The Barelvi Transnational Terrorist Network: A New and Dynamic Threat Reaches Europe
by Giovanni Giacalone
The peak of jihadist violence coming from Barelvi circles cannot fail to cause concern as the phenomenon not only appears in full swing but also at a transnational level and in an extremely fluid manner, making it more difficult to detect and interdict
On 6 June 2022, the Italian police arrested fourteen Pakistani citizens, all accused of international terrorist associations, as part of a transnational jihadist network linked to the Barelvi movement, which is active in Italy, France, Spain, and Greece. The operation originated from intelligence acquired in 2020 about the presence in Italy of some foreigners in the direct relational orbit of Hassan Zaheer Mahmood, the 27-year-old Pakistani who on 25 September 2020 in Paris, near the former headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, seriously wounded two people with a machete to “avenge” the new publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
The network, which originated in Paris, was extensively active on Facebook and TikTok and called itself “Gabar”. On 21 July 2020, just two months before the attack, thirteen members of the group took a picture all lined up in front of the Eiffel Tower and attached the comment “be patient, we will meet on the battlefield”; at the center of the line was Hassan Zaheer Mahmood.
As indicated by the Italian investigators, after the 25 September 2020 attack, all references to the Gabar group were removed from social media, obviously to avoid leaving traces. However, on 27 January 2021, a new Gabar group named “United Group Paris France” was activated and the individual in the profile photo was soon identified as Yaseen Tahir, the ring leader of the cell active on Italian soil, who also appeared in some photographs holding a machete very similar to the one used by Mahmood in the attack. As investigations continued, it emerged that Tahir was coordinating a cell that was active in various Italian cities, with its hub in Fabbrico, a town of fewer than 7,000 people near Reggio Emilia, where members of the Gabar network met on several occasions. Tahir coordinated the activities of the “Italian” cell; he recruited associates for the group, looked for possible hideouts, purchased weapons, and maintained relations with the network’s top leaders abroad.
It is also important to recall that on 29 September 2021, the Italian police arrested near the city of Lodi (not far from Fabbrico) 19-year-old Pakistani citizen Hamza Ali. French authorities indicate he was also involved in the September 2020 attack. As a matter of fact, Mahmood had sent him the video where he claimed responsibility for the attack, asking Ali to spread the video in case he was unable to do it.
The Gabar Transnational Network
In February 2022 the Spanish police, in coordination with the National High Court, arrested five Pakistani citizens in Barcelona, Gerona, Ubeda and Granada, all accused of being followers of the Pakistani Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). According to Spanish investigators, Mahmood belonged to this same group and its members were all accused of jihadist propaganda and incitement to commit terrorist acts, more precisely murder, against those who insult Islam and its Prophet. They also praised the actions of terrorists who had carried out attacks in Europe and Pakistan against people considered blasphemous. The group had formed a propaganda apparatus to maintain a cohesive ideological structure and attract new followers.
Among the five arrested, there is 31-year-old Ullah Shoaib. In addition to Shoaib’s publications on social networks, the Spanish police retrieved from his cell phone several photographs where he held machetes, images of small weapons and assault rifles, as well as a snapshot of the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, next to the English word “headshot”.
As it later emerged, at least three of the individuals arrested in Spain were in touch with members of the Gabar network taken down by the Italian authorities. It is also interesting to notice how, in November 2020, just two months after the attack against the former headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, the Spanish police stopped Yaseen Tahir and Hassan Raza while they were trying to cross into France. The latter was arrested (and he is currently serving a 21-month sentence in Barcelona for crimes against public health), while Tahir managed to avoid arrest and escape to Paris, where he was arrested three months later, on 22 February 2021, at the Sainte Lazare train station, where he was found in possession of a machete almost identical to the one used by Mahmood. In April 2021, French authorities released Tahir and flew him back to Italy, where he resided. The phone interceptions later conducted by the Italian authorities revealed that Tahir and his accomplices were also planning to form a group in the Barcelona area and Raza himself was very active on the web with propaganda activity.
The Gabar network, active in France, Italy, Spain, and Greece, had a precise hierarchical structure, with a founding leader, a president, a vice-president, a secretary, and several other defined positions. At the top of the network was Nadeem Raan, also known as “Peer” (master), constantly consulted by Tahir via phone, despite the fact that Raan was being detained in a French prison. On 11 August 2021, during a phone conversation between the two, Raan told Tahir that as soon as he will be released from prison, he would travel to Italy where he will do “all kinds of things”.
During the same conversation, Raan also added, “I am a brave man in difficult times and now that my brothers are out and I will be out shortly, you will see what we do out there. All groups will hear Gabar’s name and all will get down on their knees. You must know that I am an important person in Pakistan; I know people that you can only imagine, tomorrow I will send you a video so you will realize”.
In other phone conversations, the two discussed the possibility of purchasing weapons, finding at least ten members in every city, and forming Gabar cells in Italy and Spain. The group also attracted the attention of Pakistani authorities, as revealed in a phone conversation between Tahir and an individual using a French phone number who claimed, after his arrest in France, that his family in Pakistan was searched and that for Pakistani authorities he is now a suspect. However, Tahir advises him not to worry because “in Pakistan if you pay you are acquitted”.
It is interesting to notice how the members of the Gabar network had no hesitation in showing themselves in photographs and videos while wielding knives, machetes, and sticks, even though they were aware of being monitored by law enforcers, as emerged in various phone calls between the group’s members and by the removal of all references to Gabar immediately after the September 2020 attack against the former Charlie Hebdo headquarters.
As explained in the detention order, by the preliminary investigation judge, Dr. Silvia Carpanini: “There are numerous videos published on social media that praise violence and show without hesitation the members of the Gabar group armed with deadly instruments of death, typically used in Islamic attacks, obtaining the approval of associates and countless other individuals who share the message, expressing themselves with likes, comments and other expressions of appreciation”.
And again: “The presence of multiple publications on social media, especially group meetings, should not surprise us as, although imprudent conduct, it is nevertheless functional to the propaganda needs of the group and represents its main recruitment channel”.
A New Kind of Organization
Looking at the Gabar network, what one sees is a hybrid organization that combines a hierarchical structure typical of traditional terrorist organizations and a specific nationality and ethnicity (Pakistani and Punjabi) combined with a modus operandi that is common to the “improvised terrorism” that took over in the second decade of the twenty-first century with the Islamic State (ISIS). It is a new type of terrorism that doesn’t require joining a traditional and secretive terrorist organization, and going to some training camp in the Middle East or South Asia. Rather, it is based on the free and spontaneous initiative of local actors in Europe. Most of the propaganda and recruitment is done through the web and the weapons generally used for the attacks are the ones that are easier to attain, which mostly means blades, rather than guns and explosives.
As far as it is known up to date, the Gabar network didn’t have any relationship with large and well-established terrorist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Though the name of the organization had no overt religious reference—Gabar is a Punjabi word indicating someone brave and willing to take action—the network’s ideology is based on Barelvi Islamist extremism, as it will be seen in the next section.
Despite the Gabar network’s hierarchical structure and its strict Punjabi traits, paradoxically it seemed to lack a clear chain of command and control. As a matter of fact, Mahmood, who was a high-ranking member of the group, took action on his own and while other members of Gabar probably knew his intentions, it is very unlikely that the attacker asked for any type of permission before his attack. The network’s was fluidity also makes the use of terms such as “cell” and “network” to describe it and its component parts difficult; where such terms are unavoidable, they must be understood within a fully dynamic context. For instance, the references to “the French cell” and “the Italian cell” are misleading if they are understood as static entities with stable membership: the Gabar was a very fluid network with individuals constantly on the move, changing their domiciles and meeting areas, closing Facebook groups and quickly opening new ones, and so on.
Though to date, no conclusive proof has been discovered of foreign connections to the Gabar network, the members’ history in Pakistan remains unclear. Given the vast Islamist and jihadist presence in Pakistan, and the state’s use of these extremists and terrorists in domestic and especially foreign policy, this is an obvious line of inquiry that must be followed up. Were any of them known to Pakistani authorities? Did they have direct connections to extremist groups? Did any of them attend any terror training camps in Punjab or Kashmir?
One more point that must be made: immediately after the September 2020 attack, many European media outlets immediately began referring to Zaheer Hassan Mahmood as a “lone-wolf”, a term that has become very popular when dealing with Islamist terrorism in the last decade. A “lone-wolf” terrorist is someone who acts on his own, without any support, using a weapon that is easy to obtain. In the real world of terrorism, “lone wolves” essentially do not exist. When cases are examined, the evidence has shown that presumed “lone-wolves” usually were not as alone as expected. Mahmood’s case is a perfect example: he turned out to be an important member of a terrorist network. Mahmood might not have had external support from one of the old-style terrorist organizations, like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but he was part of an internal organization in Europe that had a distinct structure, even if it was more fluid than these traditional terrorist organizations.
The Gabar network is ideologically linked to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an Islamist political party founded in Pakistan in 2015 by Khadim Hussein Rizvi, a Punjabi Barelvi cleric renowned for his speeches against blasphemy, who had been convicted even under Pakistan’s notoriously lax counter-terrorism laws for hate speech and anti-state activities.
The Barelvi movement, also known as Ahl al-Sunna waal-Jamaat, is a Sunni revivalist movement with strong Sufi influences that was born in India between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. They have been in constant tension with another branch of Islam, also born in India, known as Deobandism, which provided the manpower and ideological support for jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. The Deobandi ideology, which is also shared by the Taliban, managed to deeply root itself in Pakistan. As pointed out by Sushant Sareen, Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, the Deobandi grew in strength from the 1940s throughout the 1980s, more so with the rise of jihadist militias that were mostly aligned to the Deobandi school and backed by the military establishment for pursuing foreign and security policy agendas in Afghanistan, India, and other parts of the world. The rise of the Deobandi heightened the paranoia among the Barelvis.
In the mid-1980s, the Barelvis formed the Dawat e-Islami with the objective of having a dedicated unit for proselytizing to compete with the Deobandi Tablighi Jamaat. Soon after, other Barelvi groups emerged, such as the Sunni Tehreek, the Jamaat ahl-al-Sunnah and Tehreek Tahaffuz Namoos-e-Risalat. In Kahsmir, two Barelvi groups known as the Sunni Jihad Council and Tehreek-e-Jihad, tried to take action, but, despite their effort, they remained marginal compared to the Deobandi groups.
After 9/11, when Pakistan was under the Western spotlight, a number of the sectarian organizations related to the Deobandi school of thought were banned. These groups shared the same ideology as the Taliban, and could no longer be presented as essential partners against the Soviets. Now, but rather their presence was embarrassing for a state that was supposedly an ally in the “War on Terror”. The Pakistani deep state and its intelligence agencies continued to use Deobandi militants, including the Taliban, for foreign policy issues, however, and even domestically many groups were able to continue operating simply by rebranding.
In the meantime, Barelvi organizations were considered moderate and continued to receive overt backing and promotion from State institutions. After all, as explained by Yaqoob-ul Hassan, a Research Analyst at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses: “[T]he Barelvi have mostly remained an apolitical and peaceful sect, generally supportive of the State. Over the years, there was a growing political awakening within the sect as it was felt that it was losing its influence and appeal to other sects, especially to the Deobandis. In the sectarian turf wars with other sects, the Barelvis found themselves on the receiving end. Most of their top leaders were killed in a suicide attack carried out by suicide bombers allegedly from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which ripped through a congregation of the 12th Rabiul Awwal at the Nishtar Park in April 2006”.
However, it is important to bear in mind that the Barelvi movement is not necessarily a monolithic block. The Barelvis are not new to violence in Pakistan and they are part of a well- known sectarianism that in most cases targets other Muslims through what has become a “cheval de bataille” for Barelvis, the accusation of blasphemy.
Barelvi extremism began to clearly emerge in Pakistan in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In November 2010 a court in Punjab sentenced to death a Christian girl named Asia Bibi, on charges of blasphemy against prophet Muhammad. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, visited the woman in prison and strongly criticized the blasphemy law, claiming that it only favored extremism. It is important to stress: Taseer did not himself blaspheme; he only criticized the blasphemy law. Yet, Islamic groups, both Deobandi and Barelvi, still reacted to Taseer’s statements and actions strongly, demanding his removal from office and even accusing him of being an apostate. On 4 January 2011, Taseer was murdered by his own bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, a Barelvi follower of Dawat-e-Islami. The killer was arrested, sentenced to death in October of 2011, and executed in February of 2016, with consequent violent protests breaking out across Pakistan, since many consider Qadri a hero.
One key player in such protests and in the current blasphemy issue was, and still is, the TLP. The party leaders are notorious for inciting violence: for instance, Pir Afzal Qadri, patron-in-chief of the TLP, declared that the Supreme Court judges who acquitted Asia Bibi in October 2018 as “wajib-ul-qatal (deserving of murder)”. Back in 2010, he had also publicly called for the murder of Salman Taseer and threatened to kill government officials supporting blasphemers. In November 2018, Qadri, Rizvi, and other TLP leaders were arrested, though they were released on bail a few months later.
This overview of the TLP in Pakistan is essential as it provides a clear idea of the ideology behind the Gabar group and their reference figures, especially Khadim Hussein Rizvi. Additionally, it is also important to recall that the killers of both, Asad Shah and Kanhaiya Lal (the first one murdered in Glasgow in March 2016 and the latter in June 2022 in Rajasthan, both for blasphemy accusations), were all Barelvis linked to the above-mentioned Dawat e-Islami.
The peak of jihadist violence coming from Barelvi circles cannot fail to cause concern as the phenomenon not only appears in full swing but also at a transnational level and in an extremely fluid manner, making it more difficult to detect and interdict. This is a phenomenon that goes well beyond the borders of Pakistan, as demonstrated by the recent arrests in Europe and must, therefore, be given greater attentional resources by analysts and governments.
Article first published on European Eye on Radicalization.
Giovanni Giacalone, a senior analyst for the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies/Catholic University of Milan, and for the Britain-based think-tank Islamic Theology of Counter-Terrorism. He is the team coordinator for the “Latin America Group” of the International Institute for the Study of Security.