Charlie Hebdo: Is arrest of Pakistanis in Italy a sign of coordinated efforts?

Do you remember Zaheer Hassan Mahmood? The young Pakistani man, who, in September 2020, randomly stabbed two people who were with the former office of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo? Back then, he had talked of dreams and premonitions, and his father in Pakistan had declared that he was proud of him because he was defending the honour of the Prophet. Back then, the West largely talked of ‘lone wolves’ and how differences in costumes and morality in the West could incite violence in otherwise well-behaved people coming from Muslim countries.

Well, all that has been put to question now. The ‘lone wolf’ was, in fact, part of a well-structured terrorist cell called ‘Gabar Group’, a cell formed by young Pakistanis in various European countries but mainly based in Italy. In what has been called a ‘maxi-operation’, the Genoa police, intelligence and counter-terrorism department arrested 14 Pakistani citizens resident of Italy in June. The operation involved the Spanish Comisaria General de Informacion and the French counter-terrorism wing under the coordination of the ECTC, ie, the Europol’s European Counter-Terrorism Center. For all of them, the charge is of criminal association with the aim of international terrorism.

‘The More We Are, the Better’

Two months before that attack, a few of the arrested had taken a selfie under the Eiffel Tower together with the stabber and had published it on social media with the caption “Be patient, we’ll be back soon … see you on the battlefields”.

The group was led and coordinated by Yaseen Tahir, a 25-year-old Pakistani arrested last year in France and then released for carrying a huge knife, and by Nadeem Raan, aka ‘The Peer’, a 33-year-old Pakistani jailed in France.

Nadeem, as the investigating magistrate recalls in the 80-page precautionary custody order signed for the 14 fundamentalists, was the “leader of the group, promoter of the initiatives and of their dissemination in Italy where, having returned free, he intended to support Tahir regardless of the consequences, and ‘make the name of Gabar great again’”.

Believe it or not, the ‘Peer’ had a smartphone in jail and was constantly in touch with Yaseen: “As soon as I get out of here, I will make myself heard in Paris. I am a brave man in difficult times, and now that my brothers are out and I will soon be out … you will see what we do out there,” Nadeem was saying.

To this, Yaseen’s reply was, “Now, we have to go to every city and find ten people I need … the more we are, the better … Let me work for two months, and then we find our den and make the Gabar group here in Italy. Do you agree? … In two months I begin to buy weapons … We will have a Gabar group here in Italy and one in Spain in Barcelona.”

According to the Italian police, all the components of the group were “continually striving to spread religious doctrines online based on violence and with a strong anti-Western vision, in full adherence to the line of preachers who incite the killing of those who commit blasphemy”.

Political Refugees in Italy

Yaseen was the ‘brains’ of the group, who was arrested not only in France, but in Italy, too, in 2019 for smuggling illegal immigrants from Italy to France. Why was this gem of a man still free?

Yaseen had been in Italy as a political refugee since 2015. It works like this: there’s a stream, tiny but steady, of Pakistanis arriving in Italy asking for political asylum, many – not all – of whom tell great stories: that they have been forcibly hired by some jihadi organisation, have run away from them and reached Italy. The last such person I came across was claiming to have escaped a Mansehra jihadi camp, where he was forcefully enrolled by Jamaat-u-Dawa. The sad part is that the courts almost always believe them and their stories of rocambolesque escape from well-guarded training camps.

So, such persons are then free to collect and send money to terrorist organisations in Pakistan, as has been proved more than once by Italian police, or to set up new terrorist cells like the Gabar group, whose recruiting campaign was apparently in full bloom: the men, according to the police, were practising rehearsals of stabbing and slaughtering during their meetings.

Gabar Group’s TLP Links

All this is part of a wider, coordinated and deep-state linked effort, and is not carried out by random, exalted individuals. There’s money and ideological and physical training and support involved.

According to intelligence sources, in fact, the Gabar group is ideologically and perhaps also practically linked to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a transnational network of jihad apologists, fully brainwashed, with strong motivations, ready to strike in Europe but with strong roots in Pakistan and in the Pakistani establishment.

As usual, when it comes to terrorist networks in Europe, if you scratch a bit – paraphrasing a Lou Reed song – “all is back to Islamabad”.

Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written ‘Apocalypse Pakistan’ with B Natale. Her latest book is ‘Balochistan — Bruised, Battered and Bloodied’. She tweets @francescam63.

Disclaimer: The article was first published on The Quint. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Today.

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