March 11, 2018


The underworld of jihadi networks is a mindboggling, esoteric phenomenon that defies understanding for most
The underworld of jihadi networks is a mindboggling, esoteric phenomenon that defies understanding for most

The underworld of jihadi networks is a mindboggling, esoteric phenomenon that defies understanding for most. The more you study it, the more you are confused, lost in a maze marked by ideological anarchy and the militants’ shifting loyalties. There are characters straight out of a John le Carré novel living in a world where mutual trust is the one commodity that is absent. It is quicksand. Only death — assassination by fellow jihadists or a drone attack — liberates you, if Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurence Louër’s book The Islamic Connection: South Asia and the Gulf is any guide.

Comrades of decades fall out and money is not necessarily the only divider. It could be one’s own interpretation of jihad, one’s own choice of friend and foe, one’s own war and peace doctrine or one’s own road to eternal bliss. Even those on the same side — such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Afghan Haqqanis — work at cross purposes, sometimes do not know exactly what their allies want, retrace their steps, create a new line-up of ferocious and dyed-in-the-wool militants and begin a new era of ties with the estranged lot to resume a ‘jihad’ whose victims are overwhelmingly civilians. Often, it appears jihad is an end in itself.

One major factor that has turned Afghanistan into a madhouse is the multipronged Saudi strategy with aims that look contradictory, but are not and instead, show Saudi realism. Basically, Riyadh wants an ‘Islamic’ and pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan; it wants the United States to withdraw, but at the same time it does not wish a hurried American withdrawal that may offer opportunities to Iran. However, the nuances of one of its aims are interesting and show Saudi concerns not for American policy, but for the consequences of American policy, implying rather unfairly that Washington policymakers pursue policies without worrying about consequences. Clearly, the Saudis seem to agree with those who believe the American mind is inherently incapable of understanding a non-European problem.

Scholarly essays trace the networks and influences of jihadi politics between South Asia and the Middle East

The three-way relationship between Islamabad, Riyadh and the Haqqanis is full of intrigues, suspicions and follies. For instance, the Arabian kingdom’s financial support to Islamabad’s friends continues, but the Saudis feel terribly unhappy when they learn that Pakistan is sorting out ties with Iran and is trying to restrain its anti-Shia militants. Riyadh backs Ashraf Ghani in the Afghan presidential election, but feels frustrated when it finds Ghani trapped in the ‘unity’ coalition government of which Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik, is part.

Two characters epitomise this jihadi underworld: Jamilur Rahman and Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost. Both combine in their beings the incompatible roles of scholar and militant — or terrorist, if you wish. Dost, an Afghan, moves to Pakistan, goes to Saudi Arabia and takes part in the siege of the Grand Mosque in Makkah in 1979 — a subject that contributor to the book, Ayesha Siddiqa, in ‘Pakistani Madrasas [sic]: Ideological Stronghold for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States’, says is “under-researched.” Dost manages to flee to Peshawar, is arrested by Pakistan in 2001 for links with the Taliban, is handed over to America, is imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay; returns to Pakistan after release, writes a Pashto booklet titled The Broken Chains of Guantanamo, breaks with Rahman for his purported pro-Islamabad, pro-Riyadh leanings; pledges allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and becomes the deputy leader of the Islamic State of Khurasan.

Rahman was the man behind the Salafi Emirate of Kunar. According to Vahid Brown, author of the chapter ‘The Salafi Emirate of Kunar between South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula’, Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIS “has its roots in Kunar.” There is nothing that Rahman doesn’t do to mobilise militants from all over the Arab world to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. He falls out with many militant leaders, including Hizb-i-Islami’s Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is accused of turning the Kunar emirate into his personal fiefdom, is criticised for taking part in elections, is suspected of working for the Saudi government and is assassinated. Also to fall in the scholar-militant category is Masood Azhar, whose book on jihad, the 2,000-page Fathul Jawwad, is taught at Deobandi madressahs.

The book under review quotes from The Killing of Shaykh Jamil al Rahman al Afghani by Yemeni scholar and militant Muqbil bin Hadi al Wadi, who dwells on the ideological anarchy among the militants, accuses Hekmatyar’s men of murdering Rahman, regrets anti-Shia feelings among the militants, insists that Shias’ blood and money are illicit on other Muslims, believes the Islamic message must be conveyed gently and deplores that elements in Kunar talk about going after the Wahhabis after the communists are disposed of.

At one stage, Jalaluddin Haqqani also declared that he had no problem with Shia mujahideen and had no objection to the latter becoming part of the shura formed after the conquest of the eastern Afghanistan city of Khost. In 2013, while his son Sirajuddin Haqqani was receiving money from Iran, some elements within the Haqqani camp not only continued to receive Saudi dole, they joined the ISIS. However, Saudi-Haqqani relations touched a new low when reports surfaced — denied by Riyadh — that Saudi intelligence was behind the arrest in Bahrain of two members of the Miran Shah shura, including a top Haqqani military commander, as punishment for hobnobbing with Tehran. It was now left to Pakistan to work for a rapprochement between the Saudis and Haqqanis. Both Pakistanis and Saudis, the book says, believe in the divide and rule policy with regard to the militants. In the sixth chapter, ‘The Arab-Gulf Connections of the Taliban’, Italian scholar Antonio Giustozzi claims that the Gulf monarchies “were dragged into the post-2001 Afghan conflict by their Pakistani allies.”

Tension also arose between the Saudis and Mullah Omar when the Afghan Taliban chief refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to a Riyadh angry over his fatwa declaring war on America because “Saudi Arabia is under US occupation.” Omar said he would grant asylum even to a dog, and here was a man — Bin Laden — who had spent all his wealth “in the cause of Allah and Afghan jihad.”

Consisting of contributions by 10 scholars, the book focuses on the ideological and ‘jihadi’ relationship between South Asia and the Gulf countries and, contrary to the general impression, the flow of ideas wasn’t only from the Arab side; thinkers from South Asia equally influenced scholars and movements in the Arabian Peninsula. For instance, who would have believed that more than two centuries ago, Muhammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab, the founder of Wahabbism, had a mentor from Sindh, the scholar Hayat al Sindhi. In modern times, as pointed out in ‘Pakistani Sufism in the Gulf: Structural Constraints, Modes of Transplant and Remittances’ by Alix Phillipon, the Pakistani diaspora has been instrumental in spreading sufism in the den of Salafism. This included both Barelvi sufism and Deoband-inspired mysticism, the latter introduced to the Gulf region by Allah Yar from Lahore. Among those who have been instrumental in popularising the Barelvi brand of sufism are Pakistani artists, qawwals and singers, besides the contribution made by Minhajul Quran led by a scholar such as Dr Tahirul Qadri.

While Siddiqa breaks new ground by collating facts largely unknown — such as the Arabs’ view of Pakistani Muslims and of the Quaid-i-Azam — the opening chapter by the editors of the book, Jaffrelot and Louër, traces the history of South Asia’s two-way relationship with the Gulf region. We didn’t know that when the Mughal emperor Humayun’s sister, Gulbadan Begum, went on Haj and stayed on, the Ottomans considered them a risk and politely made them leave. The Mughal-Ottoman relationship, too, is a topic under-researched.

Some mistakes crop up in the book: ‘Saudi Arabia’ has been used as a geographical expression at a time when the Saudi state didn’t exist. Then, Dara Shikoh was the brother of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, not of Aurangzeb’s great-grandfather Akbar. Also, Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi Shaheed did not belong to Bihar; as his name suggests he was born in Rae Bareli in the Indian province of Awadh, or what is now Uttar Pradesh in India. Lastly, most shockingly, the book lacks an index.

The reviewer is an author and Dawn’s Readers’ Editor

The Islamic Connection:
South Asia and the Gulf
Edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and
Laurence Louër
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0670090495

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 11th, 2018