack targets in the city. Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said the detainees were Islamists belonging to a "well-organized group that had gone a step beyond radicalization."

A Muslim leader in Barcelona was quoted in some media reports as saying the 14 suspects — 12 Pakistanis, an Indian and a Bangladeshi — were members of a "Pakistani-based group called Tablighi Jamaat."

The Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) name has come up before in connection with terrorism plots, including the October 2002 Portland Seven and the September 2002 Lackawanna Six cases in the United States, as well as the August 2006 plot to bomb airliners en route from London to the United States, the July 7, 2005, London Underground bombings and the July 2007 attempted bombings in London and Glasgow, Scotland. Over the past several years we also have received several queries about TJ from U.S. law enforcement officials who are concerned about the group's presence and activities in the United States.

This, then, is a good time to correct some of the erroneous information regarding TJ — and attempt to paint a realistic portrait of the very real threat posed by some of the people affiliated with TJ.

Tablighi Jamaat

The Tablighi Jamaat (Group for Preaching) movement was established in Mewat, India, in 1927 and stems from the Deobandi brand of the Hanafi Sunni school of jurisprudence. Deobandi is the most commonly practiced form of Islam in South Asia, and TJ is but a small subset of the larger Deobandi community. TJ was designed to be an apolitical, pietistic organization that sends missionaries across the globe on proselytizing missions intended to bring wayward Muslims back to more orthodox practices of Islam.

TJ followers (Tablighis) are mostly of South Asian origin, though there are Tablighis from many different ethnic and national backgrounds. In fact, TJ operates in 150 countries and has an estimated 70 million to 80 million active followers, making it the largest Muslim movement in the world. Its annual gatherings in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh reportedly bring together the largest congregations of Muslims in the world outside of the Hajj. The group's stated mission is to work at a grassroots level, reaching out to Muslims across the social and economic spectrum. Tablighis do not solicit or receive donations, but rather are largely funded by senior members.

At face value, TJ is a peaceful, egalitarian and devotional movement that stresses individual faith and overall spiritual development. In a sense, TJ is a widespread training system that urges average Muslims to examine their own lives and become involved in calling their fellow Muslims back to orthodox Islam. Because of TJ's tactics, some Islamist groups refer to its members as "Muslim Jehovah's Witnesses" and accuse them of abandoning politics and jihad. Upon joining the movement, Tablighi recruits are given the option of attending the Tablighi center in the Pakistani city of Raiwind, near Lahore, Pakistan, for four months of additional religious training to equip them to preach the Tablighi message.

It is important to understand that TJ is a loosely controlled mass movement rather than a centralized group, as some would maintain. Although TJ operates mosques, it has no fixed membership and Tablighis are free to leave the movement. The mosques are used to support the efforts of the independent jamaat (groups of 10 preachers) that undertake preaching missions. The type of work performed and the duration of that work are left solely to the discretion and conscience of the individual jamaat. Some jamaat choose to serve a short period of time while others preach for months or even years. Although TJ is Deobandi, it allows any Sunni Muslim to join in its missionary work as long as that person accepts the group's austere creed.

Because of the large number of South Asian Muslims in the United Kingdom, TJ is very strong in that country. The Tablighi-run Markazi Mosque in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, is the group's European headquarters. The organization's strength in Britain was demonstrated in 2007 when it announced plans to construct an 18-acre mosque complex in STRATFORd, East London, on a site near the 2012 Olympic Park. According to some reports, the new complex would have a capacity of up to 70,000 people, making it the largest religious building in the United Kingdom and the largest mosque in Europe. The construction of such an enormous mosque has raised some concerns and more than a bit of controversy among the British people. The organization, however, also has a presence in most other European countries, while French authorities have claimed that 80 percent of the radical Islamists they have encountered have had some sort of contact with the TJ movement.

In the United States, the FBI believes some 50,000 people are associated with TJ missions, while Tablighi mosques currently operate in several U.S. states, including California, Texas and New York. The Al-Falah Mosque in the Corona area of Queens, N.Y., apparently is the group's North American headquarters.

The Wahhabi/Salafi Myth

In addition to the misconception that TJ is a hierarchical group, perhaps the second most commonly held misconception about the Tablighis is that they adhere to a Wahhabi branch of Islam. In much the same way that there are different denominations of Christians, there are several different branches and sub-branches of Islam. Wahhabism, sometimes also referred to as Salafism, is an orthodox belief system held by the Saudi ruling family and most people in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism also is the form of Islam practiced by al Qaeda and many militant jihadist groups.

In fact, the Deobandi Tablighis often are severely criticized by orthodox religious authorities (ulema), such as Sunni Wahhabi ulema in Saudi Arabia, who have issued fatwa prohibiting the Tablighis from preaching in the country and banning Tablighi literature from being imported into the country. The Wahhabi ulema have issued rulings declaring Tablighis to be deviants and forbidding participation in Tablighi activities unless the reason for the participation is to criticize the Tablighis for their deviant beliefs.

Remember that not all Wahhabi or Salafi Muslims are jihadists and not all radical Islamists are Wahhabi/Salafi — or even Sunni for that matter. Many groups ascribing to a jihadist theology, such as the Taliban, are Deobandi. Hezbollah is a Shiite organization, while Jamaat al Fuqra has Sufi leanings.

Tablighis also are heavily criticized by militant Deobandi Islamists, such as the Taliban, Kashmiri militant groups, anti-Shiite sectarian militant groups and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) for their apolitical stance regarding the war on terrorism, which many Muslims perceive as a war against Islam. Tablighi theology stresses that Muslims must first devote themselves to becoming good, practicing Muslims in their own personal lives, rather than struggling for political power or even protesting oppression by non-Muslims. This focus on the inner person first is the opposite approach to that taken by radical Islamists, who seek to seize political power through force and then form an Islamic state or caliphate that can impose Shariah law on the individual. Because of this, some Islamist militants accuse the Tablighis of being a tool of the Jews and Hindus because they deny the need for a physical jihad and focus on the "greater jihad," which is the inner struggle for faith and piety.

The Tablighi Role in the Global Jihadism

However, there are indeed some links between Tablighis and the world of jihadism. First, there is evidence of indirect connections between the group and the wider radical/extremist Deobandi nexus composed of anti-Shiite sectarian groups, Kashmiri militants and the Taliban. This link provides a medium through which Tablighis who are disgruntled with the group's apolitical program could break orbit and join militant organizations.

One apparent manifestation of this nexus was a purported militant offshoot of TJ, Jihad bi al-Saif (Jihad through the Sword), which was established in Taxila, Pakistan. Members of this group were accused of plotting a coup against former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1995. Yet, because of the organization's extreme secrecy, little is known about it other than that it is believed to have developed in reaction to the TJ's apolitical, peaceful stance.

The TJ organization also serves as a de facto conduit for Islamist extremists and for groups such as al Qaeda to recruit new members. Significantly, the Tablighi recruits do intersect with the world of radical Islamism when they travel to Pakistan to receive their initial training. We have received reports that once the recruits are in Pakistan, representatives of various radical Islamist groups, such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Taliban and al Qaeda, are said to woo them actively — to the point of offering them military training. And some of them accept the offer. For example, John Walker Lindh — an American who is serving a prison sentence for aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan — traveled with Tablighi preachers to Pakistan in 1998 to further his Islamic studies before joining the Taliban.

Because of the piety and strict belief system of the Tablighis and their focus on calling wayward Muslims back to an austere and orthodox Muslim faith, the movement has offered a place where jihadist spotters can look for potential recruits. These facilitators often offer enthusiastic new or rededicated Muslims a more active way to live and develop their faith. Although the TJ promotes a benign message, the same conservative Islamic values espoused by the Tablighis also are part of jihadist ideology, and so some Muslims attracted to the Tablighi movement are enticed into becoming involved with jihadists.

Additionally, because of its apolitical belief system, TJ seems to leave a gap in the ideological indoctrination of the individual Tablighi because it essentially asks the novice to shun politics and public affairs. The problem in taking this belief system from theory to practice, however, is that some people find they cannot ignore what is happening in the world around them, especially when that world includes wars. This is when some Tablighis become disillusioned with TJ and start turning to jihadist groups that offer religiously sanctioned prescriptions as to how "good Muslims" should deal with life's injustices.

Once a facilitator identifies such candidates, he often will segregate them from the main congregation in the mosque or community center and put them into small prayer circles or study groups where they can be more easily exposed to jihadist ideology. (Of course, it also has been shown that a person with friends or relatives who ascribe to radical ideology can more easily be radical).

Examples of people making the jump from TJ to radical Islam are the two leading members of the cell responsible for the July 7, 2005, London bombings — Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer. Both had life-changing experiences through their exposure to TJ, though by 2001 the men had left the Tablighi mosque they had been attending in the British city of Beeston, because they found it to be too apolitical. They apparently were frustrated by the mosque's elders, who forbid the discussion of politics in the mosque.

After Khan and Tanweer left the Tablighi mosque, they began attending the smaller Iqra Learning Center bookstore in Beeston, where they reportedly were exposed to frequent political discussions about places such as Iraq, Kashmir and Chechnya. The store's proprietors reportedly even produced jihad videos depicting crimes by the West against the Muslim world. Exposed to this environment, the two men eventually became radicalized to the point of traveling to Pakistan to attend a terrorist training camp and then returning to the United Kingdom to plan and execute a suicide attack that resulted in the death of them both.

TJ also is used by jihadists as cover both for recruiting activities, as discussed above, and for travel. Like Khan and Tanweer, many jihadists desire to travel to Pakistan for training, while others want to get to Afghanistan, Kashmir or other places to fight jihad. However, the travel environment is far different today than it was in the early 1980s, when 747 jetliners packed with jihadists from Saudi Arabia and other places flew into Pakistan en route to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Foreigners traveling to Pakistan today cannot enter the country without a visa, and Pakistani authorities are no longer inclined to issue visas to jihadists, as Jeffrey Battle and the other members of the Portland Seven had to learn the hard way. Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the friends traveled to China with the intention of entering Afghanistan by way of Pakistan. Once at the Chinese-Pakistani border, however, they found they could not enter Pakistan without a visa. After spending a frustrating month trying to obtain visas from the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing, the seven aspiring jihadists decided to go their separate ways.

Battle, who reportedly once served as a bodyguard for Black Panther leader Quanell X, later attempted to obtain a visa to Pakistan by saying he was affiliated with TJ. The Pakistanis, probably recognizing him from his prior (and apparently somewhat vocal) visa attempts, denied him again, though he was able to get a visa to travel to Bangladesh using the feigned connection to TJ. Unable to make his way from Bangladesh to Pakistan or Afghanistan, however, Battle returned to the United States, where he was later arrested. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of seditious conspiracy and waging war against the United States.

Similarly, in the spring of 2001 the members of the so-called Lackawanna Six cell traveled to Pakistan under the pretext of studying the Islamic religion and culture at the TJ training center. In reality, the men traveled through Pakistan to Afghanistan, where they attended training at the al-Farooq camp, a training site being run by al Qaeda. Again, the men used TJ as cover for travel, though there is no indication that TJ played any real part in their alleged plot.

Although the TJ organization unintentionally serves as a front for, or conduit to, militant organizations such as al Qaeda, there is no evidence that the Tablighis act willingly as a global unified jihadist recruiting arm. Rather, such activities appear to occur without the knowledge or consent of TJ leaders. Additionally, because of the very size of the organization and it activities in Muslim communities in the West, a great many Muslims have had some sort of contact with the group. TJ itself, however, is not an intentional propagator of terrorism.

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