Encounter with a Mysterious Sheikh

IT WAS DECEMBER 1993 and I was in Khartoum, Sudan, with a CBC television team to interview Hasan al-Turabi. Turabi was holding court with members of some of the most violent and extreme fringes of the Islamic movement.

Sudan was our first stop in what became six weeks on the road gathering material for a full-edition documentary titled “Seeds of Terror”.

High on our list was a shadowy Pakistani mystic named Syed Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani. The only image of him I had was a photo in a book he had published in 1982.

I was eager to speak with Gilani because several men belonging to Jamaat-ul-Fuqra, an organization he is alleged to have founded in the early 1980s in the United States, were charged in Ontario with conspiracy to bomb a Hindu temple and an Indian theater.

Then one day, as I was swinging happily through the revolving doors of the Hilton, I spotted Gilani. I followed him as he exited the hotel.

“Sheikh Gilani,” I called out, greeting him with the Muslim salutation. “Can I speak with you?” I asked. “Who are you?” demanded the younger man standing next to him. I said my name and stated my occupation. “How do you know Sheikh Saab?” “I don’t know him,” I responded. “Then what do you want?”

“I just want to speak with the Sheikh,” I insisted. At that point Gilani walked over and began telling me about an American reporter who had solicited his help to film in Kashmir. After the project was over the reporter asked for his assistance in arranging an interview with a certain Syed Mubarak Gilani.

Gilani’s interpretation was that “Allah had veiled him from the reporter.” My response was that Allah had now lifted the veil allowing me to recognize him. He smiled and politely asked me not to divulge that I had met him in Khartoum. “I don’t care where I met you Sheikh, I just need to ask you a few questions on camera,” I replied.

Sensing that I wasn’t the type to just go away, and realizing that I could easily have a camera crew stake out the Hilton lobby, he reluctantly gave me his room number and told me to drop by later that evening.

To my surprise, Gilani agreed to an interview. It turned out to be the only one he has ever given to a Western media outfit.

At the time I believed that I knew everything I needed to know about Gilani and the activities of the Jamaat-ul-Fuqra. Gilani had come from Pakistan to the United States in 1981 and immediately set about trying to convince members of Dar ai-Islam, a thriving African American Sunni organization based in New York, to participate in the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Indian army in Kashmir.

According to the FBI, Fuqra members are responsible for no less than 17 firebombings and assassinations in the United States targeting prominent Hindus and members of the Ahmadi sect. Its trail of blood includes the assassination of Rashad Khalifa, known for inventing the famous numerological analysis of the Qur’an, based on the number 19.

What investigators knew then, but had no way of proving, was that Gilani and members of Fuqra could not have operated without the consent of senior people in the Pakistani military and intelligence.

In its struggle to break the evil Soviet empire on Afghan soil, Washington had a formidable ally in General Zia-ul-Haq. And as a result, the Reagan administration turned a blind eye to Fuqra’s rampage of terror on American soil.

In 2004 I was in Pakistan to do an interview with the wife and daughter of a known al-Qaeda operative. Their benefactor showed up while we were setting up and he gave me a severe tongue-lashing. I frantically searched my memory for what I might have done to warrant it and concluded that he must have me mistaken for someone else.

He said he once worked for Pakistan’s intelligence, but now describes himself as an “ambassador” of al-Qaeda. His name is Khalid Khawaja and 10 years earlier he had tried to block my access to Gilani in front of the Khartoum Hilton.

He offered to arrange a meeting with Gilani whom he said was given “no ends of grief after our interview was aired in Canada. The name of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl immediately popped into my head and fear gripped at my heart. I thought of a million excuses to decline.

The meeting never took place although I did receive a four-page apology from the sheikh explaining why he couldn’t meet me.

In the letter he explained that he had nothing to do with the kidnapping and beheading of Pearl, but the ordeal had an adverse impact on his health and he has decided to go into ‘uzla (spiritual retreat).

After reading Mariane Pearl’s book A Mighty Heart and watching the movie by the same title starring Angelina Jolie, I realized why ‘uzla was perhaps the best of all options for Gilani. The Sheikh, I thought, has many issues to resolve.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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