The following story is based on real-life events and was told to me by several people directly related to the events in question, including those living in and around Peshawar in 1997.
Although I have fictionalised the conversations and some minor details for ease of reading, the basic facts of the story are true as I have verified from multiple sources. This story is longer than my usual blog posts but it is a very important post. Please let me have your comments…
Peshawar, North West Pakistan, 1997
It was late in the evening and the wedding party was in full swing. Earlier in the day Asma’s sister had taken her to one of Peshawar’s beauty salons to be made up and have henna decorated on her hands. She was wearing a red wedding dress lined with golden brocade.
Although of modest means, her family had travelled to Peshawar from Lahore for the wedding. Still only 23, it had been two years since Asma completed her six year “Alimah” (female Muslim scholar) course at the Darul Uloom seminary in Lahore.
Since then, she had been teaching Islamic studies to girls at a local school.
It was September 1997. The dusty north western frontier Pakistani city of Peshawar was bustling with foreigners: mainly Afghan refugees who had settled in the city, but also a few Arabs.
It had been eight years since the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in February 1989 after suffering heavy losses at the hands of the Mujahideen freedom fighters.
Three years later in April 1992, the Mujahideen went on to capture Kabul and overthrew the Communist regime of Soviet-puppet Najibullah.
This triggered the start of the Afghan Civil War. Afghan warlords began to fight amongst each other over who would be incharge of the newly “liberated” Afghanistan.
Thousands of civilians were killed as rival warlords lobbed artillery shells into Kabul as one might throw rotten apples into a garbage heap.
These particular warlords, despite calling themselves “Mujahideen”, so-called “soldiers of God” had no regard for killing the innocent servants of God. In doing so, they dishonoured the legacy of the real Mujahideen.
It was in the midst of this civil war that a group of religious students known as the Taliban and led by a man named Mulla Muhammad Umar appeared.
Within two years they swept through Afghanistan, restoring some semblance of security and stability for the ordinary Afghans fed up with the civil war.
In exchange for security, ordinary Afghans tolerated the Taliban banning everything from girls’ schools to kite-flying, hoping that with time they would relax these policies.
In September 1996, one year before Asma’s wedding, the Taliban conquered Kabul and declared the new name of the country to be the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
It was while she was a teenager during the late 1980s that Asma first heard of the Afghan Jihad. Throughout the 1980s, Afghan Mujahideen freedom fighters had been fighting to expel invading Soviet troops from their land.
They were supported by the United States, Britain, Europe, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia along with most of the world.
They were also supported by thousands of Arab Mujahideen: foreign volunteers from the Muslim world who had arrived in Afghanistan to help their Muslim brethren liberate a Muslim land occupied by a non-Muslim invader.
From time to time, Asma would hear of these legendary Arab Mujahideen with their long black beards and flowing locks of hair facing Russian tanks armed only with rifles.
She would read about their heroic feats in the Urdu language newspapers supporting the Afghan Jihad.
Asma admired these Arab Mujahideen, in fact, she idolised them. To her, they were heroes; modern-day equivalents of the Sahabah, Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) whom she had studied about in the books of Islamic history.
She would pray day and night that she married one of these heroes.
So when news reached Asma one day that an Arab Mujahid from Peshawar had arrived in Lahore looking for a Pakistani girl to get married to, she could not believe her ears.
She jumped at the opportunity. “This must be God’s answer to my prayers,” she thought and a meeting was arranged at Asma’s house.
Abu Adil was an Algerian in his early 20s. A fair-skinned man with a wispy beard, he clearly looked different to Pakistani men, almost exotic. Asma was mesmerised by him as he spoke.
He told Asma that he had been fighting in the Afghan Jihad for several years, first against the Soviets and then against the Communists. He wanted to live and die for Islam and participate in Jihad for as long as he lived.
Asma was too awe-struck to ask him any questions of her own. She didn’t ask him why, after the end of the Afghan Jihad in 1992, he had not followed his fellow Arab warriors to the lands of Jihad in Bosnia or Chechnya or Tajikistan.
She didn’t ask him why he was living in Pakistan when the Taliban had announced an Islamic Emirate next door.
She didn’t even ask him for any character references, to verify his background and history. To find out about his character.
“Why bother with these silly questions?” Asma later thought to herself after she had agreed to marry him, after that single meeting.
“He is a Mujahid, an Arab, he must be of exemplary character. He must be brave, fearless, romantic, protective, noble, hospitable, generous… just like the Sahabah [Companions of the Prophet Muhammad ss] were,” Asma thought to herself.
Unsurprisingly, Asma’s response to Abu Adil’s proposal was a resounding yes.
The wedding party finished and Asma was picked up by the groom. “I live in Pabi,” Abu Adil told her as his car left Peshawar for the 30 minute drive to Pabi. Asma did wonder why Abu Adil did not live in Peshawar as he first claimed, but she dismissed it.
Who cared where her Mujahid husband lived? He was a hero and that was all that mattered.
The next day Abu Adil’s friends came round to visit the new bride with their families. Asma was shocked by what happened next. The women took off their hijab headscarves and sat in the company of all the men.
As a scholar herself Asma knew that devout Muslim women did not take off their hijabs infront of men outside their immediate family. Something didn’t seem right, but she dismissed it as whisperings of the devil.
Over the next couple of days Asma realised more strange things. Abu Adil’s friends would come round to his house, with their wives, and they would sit and chat and laugh all day long.
But when time came for prayer, they were not in the least enthusiastic about it, including Abu Adil. They did pray, but only when the time for prayer was almost finished.
Asma did not need a scholar to tell her that praying the five times salah prayer on time was the most important thing that a Muslim needed to do.
There were about six or seven families living close to Asma’s new house in Pabi. Two of them were in the same building as her. These were all Abu Adil’s friends.
Among them was a Sudanese man whom all the others called, “Sheikh.” His name was Abu Ayub Al-Barqawi.
At her husband’s insistence, she served the guests but Asma was starting to feel very uncomfortable. The behaviour of the men, their character, their manners and personal hygiene were more like slumdogs rather than noble warriors or clerics.
OK, putting feet up on dining tables to cut toenails infront of guests was not haram (forbidden) in Islam, but it was definitely disgusting manners. This was not the way Asma had been brought up and she found some of the behaviour of the men very odd.
Nevertheless, Asma put on a brave face whenever her family called. Perhaps her expectations were too high and it would take time for her to adjust?
The first slap came before the week was over. Asma had put too much chilli in the food, the way she was taught by her mother.
Abu Adil had not liked it, so he spat it out and slapped Asma across the face as he swore at her, “Anti aahirah ya kalbah!”
Asma understood enough Arabic to know that Abu Adil had just called her a “whore” and a “b***h”.
Asma left the kitchen in tears and went straight to her bedroom. She put her face in her pillow and cried. She was homesick and missed her family.
A short while later Abu Adil entered the bedroom and apologised to Asma for hitting her too hard. “I’m sorry I hit you so hard but the Quran says that I can beat you,” he said to her.
“Did the Prophet (ss) ever raise his hand at a woman?!” Asma cried out in response. “Tell me! Did he? Tell me!”
Abu Adil was silent, then he said. “Let’s try again, maybe we got off to a bad start?”
Asma felt better in the morning but she was still a little upset. She began to feel guilty. Maybe she was in the wrong by putting too much chilli in the food? Maybe she deserved the slap?
As the days went by Asma noticed that although none of the men worked, they always seemed to have money. The women wore the best jewellery and clothes, the men drove good cars and had good watches.
She wondered where all this money was coming from.
“Fai,” she heard one of the men say one day as he grinned and pointed to a new watch that he was wearing. All the other men laughed. Asma knew that “fai” was a type of war booty that fighters acquired from the enemy without fighting.
Asma began to wonder whether the watch was stolen so she asked Abu Adil about it. “Since we are Mujahideen Sheikh Abu Ayub says that we are allowed to take anything we want to support ourselves.”
But who was the “enemy” and where was the “fighting”? The families were living in a small town about 15 miles from Peshawar. All the people in Pabi, Peshawar and surrounding areas were Muslims. There was no war or Jihad in Pabi.
“But that’s stealing!” Asma said to Abu Adil. “And what’s worse is that your friends are stealing from Muslims.”
“They are not Muslims,” Abu Adil replied. “They are apostates, because they haven’t pledged allegiance to the Caliph.”
“Caliph?!” Asma exclaimed. Asma had heard of Mulla Umar, the leader of the Taliban movement who had just taken power across the border in Afghanistan, but even he had not declared himself to be a caliph. “So who is this ‘Caliph’ and where is he?”
Asma didn’t know that just like the ‘former Islamist’ industry today, the ‘caliphate’ industry was ripe in Afghanistan/Pakistan during the 1990s. ‘Caliphs’ were popping up everywhere.
First there was Jamil-ur-Rahman, who was the head of a ‘caliphate’ in Nuristan province of Afghanistan in 1991. His caliphate was short lived, and he was killed a few months later after fleeing for his life to Pakistan.
Then there was the controversy surrounding Mulla Muhammad Umar, leader of the Taliban movement that took control of Afghanistan in 1996. However, while Mulla Umar himself never declared that he was a caliph, others raised him to that pedestal. And then…
“The Caliph’s name is Abu Isa Muhammad Eid Ar-Rifaei, also known as Abu Hammam Al-Khalifah. He is a Jordanian man descended from the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet (ss).”
“He was living here with us in Pabi but for the last few years he has been living in Britain because he suffered health problems here.”
Asma wondered whether Abu Adil was out of his mind. But then she remembered that neither Abu Adil, nor his friends, ever attended prayers at any of the local mosques. Maybe they really don’t consider all these people Muslims, she wondered.
“You mean the ‘Caliph’ is living in Britain?” Asma asked Abu Adil. “You are joking, right?”
Abu Adil was silent. He did’t tell Asma that the Abu Isa ‘The Caliph’ was living on income support (Government social security welfare) in the city of Slough, a few miles west of London.
The second beating came a few days after this conversation. This time Asma had mistakenly burned one of Abu Adil’s kameez shirts while she was ironing it.
Abu Adil had picked up a sandal and, while swearing at her with the most vulgar language, beat Asma with it so severely that her nose began to bleed.
He would have continued had she not managed to run away and lock herself in the bathroom.
A short while later, the same thing happened. Abu Adil apologised and promised he would never hit Asma again. She found it quite strange.
Why apologise and promise never to hit me again if you believe that you are obliged to beat me according to the teachings of the Quran and the Prophet (ss), Asma wondered to herself.
The cycle of beatings and apologies continued for the next few weeks. Asma began to realise that this was how it was going to be. The final straw came one night after Abu Adil dragged Asma by her hair and threw her down the stairs.
Asma had to run away. She was in fear for her life.
The next morning, as Abu Adil slept, Asma managed to slip out of the house and get a rickshaw to the bus station. There she mingled among some local women and then got on a bus to Peshawar.
Asma remembered that she knew someone in Peshawar. Fatima, one of Asma’s classmates was living in Peshawar, having moved there after she got married. Somehow, Asma managed to reach Fatima’s house and explained to her what had happened.
She knew that Abu Adil would be hunting her as soon as he found out what had happened. Her life was in danger.
“Go to the house of Asadullah As-Sindhi,” Fatima told him. “He is the most well-connected Mujahid in Peshawar. You will be OK with him.” Asadullah was certainly well-known not just in Peshawar, but in Jihad circles across Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Unlike most of the “armchair Mujahideen” living in Pakistan, Asadullah was a real warrior, Fatima told Asma. He had actually fought in Jihad, on a battlefield.
Asadullah had spent many years fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and was one of the 50 fighters that took part in the famous 1987 “Lion’s Den” operation in Jaji, successfully defending the base of the foreign Mujahideen fighters from a Soviet attack.
Asma somehow made it to Asadullah’s house; his wife was at home. In tears, Asma explained to Asadullah and his wife everything that had happened.
“I think you have got caught up in the ‘Caliphate’ cult,” Asadullah told Asma.
“Most of them arrived in the region long after the Jihad in Afghanistan ended,” he carried on. “None of them have any significant history or legacy in the Jihad. They consider every Muslim who is not with them to be an apostate.”
“There are only a handful of them,” he continued. “All the Mujahideen of the area hounded them out of Peshawar so they went to live in Pabi.”
“They kill anyone who leaves them but here you will be safe with us inshallah [God willing].”
Somewhat reassured, Asma ate and fell asleep in the spare room. At 1 o’clock in the morning there was a loud knocking on the gate to the house compound. Asma peered out of a corner of the curtain.
Asadullah went to the gate and opened it. Standing there was Abu Adil. He began shouting angrily at Asadullah. Asma was terrified.
Asadullah meanwhile tried to calm Abu Adil down and reason with him.
And then Asma saw what was in Abu Adil’s hands. She glimpsed the steel of a handgun before she saw the muzzle flashes of the multiple gunshots. Asadullah fell to the floor and remained there motionless.
“Now it’s your turn you whore!” Abu Adil shouted as he began to make his way to the house. Asma froze in fear and recited her shahadah Islamic declaration of faith.
That was the last thing she did. Abu Adil entered the room where Asma was. There were gunshots, Asma never left that room alive.
Within the space of a few seconds, two people who had rendered great service to Islam and Muslims lay dead. One was Asadullah As-Sindhi, a warrior and veteran of the anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad. Another was Asma.
Both were killed not by a foreign enemy or non-Muslim invader; they were murdered by a fellow Muslim who had become blinded by the cult that he was part of.
Epilogue: Abu Isa ‘The Caliph’ was arrested by UK authorities in 2006 on an immigration violation and imprisoned briefly in HMP Belmarsh. I saw him in the Belmarsh visiting hall in December 2006 while his family came to visit him. He was in a wheelchair and in poor health. He was soon given bail and released. He died in March 2014, while I was in an American Supermax prison.
As for Abu Ayub Al-Barqawi (the ‘cleric’ of the Abu Isa Caliphate group), following the murder of Asadullah As-Sindhi in 1997, he fled for his life from Pakistan after learning that associates of Asadullah were hunting him. He is believed to have been killed a few years later in a foreign country.
Finally, Abu Adil was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and detained in Guantanamo Bay for seven years. He was released to Algeria in 2010 after it was revealed that he had been working for the intelligence services of two Western nations. His current whereabouts are unknown.
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Read the story of why I was in prison in the interview I gave to The Guardian newspaper here.