The proposed construction in east London of a 17-acre, 70,000-person-capacity mosque complex by the Tablighi Jamaat (Propagators of the Faith) — a proselytizing group with suspected ties to radical and extremist Islamist organizations — has raised concerns in the United Kingdom that the complex could serve as a center for jihadist recruitment. The concerns have been exacerbated by the fact that at least one of the men charged in the plot to kidnap, torture and kill a British Muslim soldier
in Birmingham, England, attended the Tablighi-run Hamza mosque in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham. Although much of the fear and suspicion is excessive, such a massive complex could indeed attract some Islamist extremists. Tablighi Jamaat, established in Mewat, India, in 1927, stems from the Deobandi brand of the Hanafi Sunni school of jurisprudence in the region. Operating as what it says is an apolitical, pietistic organization, Tablighi Jamaat sends missionaries across the globe on proselytizing missions to bring wayward Muslims back to more orthodox practices of Islam. The Tablighis, mostly Urdu-speaking and of South Asian origin, operate in 150 countries and have 70 million to 80 million active followers, making them the largest extant Muslim group. The group's mission is to work at a grassroots level, reaching out to Muslims across the social and economic spectrum. The Tablighis do not solicit or receive donations, but rather are largely funded by senior members. At face value, Tablighi Jamaat is a peaceful, egalitarian and devotional movement that stresses individual faith and overall spiritual development. Some Islamist groups, in fact, refer to the Tablighis as "Muslim Jehovah's Witnesses." While the Tablighis say they follow a peaceful agenda, however, there is speculation that the organization serves as a de facto conduit for Islamist extremists and for groups such as al Qaeda. Upon joining the group, Tablighi recruits are given the option of attending the Tablighi center in the Pakistani city of Raiwind, near Lahore, Pakistan, for four months of additional religious training. Once the recruits are in Pakistan, representatives of various Islamist groups, such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen
and al Qaeda, are said to woo them actively — to the point of offering them military training. And some of them accept the offer. Little is known about Tablighi Jamaat's organizational hierarchy because the group operates under a veil of secrecy. What is known, however, is that a purported militant offshoot, Jihad bin Saif (Jihad through the Sword), was established in Taxila, Pakistan, and that members of this group were accused of plotting a coup against former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1995. Yet, because of the organization's extreme secrecy, little is known about its offshoot other than it most likely developed in reaction to Tablighi Jamaat's apolitical, peaceful stance. Evidence does point to an indirect connection between the group and the wider radical/extremist Deobandi nexus composed of anti-Shiite sectarian groups, Kashmiri militants and the Taliban. This link provides the medium through which Tablighis who are disgruntled with the group's apolitical program could break orbit and join militant organizations.
However, U.S. and British intelligence authorities, citing a number of cases, contend that the Tablighis have direct ties to al Qaeda. For instance, at least two of the suicide bombers
who attacked the London Underground on July 7, 2005, had worshipped at the Tablighi-run Markazi mosque in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire (the group's European headquarters). Additionally, several of those arrested Aug. 9, 2006, in connection with an alleged plot to blow up airliners
en route from London to the United States had attended Tablighi study sessions in the United Kingdom, while failed "shoe bomber" Richard Reid is known to have Tablighi associations. Then there is the connection to the Tablighi-run Hamza mosque by at least one of the suspects in the plot to behead a Muslim soldier in Britain — though there are claims that most of the nine suspects in the case had attended the mosque. Also, according to French intelligence reports, up to 80 percent of Islamist extremists in France have passed through the Tablighi system at some point. These supposed links are not limited to Europe. By some estimates, Tablighi Jamaat has a 50,000-strong following in the United States. Indeed, Tablighi mosques currently operate in several U.S. States, including California, Texas and New York, while the Al-Falah mosque in the Corona area of Queens, N.Y., apparently is the group's North American headquarters. John Walker Lindh traveled with Tablighi preachers to Pakistan in 1998 to further his Islamic studies before joining the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Also, the Buffalo cell, otherwise known as the Lackawanna Six
, that was convicted of providing material support to al Qaeda and the Oregon cell that conspired to bomb a synagogue and was charged with providing material support to al Qaeda were both involved in Tablighi missionaries. Despite these apparent links, however, the idea that Tablighi Jamaat serves as a de facto factory for churning out al Qaeda recruits — or any other Islamist fundamentalist organizations for that matter — is disputable. For instance, the Tablighis face severe criticism from Deobandi Islamists for their apolitical stance regarding the war on terrorism, which many Muslims perceived as a war against Islam. And orthodox groups, such as Sunni Wahhabis, strongly disagree with the organization's practice of innovation in Islam. In fact, fundamentalists who go on to join the ranks of jihadist groups are almost always among those who disagree with Tablighi Jamaat's benign intentions and political neutrality. Despite the growing concern among British officials over the proposed construction of the mosque complex in London — which some local media are calling an "Islamic village" — the stated purpose of the facility is to provide an Islamic center for the 2012 Olympic Games. Although the group promotes a benign apolitical message, the same conservative Islamic values espoused by the Tablighis are also part of jihadist ideology — and so some Muslims attracted to the Tablighi movement could be enticed into becoming involved with jihadists. However, although the organization could unintentionally serve as a front for, or strong conduit to, organizations such as al Qaeda, it would be incorrect to assume that the Tablighis act willingly as a global unified jihadist recruiting arm.