The Unknown American Al-Qaeda Operative

Ahmed Farooq's life and death reveal the deep cleavages within Pakistan's society.

Since 2009, “Ustad” Ahmed Farooq had been the public face of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, serving as the terror group’s chief Urdu-language propagandist, later being discussed as a potential nominee to the Shura Council of Al Qaeda central, and, most recently, serving as deputy leader of the group’s South Asia affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

But it was only this April, after his death in a January 2015 drone attack was acknowledged by Al Qaeda and U.S. officials, that his real name, dual U.S. nationality, and even his face (which was blurred in previous videos) were publicly revealed. It may have been to obscure the fact that Ahmed Farooq was really Raja Mohammad Salman, the graduate of an elite Pakistani military prep school whose father was a well-known Pakistani international relations professor and whose mother was a former parliamentarian nominated by a major Islamist party.

An American in Name Only

Farooq was American by circumstance. He was born in Brooklyn between 1979 and 1981, while his father, Raja Ehsan Aziz, who lived in the United States for seven years, was a graduate student at Columbia University. A Washington Post reporter suggests he was born in 1979 or 1980, but Pakistani government records state he was born in 1981.

It was unnamed American officials who revealed to the press after Farooq’s death that he was an American citizen. Farooq undoubtedly knew of his birth in the United States, but it was not mentioned in any public statements by him, Al Qaeda, or other jihadists. And he either obscured his American citizenship or was unaware of it. His mother, Amira Ehsan, claimed in a 2009 interview that her husband neither sought American citizenship for himself, nor applied for it for his son.

In Farooq’s early childhood, the family moved back to Pakistan—a Pakistan that was being radically reshaped by a military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, whose Islamization campaign at home and support of the Afghan war fought next door gave birth to a generation of Pakistanis with dreams of making the country—and region—an Islamic utopia. It’s this Pakistan, not America, in which his family seems to have gotten caught up in and ultimately shaped Farooq.

Islamist, Elite Family

Farooq’s father briefly served in Pakistan’s Foreign Service. He later joined the prestigious Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, where he was a professor in the International Relations Department for two decades. In the 1980s, Aziz established himself as an expert on the war in neighboring Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Aziz, according to a Pakistani writer Kamal Matinuddin, claims to have traveled deep into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He would be consulted as an expert on the region into the 2000s, including for the UN. And he took part in an Islamabad think tank discussion on the Pakistan and Afghanistan insurgencies as late as 2008.

Aziz seems to have been somewhat careful in drawing a line between his academic work and political beliefs. In contrast, his wife, Amira Ehsan, was a well-known Islamist. She was affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) into the 1990s. It’s unclear whether Aziz was formally affiliated with the group. But in the 1980s, the JI did include a segment of highly educated Pakistanis, often with PhDs from top Western universities. While JI has never had much popular support, it did receive a boost from General Zia, who appointed party members to key cabinet posts; his suppression of progressive voices also may have aided JI in developing a disproportionate representation in the country’s intelligentsia.