Late this May, as the month of Ramzan set in, Muhammad Amir Awan set out from his home in Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Ghazi, wearing the simple white robes of the pious, a sleeping bag on his back, hoping the journey would lead him to redemption. His mother had kissed him goodbye, unable to contain her tears; the youngest of four, he was her most troubled, but also most loved.
The lane from his home to the Jami’a Masjid Ghanim bin Abdulrehman led him past the kebab stall where he often hung out with friends; the street-corner drug-dealers he would score crystal meth and hashish from; gaggles of local gangsters.
“I prayed he would find God, I hoped he would leave drugs, and come back a man,” recalled Awan’s father, Muhammad Riyaz Awan, who retired early this decade after serving 28 years in the Karachi police. This month, the family learned that the son they have not met since May is in prison in India. Awan was arrested by the J&K Police last month, in the course of an operation which claimed the lives of three of his Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) associates, and is now in the custody of the National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Awan’s story provides new insights into how the LeT continues to recruit terrorists despite its ongoing effort to project itself as a legitimate political party. And preying, in the process, on Pakistan’s most vulnerable — in this case, from the crime-torn, underprivileged neighbourhood of Gulshan-e-Ghazi, or “Garden of Holy Warriors”.
Ever since his son disappeared, Muhammad Riyaz hasn’t left his home: long disabled by a stroke, his health has deteriorated sharply in recent months, the family says. Awan’s mother, Sunera Bibi, is also seriously unwell, and the family fears the loss of her son might aggravate her cardiac condition. This weekend, the sons held a feast for the poor in Gulshan-e-Ghazi, to invoke God’s blessings for their parents’ health.
Ibrar Awan, the oldest of Awan’s brothers, says the family last heard from him in May. “He called just before Eid to say he was in Punjab with a religious group. But he wouldn’t say where, or when he’d be back. I thought he was back on drugs again,” Ibrar Awan told Karachi-based sources who contacted him on behalf of The Indian Express. “This photograph of him you have shown us is the first news we’ve had of his whereabouts. We’re grateful he is alive, but don’t know what to do now,” he said.
From the account Awan has given to NIA investigators, which under Indian law is not admissible in court, his journey began days after he joined the Tablighi Jama’at at his father’s suggestion. The head of his group, Baldia cleric Qari Amin, introduced him to volunteers of the Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) — the charitable wing of the LeT, which is internationally proscribed, but operates freely in Pakistan.
In the FIF — its network of ambulances and hospitals is active in Karachi — Awan was given growing responsibilities. The message didn’t stop with charity, though. Awan’s new friends told him of the LeT, and how, by joining jihad, he could redeem himself for his past sins. Like 26/11 perpetrator Ajmal Amir Kasab, who was a poverty-stricken, small-time criminal before joining the LeT, Awan was about to find a new calling.
After 16 weeks at the LeT’s Maskar Aksa camp in PoK, Awan was launched across the LoC on August 7. Within hours, the men who were with him were dead. Awan survived, and was arrested because he had left their safehouse above the village of Didikot to visit the neighbouring village. “He didn’t even draw his gun to try to fire. He just huddled in a corner, terrified we were going to kill him,” recalled a police officer present at Didikot. The son of a Hindko-speaking family who migrated to Karachi from the Hazara region in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Awan grew up in a home with little interest in Islamist politics or jihad. Though his father’s job opened the door to middle-class responsibility, illness and bad luck imposed great strains on the family. In addition to the parents’ illnesses, the Awan family’s second son suffered from a psychiatric ailment; none of the sons were able to complete school.
Ibrar Awan, now 30 years old, earned enough as a labourer in Baldia’s factories to set up an independent home after he married. The third son, Ayaz Awan, who is 26, found work as a tailor. The two, together, cared for their parents, and their unwell brother, Sheraz Awan. Instead of choosing to work — let alone visiting local mosques to pray — the family says Awan spent his time on the streets of the highly criminalised Baldia Town, the municipality of which Gulshan-e-Ghazi is a part. In his early teens, he began experimenting with drugs; his friends included members of cartels targeting local businesses for protection money.
Large-scale drug operations provide income to Baldia gangs but also draw in a steady stream of criminal recruits, who need cash to pay for their habit. In 2013, 257 people were killed in a fire in a Baldia factory, allegedly set on fire by Muttahida Qaumi Movement-linked gangsters after the owners refused to pay protection money. Educator Maria Taqdees describes the young men she works with in Baldia Town thus: “I can see them changing a lot as soon as they turn 12. They begin copying Bollywood actors who play the bad guy in movies and start eating gutka and paan, smoking cigarettes and doing drugs.”
The family’s pleading did little to change Awan’s ways, Ibrar Awan recalled, and they finally turned to the cleric Qari Awan. “He didn’t want to go, but my father said he would throw him out of the house otherwise,” Ibrar Awan recalled.
The proselytising mission the Awan family reached out for help was the Tablighi Jama’at, arguably the world’s largest religious order, which draws millions to its annual ijtema, or congregations. The group’s founder Muhammad Illyas Kandhlawi has disavowed politics, privileging jihad bin-nafs, or the struggle for conscience, over the jihad bin-saif, or holy war by the sword. Like other Tablighi missions, the one that left Baldia Town was to preach the order’s six principles of piety.
Even though few Tabligh members hail from the LeT’s Ahl-e-Hadith sect, the group does have a dark side: key members of several al-Qaeda plots, including the 2006 plot to bomb transatlantic planes, the London 7/7 bombings, the Glasgow airport attack, and the foiled 2008 strikes in Barcelona, began their ideological journey in its ranks. Last year, Pakistan banned Tablighi preachers from operating on campuses. According to NIA officials, the fact that Awan had not fired on Indian troops in Didikot could count in his favour, though his possession of an assault rifle as well as his illegal journey across the LoC could ensure he spends a decade, or more, in jail.