Abhinav Pandya and Sam Westrop
In India, the academic and journalistic discourse on jihadi terrorism mostly revolves around transnational and Pakistani terrorist organizations. Meanwhile, non-violent and semi-violent Islamist groups such as Jamaat-i-Islami, and its proxy charitable fronts in the US, UK, and Canada, along with groups such as the Popular Front of India and the Social Democratic Party of India have so far, more or less, managed to escape the attention of intelligence and security agencies.
However, after a number of critical investigations recently revealed Jamaat-i-Islami’s role in radicalizing the society and aiding terrorist organizations in Kashmir, impelling the Home Ministry to ban it, other lawful Islamist groups, also masquerading as peaceful, social organizations, are finally the subject of investigations by India’s intelligence agencies. One noteworthy example is Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), which has, impressively, operated across the length and breadth of India for decades, loudly recruiting millions, and yet somehow avoiding the notice of the law enforcement agencies, despite laying a fertile ground for the spread of jihadist ideology.
Ironically, in the West, TJ has been carefully watched by law enforcement agencies, aware of its links to terror, for the last two decades, despite TJ taking care to operate more carefully and in greater secrecy.
TJ is an offshoot of the fundamentalist and hardline Deobandi sect of Islam. A global missionary movement, TJ operates the largest Islamic network in the world, with perhaps as many as 70-80 million members spread over 150 countries. Its ijtemas (religious gatherings) in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh attract the largest number of Muslim devotees after the Haj.
TJ claims to be a quietist, apolitical organization. In the popular perception, TJ is a guileless missionary organization simply preaching Islam through door-to-door mobile bands. In reality, TJ preaches a regressive, extreme religious outlook. It serves to Islamize existing Muslim communities, encouraging Muslims to embrace a more ascetic, Deobandi strain of Islam, in which every aspect of a Muslim’s life is dictated by TJ rules.
The essence of TJ’s philosophy is the importance of protection from the fitna [test] of the outside world, through intense piety and adherence to TJ’s very particular strain of Islam. Only once the ummah has undergone the “purification of self“, TJ believes, can the spread of Islam to non-Muslims, through jihad or otherwise, take place. In essence, TJ’s work is predicated on the idea of inevitable conflict with the non-Islamic world. French TJ expert Marc Gaborieau goes further, and has suggested that the supreme goal of TJ is nothing less than a “planned conquest of the world in the spirit of Jihad.”
TJ’s influence is widely felt. In Bangladesh, TJ works to rid Muslim communities of perceived Hindu heritage and influence, which, the Hudson Institute claims, has exacerbated significantly the Islamization of Bangladeshi society. In North Kashmir, a senior police officer there told us, the terror group Hizbul Mujahidin sends potential recruits on a 40-day TJ religious training program, after which they are permitted to join the organization. TJ cadres visiting Kashmir from Northern and Eastern India face no resistance or opposition from local groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami and violent Islamists, reportedly because TJ has assisted them with the movement of money and messages, especially during Kashmir’s frequent internet shutdowns.
Further, reports claim TJ is also involved with the radicalization of youth in Kashmir’s Deoband seminaries. In the past, several seminaries were banned after they were found to be sending students for terrorist training. Marhama village, in the Anantnag district, where the Pulwama suicide bombing conspiracy was hatched, has a powerful Deoband madrasa, whose faculty includes TJ preachers. As former Islamist Bashir Ahmad notes, the area is a stronghold of Deobandi terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed.
One prominent Barelvi Sunni Muslim leader from Uttar Pradesh, who has studied the functioning of TJ on the ground for the last 25 years, told us that TJ recruits, after taking part in the obligatory travelling missionary work for set periods of time (a practice common to TJ members all around the world), are often sent to join prominent Islamist organizations such as the Popular Front of India, Social Democratic Party of India, and Jamaat-e-Islami.
Barelvis have good reason to be concerned about the missionary arm of their Deobandi rivals. TJ cadres have long been significantly involved in the occupation and takeover of Barelvi mosques in villages and cities across India. Initially, TJ tries to infiltrate the local mosque committee with its members. If successful, they re-register the mosque as Deobandi, relying on the endorsement of Waqf boards, which are largely controlled by Deobandis. Failing that, TJ establishes a rival, anonymous mosque committee of their own, and attempt to supplant the existing committee, once again relying on the Waqf boards’ approval. Either way, Barelwi imams and management are ejected, leading frequently to violent clashes between the two groups.
In the National Capital Region, TJ cadres have ensured the Deobandi takeover of 150-200 Barelwi mosques. In Gujarat, the TJ and Deobandis have taken over 80% of the mosques. In one such incident in Jaipur, where TJ cadres violently captured Karbala mosque, criminal investigations were initiated. However, law enforcement agencies failed to follow through, apparently only because TJ is not a formally registered organization.
Deobandis teach and practice a fundamentalist, exclusivist form of Islam, which blends easily with extremism and terror. As TJ’s seizures of mosques continues, so does the threat of Deobandi influence. And that threat is just not an Indian issue; TJ and hardline Deobandis are a global problem.
Islamizing the West
TJ has operated in Europe since 1945, when the first TJ missionaries were sent out from the British Raj to England. Working in non-Muslim environments, TJ’s work has been quieter and more careful than its activities in South Asia, with many Western Muslim communities, for decades, not even aware of its existence.
But Western Muslim communities were a particularly important target for TJ. The ostensible sins of the secular world – especially in the 1960s and 1970s – were all too apparent for religious conservatives horrified by moderate Muslim communities that enjoyed music, dance and mixed-gender events. It was felt that TJ’s work to Islamize Muslim communities was particularly vital here.
Journalist Innes Bowen, writing about TJ activity in Britain, cites one early missionary who wrote: “The bazaar of immorality thrives and Satan has set here a wide and tough snare.” Much later, in the 1990s, another British TJ official declared: “a major aim of tablighi is to rescue the ummah [Muslim nation] from the culture and civilization of the Jews, Christians and (other) enemies of Islam to create such hatred for their ways as human beings have for urine … and excreta…”
As in India and the rest of South Asia, TJ sought to operate in Europe primarily through Deobandi networks. In fact, as the academic Philip Lewis notes, the most important Deobandi institution in Europe, Darul Uloom Bury, was established on the orders of Indian TJ leader Muhammad Zakariya, who penned the essential TJ text, Faizail-e-Amaal.
A second Darul Uloom, in the Northern English town of Dewsbury, was established in the late 1970s, becoming one of TJ’s chief institutions outside of India and Pakistan – it is often referred to, in fact, as TJ’s headquarters in Europe.
Using Dewsbury as a base, TJ missionaries travelled Europe and the rest of the world, recruiting followers and Islamizing Muslim communities. Upon arriving in a new city, these missionaries would “soon spread out into mosques throughout the city, state and country, usually sleeping in bedrolls on the floor of host Islamic centers.” A common tactic in the West, report some studies, is for TJ missionaries to “suddenly show up in small groups at the homes of Muslim individuals who have not been seen at a mosque lately.”
In some cases, TJ missionaries served as a vanguard for Deobandi expansion into South Asian communities in Europe. This was a clever investment. TJ’s assistance in the expansion of the Deobandi presence produced an extensive network of Deobandi mosques, many willing, decades later, to serve as key outposts for TJ missionary work. It is unclear whether TJ have helped Deobandis seize mosques in the West, as they have done in India. But, in Britain, it is worth noting that Deobandis constitute a mere estimated 20 percent of Britain’s 3 million Muslims, and yet control over 40 percent of the mosques.
In France, where TJ could not rely on as large a South Asian population, it has recruited an enormous number of Muslims from North African backgrounds. Along with the establishment of several TJ mosques, the movement is now, one academic writes, “part of the daily fabric of Muslim life in France.”
TJ gatherings in Europe can attract thousands, although they are arranged, as Innes Bowen notes, without websites, press releases, or other advertising materials. TJ remains largely a secretive force, that only comes to the public’s attention when its influence is sporadically uncovered.
In the United States, the TJ approach has been a little different. First arriving in the 1950s, TJ found that a relatively small Deobandi presence required them to find new Muslim community partners and establish mosques of their own, often targetting black Americans who had recently left the Nation of Islam in large numbers (a quasi-Islamic black nationalist movement) and who were looking for a new ideological home.
Today, in fact, TJ mosques in America cater to a diverse array of Muslim converts and immigrants from all corners of the globe. It is estimated there are 15,000 TJ members active in the United States, of which, reportedly, only 60% are South Asian.
TJ’s American headquarters is considered by some to be the Alfalah mosque in New York City, which, unusually, openly acknowledges its TJ identity on its own website. Contrast this with Darul Uloom Dewsbury in the UK, which admits no public link to TJ at all, despite being its most important TJ center outside South Asia. Other prominent TJ centers in America include Chicago, San Diego and Los Angeles.
In the 1980s and 90s, TJ operated more overtly in North America, in a manner similar to its operations in India today. It openly held conferences in Chicago and Toronto, which many thousands attended. After 9/11, however, TJ activity has been more careful, and much less visible. Some analysts have concluded that TJ’s relatively inconspicuous existence today suggests it has lost influence and members; although it is difficult to square that claim with the fact that TJ missionaries continue to be found at mosques across the US, and that so many recent jihadists have passed through TJ programs.
Indeed, that many Western jihadists have some involvement with TJ at some point in their radicalization is indisputable. Somewhat in contrast to Indian intelligence services, Western officials have been aware of TJ’s dangerous influence for decades.
US officials stated in 2003: “We have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States and we have found that Al-Qaeda used them for recruiting now and in the past.” In the early 2000s, a Pakistani intelligence source claimed that 400 American terrorist recruits in Pakistan or Afghanistan had emerged by the American TJ network. French intelligence, meanwhile, has claimed that 80 percent of its own Islamist extremists may have once been part of TJ, referring to it as an “antechamber of fundamentalists.”
TJ-tied Western terrorists have included Richard Reid, the transatlantic ‘shoe bomber’, and Mohammed Siddique Khan, mastermind of the 7/7 terror attacks in London. Even Abu Qatada, a leading Jordanian jihadist preacher and Al Qaeda contact, was reportedly involved in TJ circles.
Although TJ operates a little more cautiously in the West, its ideological adherence to TJ branches in South Asia is clear. In fact, even the split between TJ’s branches in India and Pakistan was reflected among Western TJ networks. In 2017, supporters of the two TJ camps came to blows outside a London TJ institution. In the US, TJ members who subscribed to the ‘wrong’ TJ faction were apparently expelled from TJ mosques.
It is unsurprising that not all Western TJ members were willing to support the Indian faction of TJ; Pakistani TJ institutions have long attracted the loyalty of TJ members around the world.
TJ and Pakistani Islamism
In Pakistan, the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq supported the work of Deobandi and Tablighi extremists. Since then, Tablighi cadres have continued to play influential roles in Pakistan, including, positions as powerful as the Director-General of ISI, Pakistan’s notorious terror-tied spy agency.
Multiple reports claim that TJ cadres of Pakistan meet with their Indian counterparts in Bangladesh, where they work in close coordination with Jamaat-i-Islami, which colluded with the Pakistani army in the genocide of civilians during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War. Today. Reportedly, TJ’s Pakistani cadres enter India through Bangladesh, where some believe they may serve ISI’s interests.
It is also important to note that in Pakistan, TJ has further demonstrable connections with terror groups. Top-level recruiters from terror groups have visited TJ cadres in Raiwind and encouraged individual Tablighis to join terror groups. Reportedly, in 1995, TJ’s military offshoot, Jihad-bi-Al Saif, was accused of plotting to kill Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s former prime minister.
The dreaded terrorist group Harkat-ul-Mujahidin (HuM), founded in 1980, drew all of its original members from Tablighi Jamaat. HuM was responsible for hijacking Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in 1998 and brutally murdering French engineers in Karachi in 2002. Later, 6000 Tablighis were trained in HuM camps, many of whom fought in Afghanistan and joined Al Qaeda after the defeat of the Soviets. Another violent offshoot of TJ, Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (HuJI), is active in Kashmir and Gujarat. HuJI was responsible for the attack on an American cultural center in 2002, as well as the 2004 assassination attempt on Sheikh Hasina, then the leader of moderate Awami League and now the current prime minister of Bangladesh.
Further, when TJ’s Indian cadres travel to Pakistan for ijtemas and preaching work, they are reportedly lured by terror groups like Al Qaeda, Lashkar, and Harkat-ul-Mujahidin.
Recognizing the Threat
Of course, TJ’s more overt links to Islamism and terror are not limited to the countries we have already mentioned. Alex Alexiev has written that the Government of Philippines has accused TJ (which has at least 11,000 members in the their country) of acting as a conduit for Saudi money to terrorists in its south and as a cover for the Pakistani jihadist volunteers. In Tunisia, Rachid Al Ghannouchi, co-founder of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party and one of the most prominent Islamist ideologues in the world, is a graduate of TJ, having joined the movement in Paris in his youth. Terrorists from Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA), meanwhile, were closely involved with TJ. The list of examples goes on.
TJ is a pestiferous force. And, given the evidence, who could seriously still consider it a quietist movement?
Certainly, terrorist groups in Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with jihadist preachers and recruiters in the West and elsewhere, have long used it to their advantage, with no apparent effort by TJ to refuse them. Omar Nasiri, a spy who infiltrated Al Qaeda in the 1990s, reveals that Al Qaeda encouraged potential recruits to first join TJ, partly because TJ’s missionary work offered important cover for travelling jihadists. Indeed, Zeeshan Siddiqui, a British jihadist tied to Al Qaeda, flew to Pakistan, allegedly to meet Al Qaeda contacts, while claiming to be attending a TJ conference.
Despite these facts, it is pertinent to mention that unlike the US, TJ’s alleged links with terror groups, Islamist radicalization, and other illicit activities have neither received much attention from India’s intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, nor from journalists and Indian scholars of terrorism studies. TJ’s unofficial, unincorporated status, its vague recruitment processes and secret and dubious financial practices makes it particularly challenging for law enforcement agencies and financial watchdogs to track its activities.
But there is also no doubt that, even without the direct terror links, TJ has radicalized entire communities across the globe. Once moderate communities are regularly targeted by TJ for re-education. As Yoginder Sikand noted in his 1998 study of TJ in Britain, the movement works to “promote a sense of paranoia and even disgust of non-Muslim society.”
Nor is TJ ultimately limited to just Deobandi Islam, even within South Asian communities. The BBC has noted that, despite many Muslims belonging to the somewhat moderate Barelvi movement, they were still being drawn into TJ circles. TJ’s reputation for pure piety among the world’s Muslims has seemingly often afforded them the permission to cross sectarian lines, while still using Deobandi mosques all around the world as bases.
One former TJ member told the BBC: “I saw teenage boys, go to the mosque, go home, preach to their families. Six months later, all the women in the family would be wearing the niqab – you wouldn’t see their faces again. I saw entire families change through Talibghi Jamaat.”
But even if one were to discount the evidence in South Asia tying TJ to jihadists and extremist groups, as well as ignore the well-documented facts that too many Western jihadists have passed through TJ ranks and that too many TJ members embrace violent thought, one crucial point remains.
If TJ’s claim to eschew all political discussion is genuine, by refusing to discuss certain political issues, TJ isn’t guaranteeing that extremism cannot be taught; it is guaranteeing that TJ will avoid doing anything to discourage the violence that is the obvious corollary of the dogma TJ preaches and enforces.
Islamism is not just about violence; it is fundamentally about the embrace, and imposition, of absolutist theology. TJ, perhaps more extensively than any other radical sect in the world, preaches and insists on that absolutism.
Indians know what happens when these extremists operate with impunity, even if Indian intelligence services have been slow to catch on. Western intelligence services, meanwhile, knew of dangers of TJ and yet failed to counteract their influence, despite Western Muslims using TJ to travel in significant numbers to South Asia to join terrorist organizations.
The threat of the hardline Deobandis and their missionary arm, TJ, is global and obvious; it requires cooperation between India and the West to produce a global and tough response, starting with international investigations into TJ’s financing, its links with Pakistani and Kashmiri terrorist organizations, and its role as an incubator for jihadist radicalization.
Abhinav Pandya is a counterterrorism expert and author of Radicalization in India: An Exploration (Pentagon Press, 2019); Sam Westrop is director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.