Online jehad

Published : Jan 27, 2006 00:00 IST

Mujahideen during training in Pakistan. - AP

Mujahideen during training in Pakistan. - AP

The Lashkar-e-Taiba has used the Internet to reach out to audiences worldwide.

CLEAN straight lines, shorn of all but the barest reference to classical Islamic architecture, form the buildings of al-Dawa University. None of the buildings, even the faculty of religious law, gives in to the temptation to hark back to a golden age of Islam; there are no elaborate domes here, nor ornate ceramic tiles. If the intention of al-Dawa University was to mock those who believe that jehad is a backward, obscurantist project, its architect could not have done better. Inside the sprawling campus, there are departments of both arts and sciences, all well-equipped with computers: computers from which the most vibrant online jehad campaign in the world is fed.

Just what is the system of belief that the online jehad seeks to propagate? And what does it seek to achieve? To find answers, we must turn first from the virtual world to the real one.

The message of the medium

The Jamaat-ud-Dawa, without dispute the best-funded and organised far-Right Islamist formation in Pakistan, represents the Lashkar-e-Taiba online. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa, named thus after its earlier incarnation, the Markaz Dawat wal Irshad (MDI: Centre for Proselytisation and Preaching), was proscribed in 2002, is based on a 160-acre (64-hectare) campus at Murdike, near Lahore, of which al-Dawa University is a part. Formed to train mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union's forces in Afghanistan, the MDI in turn gave birth to a jehadist organisation, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lashkar-e-Taiba cadre have fought not just in India but also in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Somalia, Eritrea, the southern Philippines and West Asia.

By most accounts, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa today commands a formidable empire, using education as a tool to propagate its world-view and recruit cadre for the Lashkar-e-Taiba. According to the Pakistani expert Mohammad Amir Rana, it controls over 200 schools, 11 seminaries and two colleges of science. If this infrastructure is at some distance from the traditional Islamic seminary, so too is the education it imparts. For example, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa English alphabet primer emphasises military skills: "Instead of the concept `c' for cat and `g' for goat," the Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader Zafar Iqbal told one interviewer, "we introduced the concept of `c' for cannon and `g' for gun." Jamaat-ud-Dawa teachers, appropriately enough, must have participated in a jehadist military campaign at least once.

Prior to the India-Pakistan military crisis of 2001-02, the MDI made no secret of its role as a facilitator of jehad. At a November 1997 conference held by the MDI, it called for an end to democracy in Pakistan, arguing that "the notion of the sovereignty of the people is anti-Islamic". Pakistani newspapers noted that the venue was festooned with signboards proclaiming that the appropriate response to democracy was through grenade and bomb explosions (jamhooriyat ka jawaab, grenade aur blast). Notwithstanding the designation of the MDI as a terrorist organisation by the United States, the then-Director-General of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant-General Mahmood Ahmad, attended its April 2001 convention, where a resolution was passed calling on cadre "to capture Hindu temples, destroy the idols and then hoist the flag of Islam on them".

Although the Jamaat-ud-Dawa has, since 2002, denied that it has any connection with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and indeed that it is involved in terrorism, most scholarly and media investigations of the organisation dismiss this assertion. For example, Muhammad Amir Rana, the author of an encyclopaedic book on Islamist terror groups in Pakistan, has recorded that the offices and cadre of both organisations are in practice interchangeable. Moreover, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa is frankly supportive of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the Jamaat-ud-Dawa vision, the "only ray of our hope is mujahideen. It was them who disintegrated and demolished superpower Soviet Union and again it is them who are showing lions teeth to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The only superpower of today is on its last legs. Our leaders should keep this in mind: if properly helped these mujahideen have the spirit to break India's neck and back."

Taking jehad West

Not a little irony rests in the fact that the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's message of hatred is hosted from a server physically sited in San Francisco. And yet, this is also curiously appropriate. It is not to residents of Pakistan or India that online jehad addresses itself: the audience is, instead, amongst South Asian diasporas in the U.S., Europe and West Asia.

The Jamaat-ud-Dawa intervenes in debates in the West. An article on the SARS virus, for example, proclaims that the disease is the product of a biological warfare experiment intended to ensure "Muslims are to be scared away from their holy places to make it easier to capture their oil wealth that the West desperately needs". Events in Iraq and Afghanistan are covered in great detail: The December 2003 issue of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's Voice of Islam magazine, which is reproduced on the Internet, had a cover claiming that these conflicts would soon bankrupt the U.S. This news was juxtaposed with the wishes of a former North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) official, identified as Murad Huffman, that his son convert to Islam.

Anti-Jewish writing, alien and irrelevant to South Asian politics but an important component of debates in the West, also figures prominently. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa website, for example, reproduces a notorious 19th century anti-Jewish forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and insists that "events till today elaborate that Jews' hidden hands are active fulfilling their agenda". The Jamaat-ud-Dawa sees itself as a defender of the world of Islam against a predatory alliance of infidels, notably India, Israel and the U.S. "All these forces," the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's founder and chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed has argued, "are united against Islam". He asserts: "Under a concerted plan Muslims are massacred in different parts of the world. Jews for their own safety brought up Christians against Muslims."

Jehad itself is sometimes represented as a response to forms of modernity that diasporic South Asian communities sometimes find threatening to their values and cultural norms. In an interview to Pakistani journalist Mohammad Shehzad, Saeed insisted that the great Kashmir earthquake was the outcome of divine wrath against the Pakistani state's supposed efforts to Westernise the country. Saeed said: "They wanted the women to abandon hijab; run with men nude in bikinis; and learn dance and music. They were not afraid of Allah but [U.S. President George W.] Bush. At his behest, they wanted to purge our schoolbooks from verses on jehad, befriend India and recognise Israel. They blatantly ridiculed the commandments of Allah. Thus they invited the wrath of God in the form of the earthquake."

Since seeing women in bikinis is not a widely experienced reality in Pakistan, it is likely that Saeed was speaking to the diaspora where cultural debates around the issue of women's "modesty" have been intense. Understanding the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's Internet campaign, then, is impossible without also grappling with diasporic cultural anxieties that have led some within these communities to turn to the religious far-Right.

Jehad in the diaspora: thestory of Mirpur

None of this is new: cash and ideological commitment have long flowed from the West to Islamist groups in Pakistan. The case of the diaspora from the Mirpur region of Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir, a working class community now well entrenched in the United Kingdom, helps illustrate the relationship.

Mirpur's historical experience of modernity was a brutal one: handed over to the Maharaja of Kashmir after the British carved up Punjab in 1849, the region lost out on the investments made by the Empire to its south and west but suffered their consequences. Merchant boats that sailed along the Indus and its tributaries, carrying cargo to the major trading centres of Punjab, became redundant as railway connections were built between Lahore and Karachi. At around the same time, however, new opportunities opened up for the Mirpuri boatmen as coal stokers on Britain's merchant fleet. Using this toehold, Mirpuri immigrants began to feed the U.K.'s growing post-1945 industrial labour. Immigration grew sharply after the large-scale inundation of agricultural land with the construction of the Mangla dam in 1966.

In the course of the next decade, large-scale remittances began to flow from this new wave of immigrants into Mirpur. To students of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, this period is of obvious significance. For the jehadist enterprise and its sponsors in the Pakistani state, the period after the war of 1971 was one of crisis. Al Fatah, the last major Pakistan-backed terrorist group to operate prior to the outbreak of the ongoing jehad in 1988, had fallen apart soon after the conflict, and the attention of the ISI had turned firmly towards countering sub-nationalist movements in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). At this precise moment, diasporic wealth made it possible for both Islamists and Kashmiri nationalists in Mirpur, who were increasingly convinced that the Pakistani state could not liberate Jammu and Kashmir, to begin their own anti-India movement.

Called the National Liberation Front [NLF], which would in later years become the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the new organisation conducted much of its work amongst Mirpuri immigrants in the U.K. Its most visible pre-1988 operation, the assassination of the Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in 1983, was carried out in Birmingham. The NLF gave Mirpuris the prospect of a homeland that the increasingly affluent community could dominate one day. As the journalist Sultan Shaheen has thoughtfully noted, the Kashmiri nationalism of the Mirpuris was hostile to ethnic-Kashmiris themselves: they were not "prepared to accept the inevitable domination of the better educated and numerically stronger `hatos' [coolies, manual labourers], as they contemptuously refer to the Kashmiris of the valley, in case Kashmir is united".

Islamist groups in Mirpur were strengthened by a second economic boom in the 1980s, this time fuelled by the availability of new remittance-economy opportunities in West Asia from the income injected by the U.S.-financed jehad in Afghanistan. Transnational networks forged during this boom were later to be critical to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, notably the hawala channels used to funnel funds from West Asia and Europe to terrorist groups operating out of Srinagar. A less well-understood consequence of the economic boom in Mirpur was the decline of agriculture in the region. As the relative returns on agriculture diminished in comparison with what could be made from the remittance or immigrant economies, a large pool of unskilled poor, vulnerable and dependent on the charitable resources of the Islamists, became available for service in the jehad.

The wages of online jehad

Jehad online and real-world jehad, then, converge: if the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's patronage system in Pakistan provides the soldiers who form the rank and file of its terror cells, it is from cyberspace that its funds and global legitimacy is drawn. In this sense, both guns and hypertext are merely media for an ideological project.

What have the wages of this project been? Evidence of the importance of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's international media reach came last October, when it adroitly used the Internet to advertise its earthquake relief activities. A flood of financial support came in from diasporic communities, which in years to come will allow the Jamaat-ud-Dawa both to expand its infrastructure and to attract new recruits. Earlier, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa had succeeded in raising funds for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, although it is unclear just what projects the cash raised was actually used for. Jamaat-ud-Dawa organisers had also used their Internet platform to gain legitimacy after the 2002 communal pogrom in Gujarat, claiming that they alone could defend the State's Muslims from attack.

Growing evidence shows, though, that online jehad is having consequences for the countries that host the diasporic communities at whom it is targeted. Mohammad Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain, three of the men who carried out the horrific serial bombing of London's underground train network last year, were reported to have trained at Lashkar-e-Taiba camps in Pakistan. A year earlier, authorities in the U.S. detained 11 men they said had been trained to carry out terror strikes on behalf of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. This year, at the other end of the world, the Australian government has charged Izhar ul-Haque, a Sydney medical student of Pakistani origin, with being a member of the Lashkar. In 2004, a French national, Willie Brigitte, was charged for his alleged role in a Lashkar operation to attack French military facilities.

Given the absence of data, it is hard to say precisely what role the Jamaat-ud-Dawa's Internet propaganda had in building their convictions - but it seems reasonable to speculate that the online jehad would at least have contributed to building a cultural climate within which such diasporic recruitment could take place. Somewhat disturbingly, little serious work has been done to explore the size of the audience of the Internet-based proselytisation of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and other jehadist groups like it. Although counter-terrorism authorities in the U.S., will more likely than not have a coherent idea of just how many people access the Jamaat-ud-Dawa website and from where, there is no public project engaged in such monitoring - an enterprise of no great technical difficulty. It could be a failure that proves costly: the world of ideas, after all, is the crucible in which actions are forged.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment