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Masood Azhar: The man who brought jihad to Britain

17Masood Azhar, today the head of one of Pakistan’s most violent militant groups, was

once the VIP guest of Britain’s leading Islamic scholars. Why, asks Innes Bowen.

When one of the world’s most important jihadist leaders landed at Heathrow airport on 6

August 1993, a group of Islamic scholars from Britain’s largest mosque network was

there to welcome him.

Within a few hours of his arrival he was giving the Friday sermon at Madina Mosque in

Clapton, east London. His speech on the duty of jihad apparently moved some of the

congregation to tears. Next stop – according to a report of the jihadist leader’s own

magazine – was a reception with a group of Islamic scholars where there was a long

discussion on “jihad, its need, training and other related issues”.

The visiting preacher was Masood Azhar. Today he is wanted by the Indian authorities

following an attack on the Pathankot military base in January this year. In 1993 he was

chief organiser of the Pakistani jihadist group Harkat ul Mujahideen.

A BBC investigation has uncovered the details of his tour in an archive of militant group

magazines published in Urdu. The contents provide an astounding insight into the way in

which hardcore jihadist ideology was promoted in some mainstream UK mosques in the

early 1990s – and involved some of Britain’s most senior Islamic scholars. Azhar’s tour

lasted a month and consisted of over 40 speeches.

Find out more

The Deobandis will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 09:00 BST on Tuesday 5 April and

Tuesday 12 April.

According to an account of the visit, after a series of speeches at east London mosques,

Azhar headed north. Zakariya Mosque in Dewsbury, Madina Masjid in Batley, Jamia

Masjid in Blackburn and Jamia Masjid in Burnley were among the venues for his jihadi

sermons in his first 10 days in Britain. Such was Azhar’s popularity in those northern

towns that wherever he went, pied-piper like, he accumulated more scholars as part of his


The most surprising engagement of the tour was the speech Azhar gave at what is

arguably Britain’s most important Islamic institution – a boarding school and seminary in

Lancashire known as Darul Uloom Bury. It is also home to Britain’s most important

Islamic scholar, Sheikh Yusuf Motala.

According to the report of the trip, Azhar addressed the students and teachers, telling

them that a substantial proportion of the Koran had been devoted to “killing for the sake

of Allah” and that a substantial volume of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad were on the

issue of jihad.

By the time Azhar arrived at Darul Uloom Bury there could have been little doubt about

his agenda. A few days earlier several scholars from the seminary had attended the

inauguration ceremony for the Jamia Islamia mosque in Plaistow where Azhar spoke on

“the divine promise of victory to those engaged in jihad”.

A series of recordings from the trip, uncovered by the BBC, gives a flavour of the

message at some of the venues. “The youth should prepare for jihad without any delay.

They should get jihadist training from wherever they can. We are also ready to offer our

services,” Azhar told one audience in a speech entitled “From jihad to jannat [paradise]”.

The story of Masood Azhar’s trip to Britain does not fit the narrative promoted by

Muslim community leaders and security experts alike. According to them, the spread of

jihadist ideology in Britain had nothing to do with the UK’s mainly South Asian mosques.

The source of all the trouble, they say, was a bunch of Arab Islamist exiles – the likes of

Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammad.

These Wahhabi preachers, who operated on the fringes of Muslim communities, certainly

played an important role in radicalising elements of Britain’s Muslim youth. But it was

Azhar, a Pakistani cleric, who was the first to spread the seeds of modern jihadist

militancy in Britain – and it was through South Asian mosques belonging to the Deobandi

movement that he did it.

The Deobandis control more than 40% of British mosques and provide most of the UK-

based training of Islamic scholars. They trace their roots back to a Sunni Islamic

seminary founded in Deoband in 19th Century India. Today it is a diverse movement –

the original seminary in India has issued a fatwa against terrorism – but some Deobandi

madrassas in Pakistan have propagated jihadist ideology.

Among the congregations of many of Britain’s Deobandi mosques, the fact of Masood

Azhar’s 1993 fundraising and recruitment tour is something of an open secret. But talking

publicly about such events is not the Deobandi done thing. So to the wider world, the

details have remained a mystery – until now.

Azhar was 25 years old when he was given the red carpet treatment by some of Britain’s

Deobandis. His cause was the disputed territory of Kashmir. Azhar and other mujahideen

leaders recast what had been a Pakistani-Indian nationalist struggle into a jihad of

Muslims versus Hindus. In 1993, al-Qaeda was yet to declare war on the citizens of the

United States and its allies, but after it did, Azhar’s group became an affiliate.

The consequences of the British Deobandi link with Masood Azhar became more obvious

in December 1999. An Indian Airlines plane was hijacked and grounded at Kandahar in

Afghanistan. The passengers were held hostage pending the release from an Indian prison

of Masood Azhar and two of his jihadist associates – one of whom was a 26-year-old

student from London, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.

Saeed had been jailed for kidnapping Western hostages in India. After the three men were

released, Azhar founded his own militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed. Saeed went on to

be involved in the 2002 kidnap and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in


One of the first recruits to Azhar’s new militant group was Mohammed Bilal from

Birmingham. Bilal blew himself up outside an army barracks in Srinagar, killing six

soldiers and three students in December 2000.

But there was another serious consequence of the Masood Azhar connection – the training

camp facilities and logistical support he provided to British Muslims willing to carry out

attacks in the UK. Several UK-based plots including 7/7, 21/7 and the attempt in 2006 to

smuggle liquid bomb-making substances on to transatlantic airlines are now thought to

have been directed by Rashid Rauf, a man from Birmingham who married into Masood

Azhar’s family in Pakistan.

The views of Britain’s Deobandi congregations towards Masood Azhar after his alliance

with al-Qaeda are not revealed in the archive of jihadist publications seen by the BBC.

Did British support for him evaporate or just go underground?

Pre-9/11, there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan

to the hiltAimen Dean, Former member of al-Qaeda

One man with a rare combination of inside knowledge and a willingness to talk is Aimen

Dean, a former member of al-Qaeda. He was recruited by Britain’s intelligence services

in 1998 after he started to have doubts about Osama Bin Laden’s agenda. Dean

maintained his links with al-Qaeda in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan while working

undercover for MI5 in Britain for eight years.

“Pre-9/11, there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan

to the hilt,” he says. The Taliban, like Azhar, regard themselves as Deobandis.

Aimen Dean preached in many Deobandi mosques in the UK. “Even after 9/11, there

were many mosques still stubborn in their support for the Taliban,” says Dean, “because

of the Deobandi solidarity.” Dean did not make open calls to jihad from the pulpit. He

would instead give a talk on an innocuous topic such as Islamic history. Through his

speaking engagements Dean came into contact with jihadist sympathisers who would

invite him to gatherings in private homes.