My Buddy, The Jihadi

By Nicholas Schmidle
Sunday, July 15, 2007


When I heard that Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the gregarious pro-Taliban cleric in charge of Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, died last Tuesday, I surprised myself by feeling a little sad. Over the past year, I'd gotten to know Ghazi quite well. Every few weeks, I would visit him at Lal Masjid to chat about everything from jihad and the Islamic revolution he planned to lead to our preferred vacation spots and his favorite English authors. We rarely agreed about anything substantive (such as his admiration for Osama bin Laden), but we talked for hours over tea, fruit and an occasional belly laugh.

I usually dropped by just before taking a trip out of Islamabad. He was always willing to share the phone numbers of his mullah friends in other Pakistani cities. Having a personal reference from Ghazi was like having a backstage pass to the wild world of radical Islam.

He had made international headlines in January when a brigade of staff-wielding female madrassa students, or Talibat, took over a children's library adjacent to the mosque and declared the establishment of a mini sharia-ruled state just a stone's throw from the parliament building.

Soon after that, Ghazi and his brother, Maulana Abdul Aziz, began an anti-vice campaign in Islamabad. They started by kidnapping a brothel owner, dressing her in a black burqa and forcing her to repent at a news conference. When a Western reporter asked Ghazi whether his anti-vice activities signaled the "Talibanization" of Pakistan, he replied, "Rudy Giuliani, when he became mayor of New York, closed the brothels. Was that also Talibanization?" Meanwhile, President Pervez Musharraf's government stood by and did nothing. A few weeks later, plainclothes police officers drifted too close to the mosque, and the local Taliban kidnapped them as well. On April 6, after Friday prayers, worshipers from Lal Masjid blocked a road and lit a bonfire using a pile of un-Islamic CDs and DVDs as kindling. Musharraf's response? Still nothing.

But in late May, Ghazi's vigilantes pushed their luck when they snatched six Chinese women from a massage parlor in Islamabad and held them hostage for a day. Beijing pressured Musharraf to protect Chinese citizens, and finally the noose tightened.

On July 3, paramilitary Rangers were laying barbed wire at the end of the street facing Lal Masjid when militants in the mosque fired on them. They killed one Ranger and later razed the nearby offices of the Ministry of Environment. Security forces retaliated by spraying tear gas and firing at the militants. By nightfall, Ghazi had bunkered down in the mosque. An eight-day siege began.

Over the first few days, it looked as though Ghazi might negotiate his way out. He called local TV stations and talked about laying down his arms in exchange for safe passage. Considering the government's record of appeasement and Ghazi's penchant for slick talk, it seemed possible.

As the siege continued, however, Ghazi morphed from an outspoken extremist with a perma-smirk into a bona fide terrorist. By July 6, Ghazi and his men were threatening suicide attacks and holding women and children hostage as human shields. For nine days, the exchange of rifle- and machine-gun fire made Islamabad sound like a giant bag of microwave popcorn. Just before heading to bed, I would walk up to my third-story patio and watch the glow of fireballs coming from the mosque as commandos lobbed explosives to destroy the walls that rimmed the compound. By the middle of the siege, the same foreign journalists once charmed by Ghazi's articulate and witty ways were cursing him for depriving them of sleep.

The government imposed a curfew in the neighborhood immediately surrounding Lal Masjid, and even shut off electricity and gas. For two hours a day, the curfew was lifted and "mobile utility stores" -- trucks loaded with milk, rice, lentils, cooking oil, tea and other staples -- made the rounds.

Over the next few days, government spokesmen alleged that foreign militants (a euphemism for al-Qaeda) were among those inside the mosque defending Ghazi. On the night of July 8, a Predator drone buzzed over the city. The next night, a delegation of senior mullahs tried to persuade Ghazi to free the women and children. When they failed, the final phase of the commando operation -- code-named "Operation Silence" -- started at 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday. I was enjoying my first decent night's sleep in a week.

Around 9 p.m. Tuesday, news channels reported Ghazi's death. Apparently, he took a shot in the leg, refused to surrender and was finally killed. His brother was detained after being arrested trying to escape in a burqa last Wednesday night, and Lal Masjid is in ruins. But the Taliban in Pakistan are far from defeated.

Since the operation against Lal Masjid began, neo-Taliban groups in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province have suicide-bombed a military convoy, attacked several police stations and blocked the Karakorum Highway in protest. In the lawless tribal area of Bajaur, 20,000 tribesmen, some shouldering rocket-propelled grenades, rallied in support of Ghazi. Maulana Faqir Mohammad, a well-known mujahid, told them, "We beg Allah to destroy Musharraf, and we will seek revenge for the atrocities perpetrated on the Lal Masjid."

A few weeks ago, Ghazi had offered to introduce me to Faqir. He said he'd write me a letter, but I never stopped by to get it. Maybe Faqir will trust that Ghazi and I used to be chummy. But without his golden reference, it's not worth taking a chance.


Nicholas Schmidle is a Pakistan-based writer and fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company