Often ignored in reporting on the U.S. journalist’s beheading is the man that Pearl had been trying to interview in Pakistan
The Supreme Court of Pakistan last week acquitted Ahmed Saeed Omar Sheikh, the primary accused in the 2002 killing of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, throwing a major spanner in ties between Islamabad and Washington as the two countries work to establish ties under the administration of President Joe Biden. While the Pakistan government has filed a review petition, observations from the top court suggest the matter won’t be easy to resolve to the satisfaction of all parties concerned. But while attention remain fixed on Sheikh and his looming release, there’s a version to the story that many in Pakistan have decided to ignore.
Pearl had come to Pakistan in 2001 on a search for Mubarak Shah Gilani, a “spiritual leader” whose Al-Fuqra organization had a criminal record in the United States. As part of his investigation, Pearl examining the connection between Gilani and Richard Reid, the so-called British “shoe bomber,” who attempted to detonate a bomb inside his shoe on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in 2001. Born to a father who was a career criminal, Reid converted to Islam as a young man in prison and was reportedly a member of the Al-Fuqra.
Miracles of Mubarak Shah
Born into a family that served as custodians of Lahore’s Mian Mir shrine, Mubarak Shah Gilani—today old and ailing—once worked as a mountaineer given to performing “miracles” while climbing with friends. In the 1970s, Gilani was a vice president in the Punjab chapter of former Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s Tehreek-e-Istaqlal. At the time, he was a clean-shaven man in his 30s. Being the eldest son of Mian Mir shrine’s Pir Maqsood Shah Gilani, he was reckoned as among the most important political opponents of then-prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The Bhutto government got three cases registered against him for leading anti-government processions under the Defense of Pakistan Rule, which is a non-bailable offense.
After his release, Gilani left for Saudi Arabia to escape Bhutto’s wrath. Later he migrated to the U.S., where he proselytized and converted a large number of Americans, especially African-Americans, to Islam. During his 7-year stay in the U.S., he set up madrassas, and also established the Tanzeem-al Fuqra, later Jamaat al-Fuqra. During this period he contracted three marriages—one with a Pakistani woman and two with African-Americans.
Gilani and Pearl
Reporting on Pearl’s abduction, The New York Times wrote on Jan. 30, 2002: “The Wall Street Journal said today that it has received a new message that it believes to be from the militant Islamic group suspected of seizing Daniel Pearl, a correspondent for the newspaper who has been missing in Pakistan since last week. The message—sent by e-mail to The Journal and other newspapers—apparently says Mr. Pearl’s captors will kill him within 24 hours unless their demands are met, the Dow Jones news service reported. The letter also threatens other American journalists who remain in the area.
“In Pakistan today, officials announced the arrest of Sheik Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, identified by authorities as a prime suspect in the abduction of Mr. Pearl. Mr. Gilani, leader of a small Islamic sect, Tanzimul Fuqra, was arrested in Rawalpindi and taken to Karachi, police officials said. Mr. Pearl was trying to arrange an interview with Mr. Gilani when he disappeared in Karachi on Jan. 23.
“Al Fuqra is a splinter group of the extremist Army of Muhammad (Jaish-e-Muhammad), a jihadi organization recently banned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf but which has had long-standing connections with senior ISI officials, State Department analysts said. The links are so clear, said former CIA chief of counterterrorism Vince Cannistraro that ‘Gilani has some former senior ISI official sitting on the board of his organization’.”
Americans tackle Al-Fuqra
Al-Fuqra is described in the State Department’s 1998 report “Patterns of Global Terrorism” as follows: “Seeks to purify Islam through violence. Members have purchased isolated rural compounds in North America to live communally, practice their faith and insulate themselves from Western culture. (Al) Fuqra members have attacked a variety of targets that they view as enemies of Islam, including Muslims they regard as heretics and Hindus.”
U.S. intelligence officials later added: “The U.S. intelligence officials said that Al Fuqra had close ties with Pakistan’s ISI, prompting suspicion that the ISI was involved in the reporter’s abduction. Al-Fuqra also has close ties with another Pakistani extremist group, Harkatul Mujahideen—an organization that, significantly, was left off Musharraf’s Jan. 12 list of banned organizations, and which has known ties to Al Qaeda.”
They continued: “Pearl, who was doing research on Richard Reid, the shoe-bomb suspect who was allegedly trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, had gone missing. According to UPI sources, Pearl had gone to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad asking for guidance about plans to interview Gilani, a supposed contact of Reid’s. Pearl was to be taken to the Tanzimul Fuqra interview by two Pakistani guides. Embassy officials strongly advised against his going alone, without an interpreter or local assistant, State Department officials said.
Pearl goes after Shah
“Later, email messages arriving at the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and news organizations in Pakistan, announced that Pearl had been kidnapped and detailed conditions for his release. A group calling itself The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty demanded repatriation of the Pakistani prisoners taken from Afghanistan to Cuba and the release of F-16 fighter aircraft purchased in the 1980s by the Pakistani government. The delivery of the planes was cancelled by Congress in 1990 in response to Pakistan’s continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
“The JF, in its early phase, sought to counter what is perceived as excessive Western influence on Islam. It also concluded that violence was a significant aspect in its quest to purify Islam. In its ideological moorings, the Fuqra regards as enemies of Islam all those who do not follow the tenets of Islam as laid out in the Quran, including those Muslims who they consider as heretics as well as non-Muslims. One of Gilani’s works published by the Quranic Open University in the U.S. and seized in a 1991-investigation instructed his cadres that their foremost duty was to wage jihad against the ‘oppressors of Muslims’. Members of the group are described as Islamist extremists with much hatred toward their ‘enemies’.”
The Shah network
“Investigations by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office in the 1980s indicated that the JF was composed of approximately 30 different Jamaats or communities, more or less mobile in nature. Most of these had several covert paramilitary training compounds, one of which had been located in a mountainous area near Buena Vista, Colorado prior to the Colorado prosecutions in the mid-1990s. Within 10 years of its formation, Fuqra’s communes in the U.S. attracted many Muslim converts-including some of those recruited in prisons.”
The outreach of Al Fuqra
Another dispatch explained: “The JF was said to comprise of some 1,000 to 3,000 members in the U.S. Secrecy is the hallmark of the outfit and cadres are reportedly well versed in the use of aliases. The Fuqra’s structure is well concealed behind front outfits and consists of a network of safe houses and cells. Furthermore, the JF founder as well as cadres consistently maintain that it does not exist. JF members occasionally travel abroad for paramilitary and survivalist training under Gilani’s supervision.
“In the 1980s, al Fuqra carried out various terrorist acts, including numerous fire-bombings across the United States. JF’s early targets in North America were ethnic Indians and targets linked to various Indian sects. In July 1983, Stephen Paul Paster, a front ranking JF member, was responsible for planting a pipe bomb at a Portland hotel owned by followers of the Bhagwan Rajneesh cult. After his arrest in Colorado, Paster served four years of a 20-year prison sentence for the bombing. He was suspected but not charged in two other bombings in Seattle in 1984—the bombings of the Vedanta Society temple and the Integral Yoga Society building.
“After the Portland bombing, two Fuqra cadres allegedly killed Mozaffar Ahmad, a leader of the minority Ahmadiyyah sect in Canton, Michigan. Both the suspects reportedly perished in a fire they had set at the Ahmadiyyah mosque in nearby Detroit. The JF is also reported to have been involved in the killing of three Indians on Aug. 1, 1984 in a suburb of Tacoma, Washington. Besides, the JF is suspected to be involved in a series of fire bombings of Hindu and Hare Krishna temples in Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia and Kansas City.
“U.S. officials in 1989, during a search of a storage locker in Colorado Springs, recovered a large cache of armaments and documents with multiple links to the JF. Among the arms recovered were handguns, semi-automatic firearms, explosives, pipe bombs, bomb components and several bombs. Some of the seized documents described the activities and code of the Muhammad Commandos of Sector 5, who were reportedly involved in arms training and intelligence gathering. The documents, including maps and lists, contained details of potential JF targets and victims in Los Angeles, Arizona and Colorado––oil and gas installations and electrical facilities, U.S. Air Force Academy and other military sites, people in 12 U.S. states and Canada with Jewish or Hindu-sounding names.”
The anti-Indian angle
In 1991, JF’s plans to bomb an Indian cinema and a Hindu temple near Toronto were unsuccessful. Five JF cadres were arrested at the Niagara Falls border crossing after U.S. Customs agents searched their cars and found visual evidence and plans of the interiors of the targets and a description of time bombs. A Canadian jury convicted three American JF cadres of conspiracy to commit mischief and endanger life. A fourth suspect, who had come to Canada from Pakistan shortly before the planned bombing, fled to Pakistan after his colleagues’ arrest, according to evidence presented at the trial.
In the 1990s, JF was more often than not operating under the guise of two front groups, Muslims of the Americas and Quranic Open University. The latter portrayed itself as a religious and charitable educational institution dedicated to studying the Quran.
Gilani in Pakistan reportedly admitted to receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in donations from America. A large segment of JF members have been convicted of criminal acts, including murder and fraud. With the U.S. State Department outlawing Fuqra and listing it as one of the proscribed groups in its annual reports, the activities of the outfit decreased. However, it continued to support various terrorist groups operating in Pakistan and in India-held Kashmir. Gilani also retained linkages with Islamist terrorist groups like the Hamas and Hezbollah. Although dormant in terms of real activity, JF had active links with terrorist groups in Pakistan and provided both moral and material assistance to these groups.
The violent connection
In 1993, Fuqra members in Colorado were convicted of participating in a conspiracy resulting in the killing of a Muslim religious figure in Arizona. One of the persons convicted in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 was Clement Rodney Hampton-el, a Fuqra member. Gilani was arrested in Pakistan from Rawalpindi in 2002 and remained in custody for some time before being let off by the anti-terrorism court in the Daniel Pearl case. (Consequent to his arrest, he had reportedly told his interrogators that he had links with the Pakistani intelligence agencies.)
A house in Virginia believed to be linked to the JF was raided by police in December 2001 and two persons were arrested for illegally purchasing guns. Three suspected U.S.-based JF members were arrested on weapons charges in the year 2001, including two following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Vicente Rafael Pierre, a 44-year-old native of Brooklyn and his wife Traci Upshur, both JF cadres, were arrested on gun charges and convicted on Nov. 30, 2001.
In a Feb. 22, 2002 interview, Gilani said his contribution to the Kashmir cause since 1947 and to the Afghan jihad were on record. In the same interview, Gilani claimed that both the governments of Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir had requested him to mobilize his university students to project the cause of Kashmir in the U.S. through the media by holding rallies and informing the public. To this end, he claimed that the Kashmir-American Friendship Society was formed in 1993.
Killing Rashad Khalifa
In 1989, Dr. Rashad Khalifa preached at the Masjid Tucson in Texas. There was another mosque in Tucson, the Islamic Center, which was favored by radical Islamists, including Al Qaeda figures like a man called el-Hage. Many at the Islamic Center complained about Khalifa and his liberal views, such as allowing men and women to pray together. El-Hage told U.S. investigators that in January 1990, he was visited by an unnamed, tall, bearded, Egyptian man who said that he had come from New York. This man said he had come to Tucson to investigate Khalifa. Later, on Jan. 31, Khalifa was found murdered in the kitchen of his mosque.
Investigators suspected the unnamed man was sent from New York by radical Islamists there. Osama bin Laden had a base of support at the Al-Kifah Refugee Center in New York, and another base of support in Tucson. El-Hage would later tell investigators that he thought Khalifa’s murder was justified. Starting in 1991, the FBI would begin investigating El-Hage, and he would be implicated in the murder of Khalifa, but there was not enough evidence to charge him.
The New York Times notes: “Later, seven people men would be indicted in Colorado on charges of conspiracy to kill Khalifa. All seven were believed to be members of al-Fuqra, a Muslim extremist group based in Pakistan that has been tied to terrorist activities. Six will be convicted and the seventh will flee the country. In the 1980s when small towns in FATA were turning into recruitment centers for the Afghan war, seeds of jihad took hold and bloomed in some unexpected places—in two small towns in the United States, where two groups formed by Sheikh Mubarak Gilani—arrested in connection with Daniel Pearl’s murder in 2002—are suspected of violent extremism.”
The Khalid Khwaja connection
U.S. federal government officials told Daily Times in 2006 that the Department of Justice had reported the JF “has more than 35 suspected communes and more than 30,000 members spread across the U.S., all in support of one goal: the purification of Islam through violence.” (Consequent to his arrest, he reportedly told his interrogators that he had links with the Pakistani intelligence agencies.)
A year after the attempt to enter jihad, Gilani began training fighters in coordination with an unidentified commander. He says that they trained Afghans to capture Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
Gilani’s recruits reportedly fought in Afghanistan as members of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s organization. Two dozen African-American recruits were seen amongst the mujahideen in Afghanistan in 1985.
Khalid Khawaja, a Pakistani intelligence operative and associate of Osama bin Laden, says he met Gilani in 1988 and suspected he was an agent of the CIA. He came to realize he is a “great leader” devoted to the mission of jihad. Khawaja then became one of Gilani’s closest associates, with one former MOA member describing him as Gilani’s “right-hand man” in Pakistan.
Islamic Monthly account
On April 7, 2009, The Islamic Monthly magazine published an article titled “Encounter with a Mysterious Sheikh,” an account of a meeting with Mubarak Shah Gilani: “It was December 1993 and I was in Khartoum, Sudan, with a CBC television team. Sudan was our first stop in what became six weeks on the road gathering material for a full-edition documentary titled Seeds of Terror. High on our list was a shadowy Pakistani mystic named Syed Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani. The only image of him I had was a photo in a book he had published in 1982.
“I was eager to speak with Gilani because several men belonging to Jamaat-ul-Fuqra, an organization he is alleged to have founded in the early 1980s in the United States, were charged in Ontario with conspiracy to bomb a Hindu temple and an Indian theater.
“Then one day, as I was swinging happily through the revolving doors of the Hilton, I spotted Gilani. I followed him as he exited the hotel.
“‘Sheikh Gilani,’ I called out, greeting him with the Muslim salutation. ‘Can I speak with you?’… He smiled and politely asked me not to divulge that I had met him in Khartoum. At the time I believed that I knew everything I needed to know about Gilani and the activities of the Jamaat-ul-Fuqra. Gilani had come from Pakistan to the United States in 1981 and immediately set about trying to convince members of Dar ai-Islam, a thriving African American Sunni organization based in New York, to participate in the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Indian army in Kashmir.
Fuqra and the death count
“According to the FBI, Fuqra members are responsible for no less than 17 fire-bombings and assassinations in the United States targeting prominent Hindus and members of the Ahmadi sect. What investigators knew then, but had no way of proving, was that Gilani and members of Fuqra could not have operated without the consent of senior people in the Pakistani military and intelligence.
“In 2004 I was in Pakistan to do an interview with the wife and daughter of a known Al Qaeda operative. Their benefactor showed up while we were setting up and he gave me a severe tongue-lashing. I frantically searched my memory for what I might have done to warrant it and concluded that he must have me mistaken for someone else.
“He said he once worked for Pakistan’s intelligence, but now describes himself as an “ambassador” of Al Qaeda. His name is Khalid Khawaja and 10 years earlier he had tried to block my access to Gilani in front of the Khartoum Hilton.
“He offered to arrange a meeting with Gilani whom he said was given no ends of grief after our interview was aired in Canada. The name of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl immediately popped into my head and fear gripped at my heart. I thought of a million excuses to decline.
“The meeting never took place although I did receive a four-page apology from the sheikh explaining why he couldn’t meet me. In the letter he explained that he had nothing to do with the kidnapping and beheading of Pearl, but the ordeal had an adverse impact on his health and he has decided to go into ‘uzla’ (spiritual retreat).
“After reading Mariane Pearl’s book, A Mighty Heart, and watching the movie by the same title starring Angelina Jolie, I realized why ‘uzla’ was perhaps the best of all options for Gilani. The Sheikh, I thought, has many issues to resolve.”