ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—When I heard that Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the gregarious, pro-Taliban cleric in charge of Lal Masjid, or the “Red Mosque,” died Tuesday, I surprised myself by feeling a little sad. Over the last year, I got to know Ghazi quite well. Every few weeks, I would visit him at Lal Masjid to chat about everything from jihad and the Islamic revolution he planned to lead to our preferred vacation spots and his favorite English authors. We rarely agreed about anything substantive (like his admiration for Osama Bin Laden), but we talked for hours at a time over tea, fruit, and an occasional belly laugh. I usually dropped by just before taking a trip out of Islamabad. He was always willing to share the phone numbers of his mullah friends in other Pakistani cities. Before I went to Bangladesh, Ghazi scribbled the name of a bearded politician on the back of his business card. The guy welcomed me to Dhaka like a brother; too bad that a few weeks later he was arrested on terror-related charges. Still, having a personal reference from Abdul Rashid Ghazi was like having a backstage pass to the wild world of radical Islam.
Ghazi made international headlines last Tuesday when thousands of his followers clashed with police and paramilitary Rangers in the leafy, usually subdued Pakistani capital. In January, he made national headlines when a brigade of staff-wielding female madrassa students, or Talibat, took over a children’s library adjacent to the mosque and declared the establishment of a mini sharia-ruled state just a stone’s throw from the parliament building. Soon after that, Ghazi and his brother, Maulana Abdul Aziz, kicked off an anti-vice campaign in Islamabad. They started by kidnapping a brothel owner, dressing her in a black burqa, and forcing her to repent at a press conference. When a Western reporter asked Ghazi, who could always be relied upon to provide a zinger of a quote, if his anti-vice activities signaled the “Talibanization” of Pakistan, he replied, “Rudy Giuliani, when he became mayor of New York, closed the brothels. Was that also Talibanization? You would never say that. Nobody said that.” Meanwhile, President Pervez Musharraf’s government stood by and did nothing. A few weeks later, plainclothes police officers drifted too close to the mosque, and the local “Taliban” kidnapped them as well. On April 6, after Friday prayers, worshippers from Lal Masjid blocked a road and lit a bonfire using a pile of un-Islamic CDs and DVDs as kindling. Musharraf’s response? Still nothing.
But in late May, Ghazi’s vigilantes pushed their luck when they snatched six Chinese women from a massage parlor in Islamabad and held them hostage for a day. Beijing pressured Musharraf to protect Chinese citizens, and finally, the noose tightened around Ghazi and his crew. On July 3, Rangers were laying concertina wire at the end of the street facing Lal Masjid when militants inside the mosque fired on them. They killed one Ranger and, later in the day, razed the nearby offices of the Ministry of Environment. Security forces retaliated by chucking tear gas and firing bullets at the militants. By nightfall, Ghazi had bunkered down inside the mosque. The eight-day siege began.
Over the first few days of the siege, it looked as though Ghazi might negotiate his way out. He called in to local TV stations and talked about laying down his arms in exchange for safe passage. Considering the government’s prior record of appeasement, and Ghazi’s penchant for slick talk, it seemed possible. A French journalist on vacation in Paris called an Irish friend of mine in Islamabad and asked whether he should get on the next flight to Pakistan. “That depends. Do you consider Ghazi a politician or a jihadi?” my friend replied. The Frenchman never came.
As the siege continued, however, Ghazi morphed from an outspoken extremist with a perma-smirk into a bona fide terrorist. During the first few days, more than 1,200 of his students surrendered to security forces. But by Friday, Ghazi and his men were threatening suicide attacks and holding women and children hostage as human shields. Jihadi gunmen fired at those who tried to escape. A father who approached the gate of the mosque compound to ask for his son was shot in the leg by masked gunmen, who told him to scram. For nine days, the exchange of rifle- and machine-gun fire made Islamabad sound like a giant bag of microwave popcorn. Everyone complained about bad sleep. Around midnight, just before heading to bed, I would walk up on my third-story patio and watch the glow of fireballs coming from the mosque as commandos lobbed explosives to destroy the walls that rimmed the compound. The last four nights, I woke up again around 3 a.m. to huge explosions. By the middle of the siege, the same foreign journalists once charmed by Ghazi’s articulate and witty ways were cursing him for depriving them of sleep.
The government imposed a curfew in the neighborhood immediately surrounding Lal Masjid, even shutting off the electricity and gas in order to deny Ghazi those luxuries. For two hours a day, the curfew was lifted and “mobile utility stores”—trucks loaded with milk, rice, lentils, cooking oil, tea, and other staples—made the rounds.
During the curfew break on Friday, I teamed up with a couple of reporter friends who work for big papers, and we hustled over to the Holiday Inn, the closest hotel to Lal Masjid, to take a few rooms. Except for a handful of Pakistani journalists also holed up there, the place was completely abandoned. The management tried to charge $225 a night, but my big-budget friends talked them down to $100—”the stand-off special,” as one called it. With the razor wire preventing people from getting close and the blackout preventing anyone from seeing what was going on, the only advantage the Holiday Inn provided was being able to hear the sound of bullets whizzing through the trees and that the bombs were a little louder. I stayed one night and decided that my house, just a mile down the road, offered a much cheaper, and safer, base.
Over the next few days, government spokesmen alleged that foreign militants, a euphemism for al-Qaida, were among those inside the mosque defending Ghazi. On Sunday night, a Predator drone, the same ones used by Americans to chase terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, buzzed over the city. The next night, a delegation of senior mullahs tried to persuade Ghazi to free the women and children inside. When they failed, the final phase of the commando operation—codenamed “Operation Silence”—started at 3:30 Tuesday morning. I was enjoying my first decent night’s sleep in a week.
Around 9 on Tuesday evening, more than 12 hours after the army estimated the raid would be over, news channels reported Abdul Rashid Ghazi’s death. Apparently, he took a shot in the leg, refused to surrender, and was then finally killed. The next morning, a full-page headline in Dawn, an English-language daily, read, “It’s all over as Ghazi is killed.” It’s true: Ghazi is dead; his brother Abdul Aziz was detained after being arrested trying to escape in a burqa last Wednesday night; and Lal Masjid is in ruins. But the Taliban in Pakistan are far from defeated.
Since the operation began against Lal Masjid, neo-Taliban groups in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province have suicide-bombed a military convoy, attacked several police stations, and blocked the Karakorum Highway in protest. In the lawless tribal area of Bajaur, 20,000 tribesmen, some shouldering rocket-propelled grenades, rallied in support of Ghazi and encouraged him to “embrace martyrdom.” Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, a well-known mujahid, told the gathering, “We beg Allah to destroy Musharraf, and we will seek revenge for the atrocities perpetrated on the Lal Masjid.”
A few weeks ago, Ghazi had offered to introduce me to Maulvi Faqir. He said he’d write me a letter, but we both ran out of time, and I never stopped by to get it. Maybe Faqir will trust that Ghazi and I used to be chummy. But without his golden, handwritten reference, it’s not worth taking a chance.