When Indians think about the Islamists and jihadists that threaten their lives, several groups may come to mind: Hizbul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jamaat-e-Islami, among others.
It is unlikely, then, that Indians might pause to consider a major American organization engaging in disaster relief efforts in Louisiana or putting up billboards reading "Free Kashmir" in Michigan. Yet these apparently unremarkable, far-away things nevertheless represent a significant component of the forces that threaten India. Both are the works of one of the United States' largest Islamic organizations: the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).
The American Islamist narrative about Kashmir, led by ICNA, has had an increasingly powerful effect in Washington in recent months. Congressional hearings on the Kashmir issue in October and November are widely considered to have benefitted the jihadist point of view, with American politicians and contributing testimony focused almost entirely on ostensible overreach by the Narendra Modi government.
But ICNA does more than subvert American understanding of South Asia; it also works with those responsible for the turmoil and violence. In a 1 November letter to the State Department's counter-terrorism coordinator Nathan Sales, Congressmen Jim Banks (R-Indiana), Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tennesee) and Randy Weber (R-Texas) wrote in part about ICNA's "sister organization," Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD), and its open partnership with Pakistan-based LeT's charitable wing Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation and political wing Milli Muslim League – both of which are designated terrorist organizations under U.S. law.
Those who demonize the Indian state and campaign against its survival are no longer limited to South Asia. In the U.S, ICNA leads this network, and it has successfully recruited American organizations from other Islamist movements to join them.
A Growing Network
ICNA has spent decades accruing legitimacy and power by tactically exploiting charitable initiatives, running youth groups, building schools and women's shelters, taking over mosques and establishing itself in the eyes of the U.S. government and media as a reputable, leading voice of American Islam.
While various forms of political activism have long been a part of ICNA's work, the organization, along with its Islamist allies, has now fully turned its attention to India. Its officials and supporters have been working hard to convince Americans that Kashmiri terror against Indian troops is just. ICNA and its branches even use their charitable infrastructure to subsidize such violent pursuits.
Far too few Indians know about ICNA, the network it leads, the millions of dollars in its pockets and the significant media attention it commands. It is, according to prominent scholar Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, one of the eight major branches of Jamaat-e-Islami, the international Islamist movement founded by Abul A'la Maududi in 1941 in British India – responsible for countless murderous acts over the decades. Jamaat-e-Islami's Jammu and Kashmir chapter has been banned by the Narendra Modi government for five years for being in "close touch" with militant movements.
Policy analyst Abhinav Pandya, in his 2019 book Radicalisation in India: An Exploration, notes that "not a single targeted and political killing happens in Kashmir without JI's approval". And Hizbul Mujahideen, of course, was founded as the militant wing of Jamaat-e-Islami in 1989.
Unlike Jamaat-e-Islami organizations in South Asia, ICNA is not overtly violent. In fact, it goes to great lengths to portray itself as an innocuous civic organization for American Muslims in an attempt to shroud its extremist agenda. But ICNA's role as Jamaat-e-Islami's American wing is irrefutable. In its own in-house publication, The Message International, ICNA has frequently referred to itself as a Jamaat-e-Islami "proxy". Jamaat-e-Islami founder Maududi himself attended ICNA's first major public event at New York's Columbia University in 1974.
Inciting Hate and Violence
Since its establishment in 1968, ICNA has served to bolster Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan and advance Maududi's vision of a global Islamic state. It is deeply involved in propaganda efforts – aimed at the American public, the media and government – to oppose India and excuse Islamist terror in Kashmir. On its website, as early as 1998, ICNA has even advocated a "jihaad against the kuffaar [non- believers] in Kashmir.".
In Michigan, an ICNA billboard absurdly accuses the Indian government of "genocide, oppression and fascism" in Kashmir. ICNA's conferences in Washington D.C. feature former agents of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). And from New York to California, ICNA organizes rallies with other Muslim groups against the "occupation" of Kashmir and encourages Americans to loathe those Indians responsible
ICNA's undeserved reputation as a respectable voice of American Muslims has afforded it the trust and partnership of many in the country's government. In fact, its claims to serve as a benevolent force among American Muslims led the U.S. government to hand the extremist organization and its branches more than $10 million of federal money for disaster relief work in Louisiana and other states. This ultimate expression of official recognition has legitimized ICNA even further, leading well-intentioned and non-Islamist Muslims to embrace this front for South Asian theocrats as a genuine, tolerant representative of their views.
But government monies offered to ICNA do worse than compound the Islamist group's legitimacy; they subsidize ICNA's support for extremists in South Asia. Besides ICNA's partnership with LeT proxies, the American Islamist group also proudly funds Al Khidmat, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan's "welfare arm", which works closely with Hizbul Mujahideen (another U.S.-designated terrorist group) and openly finances Middle Eastern terrorist groups such as Hamas.
As evidence mounts over ICNA's potential involvement in terror finance, a few members of the U.S. Congress are beginning to take notice. Along with the recent letter to the State Department, Jamaat-e-Islami is now also the subject of a Congressional resolution, sponsored by Jim Banks, which calls on the U.S. to recognize the danger posed by Jamaat-e-Islami and for law enforcement agencies to investigate its proxies in America, including ICNA and HHRD.
Waking up to the Threat
It seems possible that the U.S. government is also starting to take note of Jamaat's influence. A recent federal case convicted leading ICNA official Fareed Ahmed Khan, a Pakistani-American, of lying to the FBI during a counterterrorism investigation. Khan, who served as a fundraiser for ICNA and HHRD in New England, was found to have lied about shipments of medical equipment sent to his Pakistani brother, a prominent supporter of LeT. Federal agents suspected a terror-related money laundering scheme that saw hundreds of thousands of unexplained dollars being passed through Khan's bank account.
Khan might be a rogue ICNA officer, but, as the letter sent by Congressman Banks notes, that should not be absolutely assumed. There is a mountain of other evidence that ICNA supports the aims of Jammat-e-Islami and LeT in Kashmir.
Americans are only now beginning to wake up to the problems of Jamaat-e-Islami, and the threats it poses to the interests of the U.S. and its allies. But it is just as important that Indians also wake up to its proxy groups in the U.S. and the influence they wield. For this pushback against India's theocratic foes in the U.S. to succeed, India must also recognize the danger that ICNA poses. The Indian government and the Indian diaspora in America must assist efforts to convince American legislators, academics, journalists and the public that the extremism and violence of Jamaat-e-Islami threatens us all.
Cliff Smith is director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project; Sam Westrop is director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project