Syed Shah Geelani: Playing His Last Card?

By J. Milard Burr
Friday, March 13th, 2015 @ 3:05AM

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Earlier this week, ignoring the Indian government objection, Pakistan High Commissioner to India visited the leader of the Kashmiri separtist movement Hurriyat, Syed Ali Shah Geelani (aka Giliani) at his home in New Delhi. According to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson such meeting represent “a longstanding practice and it will continue.

Chicago 1991

Four months after the August 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait the first major Islamist gathering held in North America convened at the McCormick Center Hotel in Chicago.  The third Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP) meeting had as its theme, “Islam: The Road to Victory.”  The meeting called on all Muslims to support the on-going jihad not only in Palestine but also in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Lebanon and the Sudan.

Privately and publicly, the visitors to Chicago all supported the Palestinian intifada and the liberation of Palestine itself.  The conference urged no compromise on land, no peace with Israel, and support for the Intifada rebellion.  The meeting was particularly important insofar as the political scene within Palestine was no longer dominated by Yasser Arafat.  With the Palestine intifada nearly three years along, the PLO had been forced to share billing with emerging Islamist organizations like Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad.

At the Hotel in Chicago were representatives of the nascent Hamas organization.  Also present were the who’s who of renowned Muslim Brothers and Salafi groups.  Hassan al-Turabi of the Sudan and Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia had just returned from their trip to Baghdad and a meeting with Saddam Hussein.  The blind Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman the spiritual advisor of the Egypt terrorist organization Jama’a al-Islamiyya had just entered the United States.

Attending the meeting in Chicago were Abd al-Aziz Odeh, the thirty-year-old leader of the Palestine Islamic Jihad , which with Iranian support operated from Damascus;  Said Sha’ban, a radicalized Muslim Brother and founder of the Lebanese Harakat al-Tawhid (Islamic Unity Movement); Layth Shbilat, a noted Jordan parliamentarian and senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. and Jamer Ammar, who headed the Islamic Jihad Squad (Tanzim al-Jihad al-Islami) arrived from the Sudan.

Also in attendance were exiled Muslim Brothers from Egypt who found their way to the United States, such as the late Khalil al-Shiqaqi, co-founder of the Palestine Islamic Jihad, and Sami al-Arian arrived from Florida.  Al-Arian, director of the Florida-based World and Islam Studies Enterprise, who in 1981 help found the Islamic Association of Palestine in the United States. The conference theme, “Islam – The Way to Victory, ” was suggested by Al Arian

Reportedly, during his trip to Chicago, Sudan’s Hassan al-Turabi, met with Geelani, the separatist leader from Jammu and Kashmir, India, who had lived in the United States for a decade. However, it is still unclear if Geelani attended the Chicago conference.  Geelani, the former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir, was born in September 1929 (other sources use 1933), and he and Turabi, though long in the tooth, were senior leaders of the emerging Terrorist Internationale.  Geelani had been expelled from Pakistan in late 1979 by its military government for instigating violence in Kashmir; that was before the Pakistan military was ready to sponsor the venture.

At the time of the Chicago meeting Geelani was the leader of Muslim of America (MOA), the most violent of the “Muslim fundamentalist” movements to have emerged in the United States, with “more than 20 Islamic compounds across the United States with key sites in New York, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas.”

Geelani’s Background

In the nineteen seventies Geelani was an important member of the Jamaat-e-Islami/Jammu & Kashmir (JI-J&K) movement founded shortly after the independence of Pakistan.  A schoolteacher and prolific author of books and pamphlets on Islamic themes.

Geelani was elected to the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Assembly in 1972 and 1977. By then the Kashmiri separatist had a substantial prison record. Three years later the JI-J&K was outlawed after it proposed holding an international conference of mujahideen in Pakistan.  The conference, set for August 1980, was banned by the government of Pakistan — whose military already had a significant problem on its hands with the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.

After the JI-J&K leaders were threatened with jail Geelani, who himself had served jail terms on at least four occasions, took personal charge of the separatist movement that operated from Pakistan.  He believed it was time to choose arms rather than words to oppose the Government of India.  Shortly thereafter a large number of JI/J&K jihadists, including Geelani, were arrested in Pakistan.  Freed shortly thereafter (for reasons which neither the government of General Zia ul-Haq nor he bothered to explain) Geelani moved to the United States.  Ostensibly, he took with him the inspiration for the Jamaat-ul-Fuqra, a revolutionary organization whose aims he had first conceived in Pakistan.

Geelani arrived in Brooklyn, New York, in 1980 and soon achieved notoriety in the Muslim community by dint of his proselytizing in prisons.  Within a short time, and with funds from unknown sources, he founded both the Muslims of the Americas foundation and the Quranic Open University (which formed branches in the United States, Canada and Pakistan).  He also found time to organize the sinister Jamaat ul-Fuqra in both the United States and Canada.

The Fuqra, which comprised some thirty Jamaat communities, slowly evolved into a hardcore Jihadist group.  At its apogee it probably numbered only some 3,000 members but it was the most violence-prone of all the Islamist organizations indigenous to North America.

In 1978, Gilani published An Introduction to Quranic Psychology, detailing his “proofs upon scientific evidence and witnessing about using the Qur’an (Koran) and religious observance to cure certain mental disorders. In 1980 he followed up with An introduction to psychiatry: based on teaching of the Holy Quran and also contains results of scientific demonstration of curing incurable mental diseases in the Psychiatric Institute, Taif, Saudi Arabia, 1976–1977.

Nonetheless, in Islamist circles its importance ebbed after 1990 and the arrival of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman who took charge of Al Qaeda’s Al Kifah operation in the United States.

After Geelani’s departure from America he made a surprise appearance at Turabi’s Popular Arab and Islamic Conference held in Khartoum in April 1993.  His arrival led some to believe that in the aftermath of the 26 February 1993 New York City World Trade Center bombing the United States had become too “hot” for the Sheikh.  Indeed, the FBI had considered him a man of interest and someone who had questionable ties to those directly involved in the terrorist attack.  However, once the Sheikh departed the United States for the Sudan he would not again return to America.  He left behind thousands of Al Fuqra adherents loyal to him.  Most were African-Americans living in isolated Islamic communities located in nineteen states.

Calling himself the “Sixth Sultan, Ul Faqr,” Geelani soon left Khartoum for Pakistan.  Geelani was welcome in Pakistan because he backed J&K incorporation in Pakistan.  He rejected those who called for J&K independence, arguing that China and India — let alone Pakistan — would never permit it. Meanwhile, in the United States his Jamaat-ul-Fuqra was listed on the U.S. State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism annual report for 1994, but it was well after Geelani’s return to Kashmir where he was to make his home and continue his personal struggle against India and the West.

The Hurriyat

Geelani’s return to Pakistan occurred shortly after an All Party Hurriyat (Liberty) Conference was held on 10 March 1993. The Hurriyat’s raison d’etre is found in United Nations Security Council Resolution 47, and the organization supports the Kashmiri right of self-determination. The Hurriyat was then, and remains in effect, a Pakistan-sponsored movement whose aim is to support Pakistan’s claim to India’s J&K.  At its inception the Hurriyat was a fissiparous alliance of a half-dozen major secessionist movements (and more than a dozen minor ones).  And it remains an alliance of contentious organizations.

In the nineteen nineties Afghanistan’s “War of the Warlords” (many of whom had been patrons of Pakistani military intelligence, or ISI) had a direct effect on the government and military of Pakistan.  Lost in that regional conflict was an ISI sideshow — a separatist onslaught funded by Pakistan and carried out in Kashmir.  Leading the charge was the Hurriyat and the prodigal returned — Sheikh Geelani.  In the end it would shed much blood but did little more than boost the Indian political and military presence in J&K.

With the new millennium Geelani remained the dominant Kashmiri to oppose peace overtures launched by the Indian government in July 2001. It likely sensed weakness within the J&K separatist movement that emerged following a meeting of “moderate” J&K leaders held in Dubai in April and that excluded Geelani.

After India announced a ceasefire in J&K, Geelani called a meeting of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, which then rejected the offer.  Almost predictably, the Hurriyat Conference then split into two factions after the 2002 Assembly elections were seen to violate the Hurriyat’s own constitution. The most powerful wing was led by Geelani, who was then called “the most popular resistance leader.” As such, he could be expected to receive the greatest portion of the pie created by a combination of ISI, Gulf, and European funding without which the J&K movement would have perished.

Ironically, in June 2002, and in advance of India’s cease-fire offer, Geelani and his corrupt son-in-law had been arrested in Kashmir.  Geelani, who was then leading the resistance from his residence, was taken into custody after Indian Income Tax officials and the Jammu and Kashmir police raided his home.  Although Geelani had not been filing his income tax returns, India’s Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance justified the arrest itself.  India officials did not disguise the fact that the raids were carried out to block the funding of militant qua Islamist organizations in J&K.

Later reporting had it that the arrest of Geelani gave Indian intelligence the opportunity to study his e-mail.  Reportedly, they were able to learn the extent of ISI funding of Kashmiri insurgents, and two of Geelani’s computers provided a rather comprehensive list of Kashmiri militants.  The raid also disrupted the use of money-changers (hawaldar) located both in Pakistan and J&K, and who had been essential to the financial support of the insurgents. – Incredibly, although the government eventually prosecuted Geelani on income tax charges — after learning he was living like a king on what he claimed was a pitiful source of income — Geelani would serve only a ten-month sentence.

Since then, Geelani has been a leading advocate of Kashmir militancy and the use of violence to keep the separatist movement alive in J&K itself.  He maintains a close relationship with Syed Salahuddin, the Supreme Commander of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and Chairman of the United (Muttahida) Jihad Council in Pakistan.  The Hizb-ul-Mujahideen is a Pakistan-based and Pakistan-funded Islamist terrorist group that operates in Kashmir.  The United Jihad Council is an alliance of Kashmir terrorist organizations. Despite Geelani’s advanced age, Salahuddin still considers him the “undisputed secessionist leader in Jammu and Kashmir.”  Like Geelani, Salahuddin has been unwavering in his demand that a referendum be held to decide the future of J&K.

The Hurriyat game plan, which has been supported by the Government of Pakistan, is to maintain the J&K issue as a human rights problem that must be addressed by the international community.  Among Muslim states it remains an issue characterized by the presence of an alien power occupying the Islamic homeland (dar al-Islam).  The Kashmiri separatists have managed to keep the funding stream open, with support from by oil-rich Muslim nations and Muslims resident in Europe.

The Hurriyat continues its effort to disrupt life in J&K.  And recently there has been an increase in the movement of Islamist terrorists across the Pakistan frontier. Commonly, and despite indications to the contrary, the bloodshed has been blamed on the Indian government.

As for Geelani, though his health has deteriorated he remains closely tied to the ISI.  And unlike some Jammu and Kashmir Islamists he continues to maintain that the region is occupied by India and should become an integral part of Pakistan. And despite his claims to support non-violence his opponents within the J&K movement argue that he has acted ruthlessly (including the use of assassination) to eliminate his moderate opponents. They also claim that it is Geelani who is behind the use of strikes that have on occasion have greatly damaged the economy of the Kashmir valley.

In January 2009 Geelani raised hackles in Delhi when he demanded the “unconditional release of all illegally detained Kashmiri Hurriyat leaders and activists facing life imprisonment.”  Claiming that because J&K was “disputed territory,” a score of jailed Hurriyat members were actually political prisoners who should not have been treated as criminals. That argument fell on deaf ears in Delhi.

Recent Developments

In 2014, the Modi government in India sought a new opening to initiate discussions with Pakistan. This was abruptly halted when the Pakistan High Commission Basit met with intractable Kashmiri separatist leaders in early August in Islamabad. India announced the “unacceptable’’ and considered it an insult. Thus follow meetings that were scheduled for later that month, were canceled.

After a cooling-off period the bilateral effort was resumed in 1915.  Supported by India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on 3 March 2015, the two sides decided to put aside (at least for the moment) their traditional antagonism.  Indian Foreign Secretary Jaishankar met with Pakistan Foreign Secretary Chaudhary to discuss bilateral issue and agreed to meet at a later date.  According to one report, “both agreed that ensuring peace and tranquility on the [Jammu and Kashmir] border was vital,” and “agreed to work together to find common ground and narrow differences.” (“SAARC Yatra: Jaishankar raises India’s concerns on terror,” Islamabad, 3 March 2015)

That era of good feeling lasted less than a month.  The March meeting between Geelani and Pakistan’s envoy Abdul Basit held at New Delhi, noted in this article’s first paragraph, was termed “an insult to India.”  And at least one India newspaper demanded Basit’s arrest because the meeting was an attempt to destroy the comity that emerged following the resumption of high-level talks between Indian and Pakistan.  Reportedly Basit and Geelani discussed not only the recent talks involving the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan but the release from jail of a Kashmiri separatist Masarat Alam.  The Indian media was quick to note that J&K chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had actually approved Alam’s release, and his Peoples Democratic Party had only recently formed a coalition government in J&K with Indian premier Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party). VHP demands Geelani’s arrest for meeting Pakistan envoy, Monday, 9 March 2015)

As quoted in the press, Geelani was unrepentant.  Concerning talks held between Pakistan and India he said, “I think, the objective of the meetings should be that some resolution must be sought on Kashmir. I reminded (Mr Basit) of the fact that the main issue is Kashmir and unless we come to a firm conclusion on this, circumstances won’t improve.”

Geelani’s enemies in Pakistan have called him the “biggest hurdle” to overcome to achieve unanimity among Kashmir separatists.  Given his history of intransigence, he will surely remain so.  In India, critics will not forget that he has demanded that non-Muslims should be forced to leave J&K.  While some see Geelani as an aging pest, his sting will undoubtedly be felt for years to come.

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