While anti-Indian and Kashmiri separatist activism in the United States has previously been linked to Pakistani intelligence agencies, analysts may have overlooked the role of American Islamist movements.
A few weeks ago, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) held its annual conference in Washington D.C. Organized in conjunction with the Muslim American Society, it is one of the largest events in the American Muslim calendar. But ICNA and MAS are not ordinary Muslim organizations; they are Islamist groups. While both ICNA and MAS claim to be moderate organizations, the long history of extremist speakers at their conferences betrays underlying radical ideologies.
Among the many hardline clerics and radical activists, one of the speakers this year turned out to be the anti-Indian activist Ghulam Nabi Fai, who used his platform to denounce the Indian government’s “brutal activities” in Kashmir. Conspicuously, Fai did not even mention the widely-reported murderous acts of Kashmiri terrorism that has recently killed dozens of Indian troops.
Fai was subject to widespread American media coverage in 2011, when he was charged by American prosecutors with secretly serving as an agent of the Pakistani government. Fai pled guilty, admitting to extensive contact with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which has a long history of involvement with terror groups and other Islamist causes. Up to 2011, prosecutors showed, the ISI transferred an extraordinary $3.5 million to Fai and his organization, the Kashmiri American Council – all, reportedly, in a covert attempt to influence American policy on Kashmir.
Following Fai’s arrest, ICNA and several other American Islamist organizations published a statement expressing support for Fai and the Kashmiri people’s “peaceful struggle for self-determination.” And since his release, Fai has been something of a regular partner for ICNA, almost always speaking on the subject of Kashmir and the ostensible wickedness of the Indian government. He has frequently addressed ICNA events and ‘webinars’, and his op-eds are featured on ICNA’s website.
So why is an anti-Indian activist, associated with Pakistan’s ISI, spending so much time with some of American’s most prominent domestic Islamist activists?
As the Middle East Forum has extensively illustrated, ICNA is a branch of Jamaat-e-Islami, a violent South Asian Islamist movement that is particularly active in Kashmir. While ICNA itself is not violent, it supports violent Islamist movements in both Pakistan and Kashmir.
ICNA’s international aid charity, Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD), for example, funds and partners with Jamaat-e-Islami’s welfare arm, Al Khidmat Foundation, whose president, Naeem ur-Rehman, is closely involved with the designated Kashmiri jihadist group Hizbul Mujahideen. Jamaat-e-Islami’s own website also reports that Al-Khidmat has funded the “Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas).” Previously, writing in National Review, I uncovered that HHRD openly partnered in 2017 with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the designated Pakistani terrorist organization responsible for the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Kashmiri activists, the ISI and Jamaat-e-Islami have long been comfortable in each other’s company, with some Pakistani experts reporting that the ISI uses Jamaat as a violent anti-Indian force, supplying it with weapons. In March, the Indian government banned Jamaat in Indian-controlled Kashmir because of its violent activities. Indian officials have also recently stated that Jamaat’s Kashmiri branch is linked closely to Pakistan’s ISI, and its militants were in regular contact with Pakistani officials.
Fai himself may not just be an ordinary Kashmiri secessionist. In the 1970s, Fai apparently joined Jamaat-e-Islami, serving as a local official for the movement. As ProPublica has discovered, this was just the start of a long history of involvement with Islamist activists and causes. Kashmiri separatist leader Hashim Qureshi reportedly even admitted in 1995 that Fai was working in the U.S. in the 1990s to raise funds for Jamaat-e-Islami and the designated Jamaat-linked terror group, Hizb ul-Mujahideen.
At previous ICNA events featuring Fai, he spoke alongside Nakibur Rahman, one of the leading U.S. advocates for Jamaat-e-Islami’s Bangladeshi branch. Rahman is the son of former Jamaat-e-Islami leader Motiur Rahman Nizami, whom Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal convicted in 2014 of committing genocide, murder and rape during the 1971 Liberation War. Nizami was executed in 2016, while Rahman has remained an unapologetic supporter of his father.
Mohsin Ansari, the anti-Semitic head of ICNA’s Helping Hand charity, has written that Nakibur Rahman has “worked in USA tirelessly for years to help relieve the victimization of Jammat workers in Bangladesh.”
Given his past, and the current company he keeps, it seems apparent that Ghulam Nabi Fai was not just an ISI asset; he is a Jamaat-e-Islami operative as well.
When Fai struck a deal with federal prosecutors in return for a reduced sentence, one of the conditions imposed was that he must end all contact with the ISI. It is noticeable that today, Fai continues to express the same rhetoric and ideas as before his conviction. And even if Fai has truly stayed away from his ISI handlers, he remains very much involved with Jamaat-e-Islami’s operations in the United States.
Just as the Gaza Strip is a campaign topic for America’s Islamists, so too is Kashmir. And it’s not just ICNA. Majlis Ash-Shura of New York, for example, is an umbrella organization for almost a hundred mosques and other Islamic organizations, whose officials have included a number of activists involved with Jamaati organizations. It has organized ‘webinars’ on the subject of Kashmir, in which speakers encouraged the audience to regard Kashmir as a similar struggle to Palestine, and urged activist groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine to campaign against Indian policy on Kashmir as well.
A recent report written by Hatem Bazian, a prominent Islamist academic, is titled “Islamophobia in India: Stoking Bigotry.” Just like Fai, Bazian deceitfully presents the Kashmiri conflict as nothing but senseless Indian cruelty, describing the conflict as a “colonial” effort to “punish the [Kashmiri] population for demanding basic human rights and freedom.” The “supposed war on terrorism,” Bazian writes, is cover for anti-Muslim intolerance. Bazian’s organization, American Muslims for Palestine, which heavily promoted the report, is a close partner of ICNA and is widely accused of being an American proxy for the designated Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
Kashmir is now, more than ever, a leading issue for American Islamist movements. We know the ISI works closely with Islamist movements in South Asia; does it also have any contact with their proxies in the West? In any case, as long as India continues to fight the menace of Islamism, it should expect groups such as ICNA to continue providing political support and succor to these extremists. American Islamist movements now wield significant political influence in the Capitol, and have already proved their ability to organize powerful international campaigns. India is next in their sights.
Sam Westrop is Director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.