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All in a name

One may well ask what’s in a name. Except that in the case of the militants, their parents give them one name, but they adopt new and inspiring names selecting from famous Muslim warriors dating back to the early days of Islam

All in a name
— Photo by Aref Karimi / AFP

When the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) head Maulana Fazlullah in his latest statement added Khurasani to his name, it seemed as if there is a race among the militants to identify themselves with the fabled land of Khurasan.

There could be quite a few reasons why Fazlullah, who escaped to Afghanistan in the summer of 2009 after the Pakistan military operation against his militant group in his native Swat district, affixed Khurasani to his name.

One reason could be that he genuinely believes in the dream of Khurasan, which according to a saying (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is the historic land from where the armies of Islam holding black flags would march to the Arab heartland for a final war and decisive victory in the end times. The hadith quoted by Tirmizi is disputed by some, but the jihadis consider it authentic and refer to it and Khurasan with pride and anticipation.

Another likely reason for Fazlullah to start using Khurasani with his name could be that he won’t like to be left behind when his rival militant commander, Omar Khalid Khurasani of Mohmand Agency now heading the breakaway TTP group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and many others have already done so.

There are now so many Khurasanis in the militants’ ranks that at times it is confusing to distinguish one from the other.

In fact, Fazlullah went a step further and named the TTP’s new spokesman as Muhammad Khurasani, which obviously is his nom de guerre. The latter’s real name is Khalid Balti hailing from Gilgit-Baltistan and educated in madrassas in Karachi and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He replaced the previous TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, whose real name was Sheikh Maqbool and belonged to Orakzai Agency. Shahid was removed when he along with five other TTP commanders declared allegiance to the Islamic State, an offshoot of al-Qaeda that has emerged as the most powerful militant group in the Middle East.

Khurasani seems to be one of the most popular second names being used by the militants

The leaders of the Pakistani militants and also foot-soldiers have increasingly been affixing Khurasani with their names. It is source of pride for them and also shows their strong belief in the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) regarding ancient Khurasan, which in its days of glory included northeastern Iran, parts of Central Asia and much of Afghanistan. Khurasan prospered during Islamic rule and from here armies went forth to conquer more territory. The militants strongly believe in this particular hadith predicting the march of the Islamic armies carrying black flags to defeat the Jews and their allies in the land of Palestine. They want to accomplish the promised mission and be part of the all-conquering Muslim army.

Some among the Afghan Taliban espouse the same belief. The two flags chosen for his Taliban movement by Mulla Mohammad Omar were black and white, held together during ceremonies and battles. Taliban officials used to say it was inspired by the black and white flags of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), but no mention was made of Khurasan when the movement emerged in 1994-95 in southwestern Afghanistan. Earlier during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupying forces, some of the mujahideen used to raise black flags to seek inspiration in battle.

When the US recently carried out airstrikes in Syria, the Pentagon said the bases of the al-Qaeda-linked Khurasan group had been targeted and destroyed. It was also claimed that its head Moshin al-Fadhli, a Kuwaiti national, had apparently been killed. Strangely, the small Khurasan group was even described as more dangerous to US interests than the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-led Islamic State which is now controlling swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. The truth about this group isn’t known, but the fact that it is named Khurasan explains the attachment of the present-day jihadis to Khurasan’s name and territory.

It is true Khurasan has inspired scores of jihadis and remains a rallying point for many of them as they fight in the name of Islam, but there are many other symbols, mostly Muslim heroes from the past, who serve as an inspiration for the militants. This is also an attempt to justify their actions, but few if any Muslims at all are impressed by the militants’ tactics.

Though the militants retain their original names, they adopt new ones by carefully selecting from the names of the famous Muslim warriors dating back to the period of Islam’s first four caliphs — Khulafa-e-Rashida — and also subsequent Islamic rulers. Inspiration is sought from these caliphs and warriors, including Khalid bin Waleed, Abu Obaida bin Jarrah and many other companions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and militants’ commanders or bases are named after them.

Fazlullah may have started using Khurasani with his name to not be left behind when his rival militant commander, Omar Khalid Khurasani of Mohmand Agency had already done so.

When the al-Qaeda commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, credited as the real founder of the Islamic State, died some years ago in Iraq in a US military operation after terrorising anyone opposed to him, many militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan started affixing Zarqawi to their names. It is possible that the present Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has been declared as a caliph, too would inspire the militants to adopt his name.

The al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden inspired many Muslims in several countries to name their newborn sons as Osama after him. Some militants couldn’t lag behind and they too adopted Osama’s name, in most cases after his death in May 2011 in the US military raid in Abbottabad.

The real name of a local Taliban commander in South Waziristan is Bahawal Khan, but he prefers to be known as Salahuddin Ayubi, the great Muslim warrior who captured Palestine and many other territories defeating the Jews and Christians. Commander Khan Said Sajna, head of the breakaway TTP group in South Waziristan’s Mehsud territory, likes to be known as Khalid Mehsud.

Mulla Dadullah a well-known Afghan Taliban commander who was killed in a US raid in southwestern Afghanistan inspired a number of Afghan and Pakistani militants to start calling themselves Dadullah. His younger brother, Mansoor, who succeeded him quickly added Dadullah to his name because he felt it could confer on him name recognition and legitimacy. A Pakistani Taliban commander from Bajaur Agency who was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan’s Kunar province last year had also adopted Dadullah’s name. Initially, it wasn’t clear as to which Dadullah had been killed, but later it became clear Said Jamal alias Dadullah had died in the US drone attack.

Haqqani too is a popular second name among the militants, though it invariably refers to the large seminary Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Nowshera district where generations of clerics and Taliban have been educated. Those affixing Haqqani to their names want it to be known that they are graduates of the Haqqania madrassa headed by Maulana Samiul Haq. Afghan mujahideen commander Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani, who later joined the Taliban and is known as the founder of the feared Haqqani network, also studied at the Haqqania seminary and proudly affixed Haqqani to his name.

One may well ask what’s in a name. Except that in the case of the militants, their parents gave them one name, but they adopted new and inspiring names when they turned to militancy. Khurasani seems to be one of the most popular second names being used by the militants, but the search for new and more inspiring names never seems to end in the militants’ circles.

Rahimullah Yusufzai

rahimullah yusufzai
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

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