Inspector Cole on London assignment

One of my missions is to save readers of Juan Cole’s weblog from his errors. (This has the potential of becoming a full-time job.) The latest one comes in today’s posting about Shehzad Tanweer, 22, one of the British-born suicide bombers from Leeds. Cole first announces that his investigation is in full swing: “I have been trying to trace the influences on and organizational contacts of the July 7 bombers in London.” This intensive Ann Arbor-based Google sleuthing produces the following:

His family is originally from a Punjabi village near Faisalabad, Kottan (Chak number 477). When he first visited his ancestral village with his father in 2002, aged 18 or 19, Tanweer was working with Tablighi Jamaat. This organization is peaceful and devotes itself to recovering lapsed Muslims for a fundamentalist version of Islam. [Cole’s links–MK]

Cole then goes on to speculate that Tanweer probably was recruited by a leading member of Jaish-e Muhammad, which is connected with Al-Qaeda. Cole: “The evidence [!] I can find is that Tanweer’s passage into terrorism began with Jaish-e Muhammad and its allies, one of which is al-Qaeda.”

But what if Tanweer’s “passage” began even earlier, with the “peaceful” Tablighi Jamaat in London? In fact, no serious terror analyst today accepts Cole’s simple characterization of the Tablighi Jamaat, which is spread through Europe and America. Two full years ago, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the Tablighis: “A Muslim Missionary Group Draws New Scrutiny in U.S.” It offered this quote from the deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section: “We have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States, and we have found that Al Qaeda used them for recruiting, now and in the past.” Six months back, the Middle East Quarterly ran an article assembling a mass of evidence on the involvement of Tablighi Jamaat activists and alumni in a stunning range of terrorist groups and operations. (Most famously, the Tablighi Jamaat looms large in the saga of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.”) According to the MEQ piece, “Tablighis preach a creed that is hardly distinguishable from the radical Wahhabi-Salafi jihadist ideology.”

So anyone intent on tracing the beginning of Tanweer’s “passage into terrorism” would have to begin with the Tablighi Jamaat–an organization with a pervasive presence right under our noses. What does Cole know about it? His link, on mentioning it, leads to… the thinnest possible Wikipedia entry! (I’ve just now added a reference to the MEQ article to that entry, but it will stand only until some Tablighi deletes it.)

So error compounds error in the Cole-mine. Two weeks ago, while Britain’s top forensics experts were just setting to work, Cole offered this: “Britain’s South Asian Muslim community is almost certainly not the origin of this attack.” In this latest posting, the professor again sends us to the wrong starting gate. The clueless Cole is the Inspector Clouseau of Middle Eastern studies.

Further reading: For deeper background, I recommend Marc Gaborieau’s incisive entry on the Tablighi Jamaat in the Encyclopaedia of Islam. The tone is one of ominous forboding. Gaborieau (Professor of Islamic studies, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris) ends thus: the Tablighis’ secrecy “raises the question of the ultimate political motivation” of the movement. “It exercises considerable worldwide power, with its dynamic proselytising, which it conceives as a form of djihad enabling it to mobilise millions of persons on a global scale. It may be wondered whether one day it will reveal political ambitions which are for the time being disguised.”

Still more reading: Here’s another article (pdf) by Gaborieau, dating from 1999, available on-line (scroll to p. 21). The Tablighi Jamaat “aims to build on Muslim solidarity across borders, ignoring the nation-states,” and “it is closely linked with the Deobandi school, which has always been highly politicized and which currently backs the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.”

More reading: Here’s a report from earlier this year on the interest shown by the FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in the activities of the Tablighis. According to a DIA report, extremists have infiltrated the movement, turning it into a cover. A former FBI agent who investigated the Tablighis offered this: “If al-Qaida needed a fresh set of bodies in order to pull an operation, one of the places that they would go to for that fresh set of bodies would be Tablighi Jamaat, whether it’s in the United States or not.”

Still more: Yoginder Sikand, author of a book on the Tablighi Jamaat, criticizes the notion that all Tablighis are potential terrorists. Yet even he is compelled to admit the organization’s role as an incubator of extremism:

One sympathizer writes that the TJ is silently preparing Muslims all over the world for a goal that he sees it as sharing with Islamist groups–to engage in the “lesser jihad” or physical warfare against the “enemies of Islam…if occasion arises and if the policy is changed….” Similarly, another TJ supporter writes that the TJ has been “merely laying the groundwork for a much greater mission,” which includes physical jihad, if necessary, and the struggle for the establishment of an Islamic polity. In both tabligh and jihad, he says, one can “perceive a congruence of aims and objectives,” both being “manifestations of the same impulse.”

And Sikand adds this, about actual connections:

Some Muslims associated with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which, like the TJ, has its roots in the Deobandi reformist tradition, see the TJ as playing a complimentary role….Reports speak of involvement in the work of the TJ of the militant Pakistan-based Islamist Harkat ul-Mujahidin [a listed terrorist group]. A spokesman of the latter claims that “[o]ur people are mostly impressed by the TJ. Most of our workers come from the TJ.”