The Magazine

Sheikh Gilani's American Disciples

What to make of the Islamic compounds across America affiliated with the Pakistani radical group Jamaat al-Fuqra?

Mar 18, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 26 • By MIRA L. BOLAND
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WALL STREET JOURNAL reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped when he went looking for the leader of a group called Jamaat al-Fuqra in the terrorist bazaar of Pakistan. At the time he disappeared, Pearl was tracking reports that Fuqra had hosted would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid at its walled compound in Lahore. In the end, it was agents of another group that spirited Pearl off to his death, but Fuqra remains a subject of interest, and not only because of its activities in Pakistan. For Fuqra has had a disturbing U.S. presence for more than 20 years. Today, half a dozen Fuqra residential compounds in rural hamlets across the country shelter hundreds of members, some of whom, according to intelligence sources, have been trained in the use of weapons and explosives in Pakistan.

Fuqra's founder and chief, the man Pearl sought to interview, is a rotund Kashmiri of Sufi background with long-standing ties to Pakistan's Interservice Intelligence Agency (ISI), Sheikh Mubarik Ali Hasmi Shah Gilani. At least until President Musharraf's decision last fall to support the American war on terrorism, the ISI sponsored terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. Sheikh Gilani has rubbed shoulders at international terrorist confabs with gunslingers from Hamas and Hezbollah, their mullah backers, and Osama bin Laden. And he has trained fighters for the battlefields of Kashmir, Chechnya, and Bosnia.

Gilani launched his U.S. operations in 1980. Within ten years, Fuqra's communes were billing themselves as havens where Muslim converts--many of them inner-city blacks, sometimes recruited in prison--could build new lives. At least seven such communities are active today, in Hancock, N.Y.; Red House, Va.; Tulare County, Calif.; Commerce, Ga.; York, S.C.; Dover, Tenn.; and Combermere, Canada. While some of these enclaves contain only rudimentary buildings and trailers, the California compound has 300 residents on a 440-acre spread, according to a recent report by a local ABC station. Residents deny any involvement with terror, but Fuqra has a history of getting into trouble with the law.

Over the years, at least a dozen Fuqra members have been convicted of crimes including conspiracy to commit murder, firebombing, gun smuggling, and workers' compensation fraud in the United States or Canada. And Fuqra members are suspects in at least 10 unsolved assassinations and 17 firebombings between 1979 and 1990. Nor is Fuqra's criminal activity all in the past. In the last year alone, a resident of the California compound was charged with first degree murder in the shooting of a sheriff's deputy; another was charged with gun smuggling; the state of California launched an investigation into the fate of more than a million dollars in public funds given to a charter school run by Fuqra leaders; and two residents of the Red House community were convicted of firearms violations, while a third awaits trial.

Harder to document publicly but affirmed by several investigators and intelligence sources are the group's continuing links with guerrilla training in Pakistan. But then elusiveness is the order of the day for an organization whose members are well versed in the use of aliases; whose structure, shrouded behind front groups, is a network of safe houses and cells; and whose founder and members consistently maintain that it doesn't exist.

SHEIKH GILANI found his first American recruits by raiding the ranks of an existing American Muslim organization, the Dar ul Islam. At a Brooklyn mosque, Gilani, sporting ammunition belts, preached Islam as the path to a better life and called for fighters to join the holy war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Under the guise of studying Islam, some of his followers were initiated into the international Islamist movement. Their campaign of crime on U.S. soil began almost at once.

As befits Gilani's close ties to Kashmir and the ISI, Fuqra's early targets in North America were ethnic Indians and sites linked to Indian sects. Thus, in July 1983, Stephen Paul Paster, a ranking member of Fuqra and one of its few whites, blew off most of one hand while planting a pipe bomb at a Portland, Ore., hotel owned by followers of the late guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. At the time Fuqra's principal bombmaker, Paster escaped from a hospital and remained on the lam for two years. After police caught up with him at a Fuqra house in Colorado, Paster served 4 years of a 20-year prison sentence for the bombing. He was suspected but not charged in two other bombings in Seattle in 1984 while he was a fugitive, the bombings of the Vedanta Society temple and the Integral Yoga Society building. Paster now lives in Lahore, where U.S. intelligence sources say he provides explosives training to visiting Fuqra members.