By Matthew Pennington, The Associated Press
Once respected by the Pakistani establishment, the smooth-talking pro-Taliban cleric killed in the Islamabad mosque siege Tuesday pushed authorities too far with his sometimes bizarre drive to enforce strict Islamic law in the city.
As a student, he was regarded as a moderate Muslim, but Abdul Rashid Ghazi, 43, was radicalized by the 1998 sectarian assassination of his cleric father. After 9/11 he emerged as an increasingly outspoken critic of President Pervez Musharrafâ€™s U.S.-backed government.
With his elder brother, Abdul Aziz, the Red Mosqueâ€™s chief cleric, Ghazi cultivated links with militants and often lashed out at Pakistanâ€™s support of the U.S.-led war on terrorism – tapping an antipathy shared by many in this conservative Islamic country.
But a 2004 fatwa declaring that funeral prayers should not be offered to Pakistani soldiers who died fighting Al Qaeda set him on a collision course with the government.
Then, a freelance vigilante campaign launched in early 2007 to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, in the Pakistani capital mocked Musharrafâ€™s claim to combating religious extremists and directly challenged the governmentâ€™s writ.
Stick-wielding student supporters of Ghazi kidnapped alleged prostitutes and police and warned vendors against selling music and movies, in a brash but largely symbolic attempt to impose Taliban-style rule in the city.
Their actions caused little physical harm, but the abduction last week of seven Chinese at an acupuncture clinic which they claimed was a brothel proved a diplomatic embarrassment to a key Pakistan ally.
It triggered a military siege that culminated in a pre-dawn raid of the mosque Tuesday that left about 50 militants and at least eight soldiers dead.
About 15 hours after the assault began, officials reported that commandos had gunned down Ghazi in a firefight after the cleric, alongside militants stuck in a basement inside the mosque complex, refused to surrender. His brother was caught trying to flee the mosque wearing an all-covering womanâ€™s burqa and high heels last week.
Born in the village of Basti Abdullah in southwestern Baluchistan province, Ghazi studied at two seminaries in Rawalpindi, near the capital, but was regarded as less pious than his brother.
He earned a masterâ€™s degree in international relations from Islamabadâ€™s prestigious Quaid-e-Azam University, and later worked at the Education Ministry and, according to some reports, for UNESCO.
Naeem Qureshi, a professor who taught Ghazi history in 1987-88, remembered him as a good if not exceptional student: religiously minded like many of his generation and motivated by the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
â€œHe was a well-adjusted young man. We had no problem with him. He was not a firebrand,â€ Qureshi told The Associated Press.
Ghaziâ€™s father, Mohammed Abdullah, who became the prayer leader at the revered Red Mosque in the 1960â€™s, frowned on his sonâ€™s secular appearance, according to a friend of Ghazi who requested anonymity because of his previous links to militants.
â€œBefore his fatherâ€™s martyrdom he (Ghazi) used to wear pants and shirt and a small beard,â€ said the friend. â€œHis life changed after his fatherâ€™s martyrdom. He became a religious man. He adopted his fatherâ€™s life.â€
Abdullah, who was a vocal supporter of the American- and Pakistan-backed anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, had close ties with both the government and Sunni Muslim militants. He was fatally shot by a lone gunman inside the mosque on Oct. 17, 1998. The attacker was suspected to be a Shiite Muslim.
The brothers then assumed control of the mosque and the two associated religious schools, that until the siege housed thousands of male and female students.
Rahimullah Yousafzai, a leading Pakistani journalist and expert on militancy, said the brothers are believed to have maintained ties to the intelligence agencies as the mosque remained instrumental in motivating militants to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan and against Indian forces in divided Kashmir in the 1990â€™s.
The links were strained after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, and Islamabadâ€™s renouncing of its previous ties with the Taliban and decision to fight against Al Qaeda.
â€œPakistani military operations after 9/11 changed everything,â€ Yousafzai said.
Then in August 2004, Ghazi was detained for 10 days by military intelligence for alleged involvement in a murky plot to bomb a host of high-profile targets in Islamabad. He denied involvement and was freed – reportedly following the intervention of the religious affairs minister, Ijaz ul-Haq.
Officials now say the brothers were wanted in more than 20 criminal cases.
While officials and experts say the brothers had links with outlawed militant groups, it was the anti-vice campaign launched in March 2007 – for which Ghazi proved an articulate and media-savvy spokesman – that was their downfall.
The campaign veered from the sinister to the surreal.
After setting up its own Shariah court, Abdul Aziz vowed to launch thousands of suicide attacks if the government attempted to raid the mosque.
In incendiary sermons and radio addresses, Aziz claimed the immorality of brothels in Pakistan had stirred divine vengeance in the form of the October 2005 earthquake in Kashmir that killed more than 80,000 people. He also accused diplomatsâ€™ wives of â€œspreading nudityâ€ in Islamabad.
His court also issued a fatwa against the tourism minister, Nilofar Bakhtiar, accusing her of committing a â€œsinâ€ after she was shown in newspaper photographs embracing a parachuting instructor after a charity jump in France.
But the brothers became increasingly isolated as their defiance of the government escalated. Most Islamic clerics frowned on the mosque taking law into its own hands.