On August 5, 2020, Friends of Kashmir and its head – a prominent pro-Pakistani activist, writer and self-described poet named Ghazala Habib – organized an online event, in collaboration with the Pakistani embassy and its consulate in Houston, to discuss the “Crisis in Kashmir.”
In a sign of the Pakistani regime’s growing influence, speakers included the two co-chairs of the United States Congress’s Pakistan Caucus, the President of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and the Pakistani ambassador to the United States and the Houston consul-general. Other advertised speakers included Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, along with Texas state legislators Ron Reynolds and Terry Meza.
Sharing a screen with such illustrious figures, however, were open supporters of terror.
Extremists and Congressmen
The webinar was held to mark Youm-e-Istehsal, or ‘Day of Exploitation,’ an annual event recently established by Imran Khan’s government to bemoan India’s “seizure” of Kashmir in 2019.
During the webinar, broadcast on social media and American Pakistani television channel TVOne USA, Congressional Caucus co-chairs Representatives Jim Banks and Sheila Jackson Lee offered the dignified remarks expected of seasoned statesmen.
Banks, who has otherwise been an outspoken critic of South Asian Islamist movements, explained his intention to “draw attention to what’s going on in Kashmir” and “provide American leadership.” Jackson Lee expressed broad support for “security” and “human rights.” She fleetingly praised Imran Khan’s leadership, but quickly switched to topics such as COVID and unrelated events in Lebanon.
The Pakistani regime’s write-up of the congressmembers and their remarks, however, was somewhat different, including false claims that Representative Banks was “co-chair” of Friends of Kashmir. And indeed, the rest of the webinar was strikingly more militant.
AJK President Khan saluted Ghazala Habib for her “outstanding contribution” through Friends of Kashmir. He repeatedly compared the situation of the Kashmiris to that of the Jews under the Nazis, calling their plight a “genocide,” and asking why there had been no equivalent of the Nuremberg trials for Indian government officials, whom he likened to “Hitler and his cohort.”
With offices also in Islamabad and Karachi, Friends of Kashmir describes itself as a U.S. based “International Non Political Organization which aims to Impart Awareness Worldwide regarding Kashmir Issue, Kashmir [sic] status, and Kashmiris [sic] genocide at the hands of Indian Forces in occupied Kashmir.”
Unsurprisingly, such activities are the product of close collaboration with the Pakistani regime. During the webinar, Ghazala Habib thanked the Pakistani government for opening the “consulate doors for us 24/7,” describing it as “our first home.” In fact, Habib is also on close terms with President Masood Khan, who has repeatedly posted photos and comments about his meetings with her, some at his own house.
Habib does not just represent the interests of the Pakistani regime; she is also endorsed by prominent Kashmiri terror activists. In 2020, leaders of the Kashmiri Hurriyat political alliance, including Syed Ali Gilani and Asiya Andrabi, appointed Ghazala Habib as their representative in the United States.
Gilani is an infamous Kashmiri separatist who used to serve as the “Head of Jihad” for the now banned branch of the Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami in Jammu & Kashmir. Andrabi, meanwhile, founded the banned outfit Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Nation), which, The Economist notes, “supports terrorists” and advocates jihad. Andrabi claims to have embraced al-Qaeda officials, telling them that if “you belong to Sheikh Osama’s al-Qaeda then you are very welcome because he was a legitimate leader of Jihad.”
Andrabi has long been involved with Friends of Kashmir. In February 2017, the Texas group organized a conference at which the pro-Al Qaeda Andrabi spoke remotely, along with terror activists such as Yasin Malik and Shabir Shah, both of whom were arrested by Indian law enforcement in 2019.
It emerged that Malik had apparently “visited the [designated terrorist organization] Lashkar e Taiba (LeT) camps in Muree in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and addressed the LeT cadres there.” As for Shah, he was reportedly “in touch with the global terrorist Hafeez Sayeed, chief of banned outfit ‘Jamat-ud-Dawa’ based in Pakistan,” and received “money for carrying out separatist activities in J&K.”
In January 2021, Friends of Kashmir and Habib organized a protest in support of Malik, Shah, and Andrabi, in which she referred to the violent extremists as “heroes” and the “Kashmiri leadership.”
Despite her connections to terrorists, Habib claims in an interview to “already have moral support” in the United States “from many senators, Congressmen and influential people from the business community.”
Habib was far from the only terror-tied speaker to share a platform with several members of the United States Congress. Star speaker Riffat Wani is a Kashmiri activist under investigation by Jammu and Kashmir Police. Wani regularly expresses support for terrorists on social media. She has glowingly described the late, infamous Kashmiri terrorist Burhan Wani as one of “those who inspire others to resist occupation.” Burhan was a commander of the terrorist organization Hizbul Mujahideen, who successfully persuaded young Kashmiris to “join the holy war.”
Other advertised speakers at the webinar included a spokesperson of terror-linked Khalistani group Sikhs for Justice; as well as Raja Najabat Hussain and Abdul Hameed Lone, both of whom are officials of the JK Self Determination Movement International, which security services claim to be a front for Pakistan’s ISI. Another senior Pakistani politician listed as a presenter was Mushahid Hussain Syed, a former regime minister who has openly praised the activities of the murderous terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba.
British-Pakistani activist and politician Lord Nazir Ahmed was also featured in advertising for the event, although was not brought out to speak at any point. Perhaps his presence was considered unhelpful following his anticipated eviction from Britain’s House of Lords, all while he awaited trial on child abuse and attempted rape charges.
Lord Ahmed, who has a long history of involvement with Islamist causes in the United Kingdom, has been involved with Friends of Kashmir for several years. He is a prominent figure in Pakistan as well, where, in a television interview given in 2013, he proffered anti-Semitic claims that a previous conviction against him for “dangerous driving” in Britain was only handed down because of pressure placed on the courts by a secret cabal of Jews who also “own newspapers and TV channels.”
In March 2020, Lord Ahmed was listed as a speaker at another Friends of Kashmir event, alongside half a dozen prominent Pakistani politicians and Kashmiri leaders. They were due to be joined by Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Kashmiri-American activist convicted in an American court in 2011 of serving as an agent of Pakistan’s ISI.
As these examples show, the August webinar, featuring alleged rapists, terror-supporters, anti-Semites, ISI-connected activists and U.S. Congressmembers was not a one-off example. In fact, it is just the latest initiative of an energetic Pakistani regime influence operation, based in Texas, which is working alongside Islamists from Europe and South Asia to influence American legislators and media, and to manipulate American Muslims’ grassroots power.
This network’s efforts are yielding results. In a recent document published by the Pakistani Embassy, officials presented putative endorsement of the regime’s position by 20 Senators and Congressmembers. These elected officials, along with thinktanks, human rights organizations and media outlets, have been, the embassy reports, successfully encouraged to discuss “Indian oppression” in Kashmir – a “burden on humanity’s conscience.”
From where did this network appear? And how is it succeeding?
Since the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Houston last year, this major American city has been a key hub for Islamabad’s political agenda. Modi’s appearance at an Indian-American conference in September 2019 prompted a serious effort by American Islamist organizations to organize huge protests, with the visible backing of the Pakistani state.
As India Today‘s Ankit Kumar noted at the time, Ghazala Habib’s efforts to organize the protests were assisted by prominent leaders of Imran Khan’s ruling political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). At the time, local Texas media interviewed one Sajjad Burki, describing him as “one of the organizers of Friends of Kashmir.” In fact, Burki is also the president of PTI’s USA branch, which was listed as an additional “partner” organization of the protest organizers.
Other organizers of the protests included officials of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, a leading Pakistani-American Muslim institution, as well as donors to the election campaigns of Congressman Banks and Congresswoman Jackson Lee. Other groups supporting and sponsoring the protests included the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the chief U.S. proxy for the violent South Asian Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami. At the time, ICNA did not hide its involvement in the Houston protests, announcing that it had “helped coordinate what could be the largest protest in American history against a foreign politician.”
Friends of Kashmir even enlisted the support of Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a militant Khalistani organization banned in India. The SFJ official invited to address the Houston protests, Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, has been named by the Indian government as a designated terrorist because of his ties to violence in the Punjab.
Most importantly, the Pakistani regime and its proxies used the protests against Modi not just to galvanize Pakistani-American Islamists into action, but also to build an entirely new infrastructure to attack India and advance Pakistan’s interests.
Just a few weeks before the Modi protests in 2019, Sajjad Burki – PTI USA President and Friends of Kashmir “organizer” – established the International Humanitarian Foundation (IHF). And just a few days before the protests, Burki and his PTI and IHF colleague Atif Iqbal Khan met with Pakistan’s Imran Khan, who, at that meeting, appointed Iqbal Khan as the “Advisor to Government for Overseas Pakistanis.” At the protests, despite his and the other organizers’ close, irrefutable ties to the regime, Burki attempted, rather flaccidly, to “disassociate Pakistan from the protest by pointing out that there was no display of Pakistani flag.”
Although its only public activity revolved around the Modi protest, Burki’s IHF wielded sudden, enormous financial power. Notwithstanding its support for the protests against Modi’s visit (which, as India Today noted, made use of luxury buses to shuttle in protestors from far away), Burki’s IHF splurged on a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, which, according to most estimates, will have cost at least $150,000. In addition, IHF paid for billboards across the Houston area.
Also just a few days after the protests, the Department of Justice was sent a registration document notifying the federal government that IHF had engaged Fenton Communications, a leading D.C. lobbyist firm, as a declared foreign agent of Pakistan, under a $50,000 contract for a mere 11 days of work. Subsequent press releases, distributed around Washington D.C., proudly announced that “Fenton Spreads Word of India’s Rights Violations in Kashmir.” The contract was evidently renewed: eight months later, the same Fenton Communications reportedly claimed credit for arranging an interview with Pakistan’s Imran Khan on MSNBC’s flagship “Morning Joe” news program.
Buying Friends in High Places
Hiring a leading communications firm was one important step for the Houston network. The other was procuring powerful contacts. The Pakistani-American Political Committee, or PAKPAC, is the chief lobbying organization and election financier for Pakistani interests in the United States.
As the Pakistani embassy noted in its own write-up, PAKPAC official Dr. Rao Kamran Ali was closely involved with the August 5 webinar. And during that webinar, in fact, Representative Banks noted Ali had been a “tremendous resource” who “helped [him and his staff] understand these very important geopolitical issues.”
PAKPAC and its officials are registered financiers of the election campaigns for both webinar speakers Representative Jim Banks and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who, together, co-chair the Congressional Pakistan Caucus. Data from the Federal Election Commission reveals that PAKPAC itself has contributed thousands of dollars to these politicians’ coffers, with tens of thousands more coming from wealthy Pakistani businessmen and doctors also tied to PAKPAC and other Pakistani regime-linked entities.
In response to these moneys, while Jackson Lee has, reportedly, effusively praised Imran Khan’s “visionary leadership,” Banks has taken a more diplomatic, circumspect approach, leading regime-friendly Pakistani media quite deliberately to misreport Banks’ work on the question of Kashmir, falsely claiming that the congressman’s calls for the United States to “diffuse tensions” included a demand that the U.S. “highlight Indian atrocities.”
Despite Banks’ neutrality, his leadership of the Caucus has included working with his donors and constituents, such as PAKPAC members Farrukh Adhami and Abdali Jan, to host a visit to Congress in July 2019 by Pakistan’s Imran Khan.
Other active donors include PAKPAC board members such as Gohar Salam, as well as prominent businessmen tied to the regime, such as Democratic Party donor Tahir Javed. Quite a few donors to both Jackson Lee and Banks, including Adhami and Jan, are senior members of both PAKPAC and the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA), which describes PAKPAC as one of its “subsidiaries.”
These are not simply diaspora community organizations, but key institutions of the Pakistani regime’s influence efforts. Prime Minister Imran Khan has even reportedly described APPNA as Pakistan’s “most powerful” lobbying group.
APPNA is also a close partner of Jamaat-e-Islami’s largest franchise in the United States, the Islamic Circle of North America. As the Middle East Forum previously uncovered, in 2017, one of ICNA’s leading branches, a charity named Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD), openly partnered with the designated terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba.
From a Drab Office Block
All these national and international links trace back in other ways to the Houston Friends of Kashmir network and its Islamist partners. In 2009, for example, Houston activist and IHF head Sajjad Burki spoke at an APPNA panel alongside a senior Jamaat-e-Islami representative from Pakistan.
And along with Friends of Kashmir officials, other Houston-based organizers and supporters of the 2019 protest against Modi included additional activists tied to APPNA, PAKPAC and the Pakistani regime, such as senior ICNA and HHRD official Ilyas Choudry. Meanwhile, donors and fundraisers for Representative Banks and Representative Jackson Lee, such as Tahir Bhatti and M.J. Khan, worked closely with Friends of Kashmir head Ghazala Habib in the early planning stages of the protests.
From businessmen closely linked to Imran Khan and wealthy national lobbying organizations, to local mosques and Islamist charitable proxies tied to Kashmiri terror – everything connects.
Indeed, a substantial portion of the Houston network revolves around a single address – 6671 Southwest Freeway – an office block next to a South Asian ethnic enclave in West Houston popularly known as the Mahatma Gandhi District. Not only is IHF registered to this address; but also groups such as Pakistan American Volunteers, an organization through which Friends of Kashmir fundraises and of which Ghazala Habib is named a member. Officials of the aforementioned Islamic Society of Greater Houston (ISGH) are closely involved with Pakistan American Volunteers; while a subsidiary organization of the ISGH, the Islamic Education Institute of Texas, is also registered at the address.
In addition, donors to the Indiana congressman and those linked to APPNA – such as Houston activist Haroon Sheikh, the president of the Pakistan Association of Greater Houston and board member of Pakistani American Volunteers – are also board members of yet additional registered charities based out of the very same office building.
This is a complex network, but one with significant influence.
The income sources for most of the above organizations remain opaque. Tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service and gathered by the Middle East Forum, however, do reveal many hundreds of thousands of dollars given to groups such as APPNA, PAKPAC and the ISGH, through dozens of private American Islamic and Pakistani grant-making foundations, as well as employee giving schemes at large American corporations.
All across the United States, the Pakistani regime and its cheerleaders exploit the question of Kashmir to advance Islamist interests and attack India, in state and federal legislatures, newsrooms and town halls. These influence operations rely on dozens of leading American Islamist organizations for assistance, along with their powerful networks of financiers, activists, lobbyists and clerics.
Now that the ostensible occupation of Kashmir and the alleged evils of the Indian government have become rallying cries for Islamists around the globe, Western Islamists today increasingly look to Pakistan to lead the Muslim world – from Islamabad’s protests and boycotts against Macron’s France, to Imran Khan’s decision last year to address the largest conference in the American Muslim calendar.
Friends of Kashmir, with its financial and ideological influence over serving American politicians, and its links to wealthy lobbying organizations and well-organized grassroots activists, is just one example of a Pakistani proxy working to co-opt American Islamism, while apparently taking orders directly from Islamabad.
If this is Pakistan’s network in just one Texas city, what are the regime and its Islamist partners doing across the rest of America?
Sam Westrop and Martha Lee are writers for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum
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