Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Red Mosque by Nicholas Schmidle

Ghazi and Aziz's father, Maulana Abdullah, founded and ran the Red Mosque for decades. It was the first mosque in Islamabad after the new capital was created in the early 1960s. Abdullah mentored the mujahideen during the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Red Mosque became a way station for fighters transitioning in and out of combat. Ghazi was a clean-shaven college student at the time. "The concept of jihad was not so clear to me back then," he told me. Yet tales of ambush and intrigue tickled his imagination.

Ghazi grew grew close to Qari Saifullah Akhtar who commanded Pakistan's first jihadi group, Harakat ul-Jihadsi (HUJI). Ghazi craved a life of adventure for himself, and asked his father for permission to join Akhtar at a camp in Afghanistan. Abdullah deferred the decision to Ghazi's mother. Ghazi told her he was "going the way of Allah," and intentionally vague explanation.

Ghazi relished his time in Afghanistan, but the experience didn't make him a jihadi for life. Before 9/11, and the ultimatums of being "with us or against us", Ghazi flitted between two worlds: the one of madrassas and jihad, occupied by his father and brother, and a more modern one. He vacationed on the beaches in Thailand. In 1998, he worked at UNICEF. That same year Ghazi received an invitation from his father to accompany him on a trip to Kandahar. Akhtar, leader of HUJI, wanted to introduce Abdullah and his sons to Osama bin Laden. "My father was curious to know what his opinions were." Akhtar belonged to a small circle of non-Afghans close to Mullah Omar, the Taliban, and bin Laden, and said he could facilitate the meeting.

The day after they arrived, "from breakfast until late night:" Abdullah and bib Laden swapped ideas, while Ghazi, still beardless, listened. One day in the presence of bin Laden, Ghazi said, was enough for Abdullah. "He was convinced by Osama's ideas". In his weekly sermons Abdullah began to exalt bin Laden, his philosophy, and his new organization, al Qaeda. The intelligence agencies and authorities might have ignored Abdullah had he been preaching at a provincial mosque, but he attracted a flood of attention as imam of the largest mosque in Islamabad.

In October 1998, less than three months after his meeting with bin Laden, as he walked across the courtyard of the Red Mosque carrying a bag of fruit in either hand, an assassin popped out from behind a wall and emptied two magazines of ammunition into Abdullah.

The experience of meeting bin Laden, observing the Taliban regime in action, and then seeing his father killed had a severe effect on Ghazi. He left UNICEF and assumed control, with his brother, of the Red Mosque. Years later, when pressed to define his political and religious vision, Ghazi told me, "The ideal form of governance is Islamic governance...I don't like democracy. Islam is not about counting people. In democracy, the weight of one vote is the same for a man who is taking drugs and doesn't care about his country as it is for a man with a vision for the future. The majority of people are ignorant. This doesn't bring us a good system." The conversation had galvanized Ghazi's transformation. The death of his father changed him for good.

Over the year that I knew Ghazi, the last year of his life, I watched closely as he and his followers prepared. I wasn't exactly sure what they were preparing for, or from where they were getting their money but the worshipers who came to the Red Mosque tended to be middle-class, and with Pakistan's relative economic upturn during those years, many of them shared the wealth with Ghazi...

When the police and Rangers first surged around the Mosque in early February 2007, after girl student's from Ghazi's madrassa took over the public children's library on the grounds of the Mosque, hundreds of armed supporters- a combination of Pashtuns from the North-West Frontier Province and the tribal areas whose sisters and daughters studied at Jamia Hasa, and Ghazi's old students who had graduated from the men's madrassa and joined various jihadi groups- rushed to defend the mosque... President Musharraf admitted that a dangerous band of militants had surrounded Ghazi, including plenty of eager suicide bombers. "I am not a coward", he said, when asked in July 2007 why he hadn't besieged the Red Mosque and crushed Ghazi's movement.. "But the issue is that tomorrow you will say: 'What have you done?' There are women and children inside.

Why did they come? What was the appeal? I wanted to understand. And as the threats of government bombardment increased, the more I felt I could appreciate the motivations of the young men, anxious to do battle, who never left Ghazi's side. Why do young Americans join the army? The promise of a life of travel, adventure, and sense of purpose. The thought of fighting for something bigger than themselves, bravery and honor. But there was the added attraction of Ghazi himself. He played the classic role of the charismatic leader to an army of brainwashed youth. I knew why they flocked to be near him: I also felt safe in his presence.

Ghazi had done more than just lead an armed rebellion in the center of the capital. The more significant one was a social revolt. It took place in the hearts and minds of young jihadis. Ghazi harnessed their anger and emotions and split off from the traditional sources who had monopolized jihad in previous years. Ghazi's power grab represented a seismic shift in the leadership of religious politics in Pakistan. As Ghazi's followers harassed brothel owners and corrupt policemen around town, they drew widespread condemnation. The MMA, the hard-line coalition of Islamist parties, distanced itself. The examination board responsible for most madrassas in Pakistan canceled the Red Mosque's registration and Mufti Taqi Usmani, a scholar of immense repute who acted as the spiritual guide to Ghazi's brother Aziz, disowned his former pupil when the latter refused to order his students to vacate the children's library.

I asked Ghazi how he felt with the old guard turning against him. He looked unconcerned. "They are too rigid," he said, "Everywhere you look, you can see youngsters rejecting the old ones, because old people do not like change."

Explosions heralded the beginning of Operation Silence. Commandos detonated a series of small bombs to demolished the walls around the Red Mosque compound and paved the wave for their raid. Eventually, after more than eighteen hours of fighting, the government declared that they had killed Ghazi in the basement of the women's madrassa. He was shot in the leg, refused to surrender, and was finally killed. The government paraded his white, bloated corpse in front of television cameras. I paused when the images flashed on the screen. Then I turned off the TV and sat in the dark. Was I allowed to mourn someone who had just led a rebellion? On the other hand, if I didn't let myself feel sad, I would be cheating my dead friend. Ghazi had taken risks time and time again when he reached out to his colleagues and friends to introduce me to them. Having a reference from him was like having a backstage pass to the wild world of radical Islam. I owed it to Ghazi- and to myself- to feel remorse. It didn't mean I supported his views. But he was a friend.

How many people had really died? The government stated around one hundred militants had been killed, and that another ten soldiers had died. Independent estimates put the number who died inside the mosque closer to four of five hundred. But reporters were barred from visiting local hospitals. Hoping to stem the tide of criticisms and conspiracy theories surrounding what some were calling a government-approved "massacre", General Arshad led a few hundred journalists on a tour through the compound. Twenty-four hours had elapsed since the last shots were fired. Even as we searched long and hard for signs of death, we found hardly anything. When you did the math, however, starting roughly the three thousand people inside the mosque on July 3, and subtracting the approximately fifteen hundred to two thousand students who surrendered, you had to think there were at least five hundred still inside during the final push, if not a thousand. Where were they all?

One thing remained very clear: Ghazi's death, and the demolition of the Red Mosque, hadn't vanquished the Taliban. The episode had instead breathed further life into them. For years, the pro-Taliban fighters living in Pakistan, near the Afghan border, primarily focused on Afghanistan. Now they flipped their attention and initiated a ferocious campaign of suicide bombings, ambushes, and road-side bombings against military convoys traveling in the Tribal Areas and Frontier Provinces. By the end of the month, more than three hundred people had been killed. By the end of 2007, the number of suicide attacks in Pakistan jumped to an all-time high of more than fifty. Local Taliban took over the shrine of the nineteenth-century mujahid in the Mohammad Agency, and renamed it Lal Masjid. Like Ghazi, they showed little respect for tradition.

The government reopened the Red Mosque in late July. They had painted is a soft yellow, in hopes of starting anew. They appointed a compliant imam to lead weekly prayers. He was ushered, under heavy security cover, to the entrance of the mosque. Hundred of Ghazi's dedicated followers had beat the new imam there to block him from entering. The militants climbed onto the roof carrying buckets of paint, leaned tall, wooden ladders against the lemon chiffon-colored dome and began rolling brushes soaked in the signature Pepto-Bismol pink onto the walls. The imam turned back and refused to take the job.

Pandemonium swept through the neighborhood. Policemen watched, helplessly, as militants recaptured the mosque. Down the road, another crowd of policemen guarded a cluster of shops and tea stalls. In the melee, a suicide bomber slipped into the crowd of policemen. He detonated himself, sending detached body pats flying in every direction, and killing more than a dozen people. The militants hoisted the black flag with the crossed swords from the roof of the Red Mosque. The mosque was theirs again, and they bellowed for all those below to heart: "Gazi! Ghazi! From your blood the revolution will come!"


  1. "To Live or to Perish Forever; Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan" by Nicholas Schmidle; Henry Holt &Co, 2009

    "Wouldn't we all do better not trying to understand, accepting the fact that no human being will ever understand another, not a wife a husband, a lover a mistress, nor parent a child? Perhaps that's why men have invented God- a being capable of understanding. Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief but I am a reporter; God exists only for leader-writers." - Thomas Fowler, in "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene.

  2. When my wife and I had been kicked out of Pakistan in January 2007, I had left feeling jealous of anyone who got to stay, to watch, to live this fascinating country as it wrestled against military dictatorship, vied to enact the rule of law, and struggled to form a single, unified national identity. Why did I have to go home? But I also knew all along that I should be able to get back. Stay away a few months and let the air clear. That's all it would take, I thought.

    This time (2008) it was different. I left in a bulletproof car. I knew, sitting in Dubai, that I was done with Pakistan for a while. I needed a lot more time away from the intelligence agencies. And I had left most of my optimism about Pakistan behind. Musharraf was gone, but the military was still in control. Elections had brought a democratically elected civilian government, but the average Pakistanis felt no more empowered than they did before. Despite the populist rhetoric of the PPP, poor people still couldn't afford basic commodities like wheat and tea, never mind "luxuries" like electricity, sanitation, clean water or access to medical care. Pakistan stood on the verge of bankruptcy, in almost every sense.