For several years, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, chief ideologue of the terror network, are believed to be hiding in a remote mountain cave along the long inhospitable border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. From time to time, they speak to the world through audio and video tapes, claiming responsibility for terrorism or threatening more terrorism. The authenticity of audio tapes containing spoken messages of bin Laden is questionable, as we cannot independently verify whether the taped voice is actually his. In recent years, only spoken messages are attributed to him, and there is no fresh video evidence suggesting he is still alive. Consider also the fact that bin Laden is said to have been suffering from kidney failure for the past several years.
Is bin Laden dead then? Again any claim suggesting the al-Qaeda leader is not alive will be controversial, as it cannot be substantiated with hardcore evidence. That he and his ideological master have been physically absent from overtly leading the international terrorist campaign, however, is a statement which can be logically defended. But what about the following question: why is it that even without the proactive engagement of the leader, the cause of global jihad he pronounced continues to spread? There has to be some valid explanation of this unique phenomenon, whereby the movement’s leader is physically incapacitated to lead and yet the movement continues to grow.
Is there any historical precedent to resolve such mystery, to prove that even if bin Laden is presumably dead, it is possible for his followers to fuel religious extremism and terrorism by giving mythological twist to his physical disappearance and arguing about his reappearance at a ripe moment?
Evidence from History
There is considerable historical record available to connect bin Laden’ emergence as a mythical hero for the Wahhabi Taliban and al-Qaeda movement today with the messianic myth surrounding the death of Syed Ahmad Shaheed, Emir-ul Mo’mineen of the Wahhabi Ahle Hadith movement in the subcontinent, almost two centuries ago.
Wahhabism, as a founding ideology of modern jihad, initially took shape in Arabia at the end of the eighteenth century, and was then brought to the Indian sub-continent early in the 19th century. It took on the Sikhs, the British and mainstream Muslim society. Time and time again it was suppressed, only to reform and revive, eventually to find new life in tribal mountainous regions straddling the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 20th century and beyond.
Enormous similarities exist between the Wahhabi successors of Syed Ahmad in the 19th century and the Wahhabi followers of bin Laden at present, in their organizational character, radical motivations and messianic myth making abilities.
This article borrows heavily from Charles Allen’s God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad. In between, however, more recent analogies will be added to establish a much clearer link between current extremist wave and its 19th century equivalent in South Asia.
Allen had visited the region before writing his book, with my fellow writer Rahimullah Yousafzai accompanying him to Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas currently hit hard by al-Qaeda-inspired, Taliban-led Wahhabi extremism and terrorism. His account is so convincing that we just have to replace the characters and organizations waging jihad today with the entities and personalities engaged in Wahhabism-inspired militancy two centuries ago to find that history of the subcontinent is a continuum insofar as the employment of violent tactics in the guise of jihad by local movements inspired by Whhabism is concerned.
Allen sees a consistent pattern in the trail of Wahhabi extremism from Arabia to the Indian subcontinent and its militaristic expression against the Sikhs and the British in the 19th century, as well as the spread of the Wahhabi Taliban movement and bin-Laden-led al-Qaeda terrorist wave in the late 20th century and beyond in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border regions.
Syed Ahmad Shaheed
It is a great deception denoting a myth-making process that began soon after the death of Syed Ahmad of Rai Bareilly, along with hundreds of co-jihadists, at the hands of the Sikh army at Balakot in 1831. This Mansehra district town, which was devastated during the 2005 earthquake, still has the grave of Syed Ahmad Shaheed in its Jamiya Mosque.
Syed Ahmad actually died in the battle of Balakot; but, for decades afterwards, his successors cleverly built a myth about their Emir-ul Mo’mineen actually surviving the battle and taking refuge in a mountain cave. The ‘hidden Imam,’ as the myth went, would eventually return to lead his followers once they had consolidated the base for the great jihad against non-believers, apostate rulers and fellow Muslims gone astray from their version of Islamic bigotry. Here the reference to the ‘base’ is important for contemporary wave of international terrorism, as this is what al-Qaeda literally means.
First a little bit about the circumstances in which Syed Ahmad died, and what he stood for. Syed Ahmed was the founder and Emir ul-Mo’’mineen of the Tariqah-i Muhhamdiyah, the Wahhabi Ahle Hadith movement, just as Sufi Muhammad of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) in Swat is. Syed Ahmad was influenced by Shah Abdul Aziz, the son of Shah Waliullah who led Muslim revivalism in the subcontinent in late 18th century, which happened simultaneously with the dawn of Wahhabism ideology in Arabia. In 1821, Syed Ahmad left India for pilgrimage in Mecca. During his stay in Arabia, he was also influenced by religious thoughts of Sheikh Wahab, the founder of the Wahabi Movement.
It was soon after his return from Arabia in 1823 that Syed Ahmad proclaimed jihad against the Sikhs in the Punjab, thereby anticipating modern radical Islamists in his waging of jihad and attempt to create a dogmatic Islamic state. He toured India for the next seven years and was able to generate significant support for the cause, which helped him liberate Peshawar from the Sikh rule in 1830. However, within a year, the Sikhs were able to cultivate treacherous Pashtun leaders, and, with their help, attack the last stronghold of Syed Ahmad’s force in Balakot, killing him and some 600 of his followers.
It is after Syed Ahmad’s death that the tale of messianic myth-making revolving around the ‘hidden imam’ effectively began, fuelling the Wahhabist radical movement in the subcontinent for several decades later. Its correlation to the present wave of al-Qaeda-inspired, Taliban-led jihadi extremism today is that even if bin Laden and his ideological mentor Zawahiri have been physically absent from the jihadi scene for years, the extremism they preach or the terrorism they sponsor has greater chances of flourishing than receding in the region. In a sense, therefore, their absence is a strategic asset for the modern adherents of violent jihad.
For the same process of myth-making about the “Great Shaikh,’ as bin Laden has been known among his followers since the 80s’ jihad against the Soviets, may be underway. It may not be overtly visible, but, beneath the surface, the myth of a mystical hero’s self-intended, calculated physical disappearance from the scene of jihad—so that his followers could lay the base for his miraculous comeback to lead the final jihad against the “oppressors”— may certainly be in the making, if it has already not become the actual reality.
Given that, it is extremely important to understand how 19th century Wahhabi jihadists created the messianic myth about Syed Ahmad after his death, sustained it for several decades and, consequently, nurtured and fuelled the radical religious movement until 1870s.
Making of a Myth
As Allen writes, at least in the initial years following the death of Syed Ahmad, the Wahhabi movement in India began to wither. Since their leader had himself decreed that a jihad could only proceed by authority of an imam, and since that imam was now dead, the holy war had to be abandoned. However, at the battle of Balakot, “three local caliphs appointed by the dead leader had been away on a diplomatic mission in Kashmir. They and a few other others succeeded in re-crossing the Indus to the Mahabun Mountain, where they petitioned the Sayyids of Sittana to again give them refuge. A Jirga was duly held and some new land was found for them outside the village.
“But so hostile were the surrounding Pathan tribes to their presence that at least one of the caliphs, Maulvi Nasir Uddin, decided it was time to move on. He abandoned the mountains for the plains, leaving a mere handful of Hindustani diehards at Sittana under the charge of Maulvi Qasim Panipati. There they hung on, and over the months that followed they came increasingly to see themselves as guardians of the shrine of their lost Imam and Emir. Visitors arrived anxious to know more about the fate of Syed Ahmad the Martyr and how exactly he had met his death.
“Then it was discovered that no one had actually seen the Imam-cum-Emir die, although several eyewitnesses were prepared to swear that they had seen him and his two dearest disciples fighting fiercely in the very midst of the battle. A cloud of dust had then descended on all three figures, and they had disappeared from mortal sight. So inspired was Panipati by this revisionist testimony that he wrote letters to Patna giving a quite different account of the battle of Balakot.
“Panipati’s revelations were eagerly seized upon by the new leadership of the Wahhabi movement in Patna. Four members of the original six-man council appointed by Syed Ahmad had died with him on the frontier. Of the remaining two, Fatah Ali had died
of natural causes, leaving Shah Muhammad Husain of Sadiqpur as the senior caliph in Patna.
“The five vacant places on the council were now filled by a younger generation, all accorded the title of Maulvi. They included Fatah Ali’s two eldest sons, Wilayat Ali and Inayat Ali; the two eldest sons of Elahi Bux, Ahmadullah and Yahya Ali; and an outsider, Farhat Husain, who had married into the three interlinked Patna families by taking as wife yet another of the daughters of Shah Muhammad Husain. These five younger men together became the guiding force behind the Wahhabi movement’s restructuring in the late 1830s and 1840s and its re-emergence as a fighting force in the 1850s.
“For some years Wilayat Ali served as Shah Muhammad Husain’s wazir before succeeding him as the movement’s leading imam. His brother Inayat Ali then became
the movement’s minister for war, Ahmadullah the new counselor in succession to Wilayat Ali, Yahya Ali treasurer and bursar, and Farhat Husain the movement’s recruiter and chief religious ideologue, running the movement’s madrassah and acting as caliph
during Wilayat Ali’s frequent absences from Patna.
“Wilayat Ali was almost certainly a convert to Wahhabism even before his first meeting with Syed Ahmad. His youngest brother Talib Ali had accompanied Syed Ahmad on his long march and had died as a martyr fighting the Sikhs, so perhaps it was no surprise that Wilayat Ali and the middle brother Inayat Ali should emerge as the most determined members of the Wahhabi council. It appears to have been Wilayat Ali who first grasped the significance of the doubts emerging about their leader’s death, and who made the first public announcements of his survival. He then let it be known that he himself had heard Syed Ahmad foretell his disappearance some years earlier in a sermon. Now he could report the glad tidings that their beloved master was indeed alive and well, but that God,
displeased by the faint-hearted response of the Muslims of India to His prophet’s call to arms, had withdrawn him from the eyes of men. Their Imam and Emir ul-Mo’mineen was even now hidden in a cave in the Buner mountains, waited on by his two faithful disciples. Only when his followers had proved their faith by uniting once more to renew the jihad would their lost leader reappear. He would then manifest himself as pad shah and lead them to victory against the unbelievers.”
Less than two centuries later, hordes of Taliban would arrive in these very mountains in Buner, as they did recently, to forewarn the locals that the jihadi agenda they aspire for, and which seeks its greatest inspiration from the heroic deeds of ‘Sheikh-ul Azeem,” would soon engulf the Buner region as much as it did Swat or Waziristan areas.
--This is Part I of a series of two articles on the historical roots of al-Qaeda-inspired, Taliban-driven jihad movement in Pakistan’s tribal mountainous regions, slowly spreading its tentacles across the country and establishing its foothold in the Swat valley.
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