Mirza Ali Khan


Time Magazine called him, the Original Insurgent. A notorious jihadi on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he was the original Osama bin Laden. He was responsible for guerrilla attacks, sabotage and cruel executions; his religious fanaticism destabilized much of Southwest Asia. Thousands of Western soldiers desperately searched for the renegade terrorist in inhospitable terrain. But each time they had him cornered, he and his militia slipped away into hidden valleys and caves.

His name, now largely forgotten, was Mirza Ali Khan, a Pashtun holy man who revolted against the British in the late 1930s. For nearly a decade, the British army chased him and his followers through the remotest reaches of Waziristan and the Northwest Frontier Province—the same ground where allied troops have spent the past five years searching fruitlessly for bin Laden. The region was then, as it is today, a powder keg of fractious tribes and fundamentalist firebrands, and Britain’s experience with trying to capture Khan mirrors the frustrating hunt for bin Laden.

Khan was called the Fakir of Ipi, after the Wazir town where he was said to exercise divine powers—like turning sticks into guns and feeding multitudes with a few loaves of bread. Flying the banner of “Islam in Danger,” his small lashkars, or war bands, ambushed convoys and raided prominent Hindu towns. The insurgency forced the British to commit as many as 40,000 troops to the frontier to confront an enemy approximately ten times larger, and, as World War II raged, to station a permanent garrison there even as the Japanese advanced steadily into Burma.

The Fakir tormented the British brigades, evading capture with only the aid of local informants and guides (not one fighter in his ranks possessed a radio). In response, the British imposed fines on Pashtuns who refused to cooperate with their search, bombed troublesome villages, burned the fields of unhelpful tribesmen and destroyed the houses of his ringleaders—a violent clampdown that only alienated the local population further. A London newspaper heralded Khan in a couplet as the Scarlet Pimpernel of the East: “They sought him here, they sought him there, those columns sought him everywhere.” After independence and the partitioning of India, Khan became a thorn in the side of the new Pakistan government, violently agitating for an independent Pashtunistan until his death, by natural causes, in 1960.

The above, the only photo ever taken of the elusive rebel, appeared in 1957 book, Destination Mecca. In the last chapter of the book, Mirza Ali Khan gave an interview to its author, the Indian sufist Idries Shah.

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