By Praveen Swami
August 10, 2016
In the summer of 1927, led by Fazal Wahid,
the Haji Sahib of Turangzai, hundreds of lashkars — and, so goes the myth, a
legion of djinns loyal to the Faqir of Alingar who could not be slain by
bullets or bombs — began to march on Shabqadar Fort, the outpost of the
Frontier Constabulary in Mohmand. British colonial actions had undermined the
authority of the mullahs on the empire’s north-west frontier, and the clerics
wanted vengeance. In Peshawar, the British warned that the Faqir’s column would
be bombed from the air, as would any tribe that gave it passage.
Eighty years later, in 2007, a 28-year-old
man called Abdul Wali seized the Haji Turangzai’s shrine in the village of
Ghaziabad, and laid claim to its legacy. That man, now known by the pseudonym
Omar Khalid Khorasani, heads the Jama’at-ul-Ahrar — the organisation
responsible for Monday’s savage hospital bombing in Quetta, which claimed 74
lives, besides a string of other massacres.
The bombing was also claimed by the Islamic
State, leaving questions over what, if any, the connection between the group
and the internationally-proscribed Jama’at-ul-Ahrar might be. The history of
Abdul Wali, his organisation, and the century of war that gave birth to both
the Jama’at-ul-Ahrar and the IS, however, impart an important lesson: that
labels have almost no relevance to the real story.
From an interview he gave to the
Tehreek-e-Taliban’s house magazine Ihya-e-Khilfat in October 2014, we
know this: jihad was something of a tradition in Abdul Wali’s family. His
grandfather fought alongside the armies of the Afghan king Amanullah Khan
against the British in the war of May-August 1919 — a conflict that saw
under-strength Afghan troops and tribal irregulars pitted against disaffected
imperial troops, with air power used to savage effect against civilian targets.
Abdul Wali’s father, in turn, served in the anti-Soviet Union jihad, though it
is not clear with which group.
Abdul Wali himself ended a brief education
at the local school and religious seminary in the village of Khandharo, in
Mohmand’s Safi subdivision, before travelling to Karachi to join the
Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the once-feared jihadist group that operated with ISI
patronage against India in Kashmir.
There are even odds he would have known at
least one Indian contemporary — Sanaul Haq, the Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh-born
head of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent (AQIS), who served as a
religious-studies teacher at the Harkat’s training camps in PoK in the late
Abdul Wali himself never served in Kashmir.
Instead, he joined the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and ended up
fighting with the Afghan Taliban in Kunar province, just across the border from
Mohmand. The Pakistani police officer Farhan Zahid has, in a monograph, said
Abdul Wali spent time in al-Qaeda training camps before returning home after
the fall of the Emirate in the wake of the post-9/11 US action.
In the following years, Abdul Wali edited
Mohmand Adbi Guncha, a jihadist magazine published from Mohmand, which became a
focal point for local intellectuals drawn to the region’s fledgling jihadist
movement. A large cohort of jihadist veterans, who had tasted power in
Afghanistan, now saw the opportunity to displace the traditional tribal
leadership with their guns. Pakistani intelligence services, hoping for loyal
political clients in the region, backed their rise.
In 2004, Nek Muhammad Wazir and Abdullah
Mehsud began to set up the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. In 2006, Abdul Wali took
an oath of loyalty to Baitullah Mehsud, who formed the Tehreek-e-Taliban the
following year. Abdul Wali was soon appointed to lead the Tehreek-e-Taliban in
Mohmand, helped by his old allies in al-Qaeda.
In 2014, Abdul Wali fell out with TTP emir
Fazal Hayat, also known as Maulana Fazlullah, and formed his own organisation —
the Jama’at-ul-Ahrar. The first issue of the group’s propaganda magazine
praised al-Qaeda’s 9/11 hijackers, but also carried articles by Abu Rumaysah,
the British IS jihadist born Siddhartha Dhar.
The scope of the Jama’at ul-Ahrar’s
ambition was laid out in a manifesto released on the 9/11 anniversary in 2014:
“In 2001”, it read, “Afghanistan was the only Islamic Emirate in the world but
now Jihad has spread to a vast swathe of land”. The Jama’at, it said, would
strike until the caliphate was established “in every nook and corner of the
March 2016 saw 72 people, mostly women and
children, killed when the Jama’at-ul Ahrar bombed Karachi’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal
park on Easter Day; April 2016 the killing of 7 police officers in an attack on
a polio vaccination team in Karachi. August 2015 had seen the assassination of
Punjab’s Home Minister Colonel (retd) Shuja Khanzada. That March, Samiullah
Afridi, the lawyer who defended Shakil Afridi, the doctor accused of helping
the CIA locate Osama bin Laden, was killed in Peshawar.
In a 2015 issue of the Ihya-e-Khilfat,
Abdul Wali was unapologetic: “The Kuffar’s (infidel’s) world order stands upon the
foundation of terrorism,” he wrote. “Terrorism, i.e. to spread terror, is
actually an essential element of warfare.” It was a lesson that had been
learned a hundred years earlier at the shrine where Abdul Wali began his
“The kafirs”, wrote the Hada Mullah
Najmuddin, patriarch of the frontier’s clerics, in a letter to the Afridi and
Orakzai tribes in 1897, “have taken possession of all Muslim countries”, and
“it is necessary to fix the time and day of fighting, so that by the grace of
God, the work may be accomplished”. The campaign that followed was a disaster,
as was a bigger one in 1908: a 5,000-strong Mohmand lashkar was mowed down.
Najmuddin’s successor, Fazal Wahid had vowed on a visit to Mecca in 1878 to
continue resistance to the British, but learned the risks of military
In 1927 then, as the Raj used subsidies to
tribal chieftains to undermine the mullahs, Haji Turangzai still avoided war —
but for years afterward, he led insurgent attacks against the villages and
homes of tribal chieftains loyal to the British. The mullahs’ power in Mohmand,
though, had been decisively broken. Their leadership — long-armed mediators in
disputes between tribes, and the vanguard of their own tribes’ armies — would
give way to élites backed by central authority.
“The events of the last ten days,” wrote
Khan Bahadur Kuli Khan, Assistant Political Officer of the Raj in Kurram in a
grim missive to the government in 1927, “have convinced me that the authority
of the mullahs has developed from a religious to an authoritarian one. They can
coerce any Mohmand [as though] a ruler, rather than a mullah”.
Imperial Britain Was Determined To Change
Like others of his generation, Abdul Wali
used religion to displace the élite the British institutionalised — and replace
their in egalitarian order with a clerical tyranny instead. In their struggle,
the frontier’s jihadists have fluidly allied with global jihadist patrons, be
it al-Qaeda or, now, the Islamic State. Like these transnational millenarian movements,
their aims are utopian. However, their ends are also firmly local.
It matters little, thus, whether the
Jama’at-ul-Ahrar flies the flag of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State or indeed,
what its own name might be: the problem lies not in a few men of evil, but a
polity fragmented by a century of war, and a failed project of statehood.