In 1976, shortly after India’s prime minister declared an emergency and banned groups like Jamaat, Fai left home for a university outside Delhi and eventually for Saudi Arabia.
There, his life changed with one chance encounter in July 1980. A university dean encouraged Fai to reach out to the imam of Ka’aba—the cleric who leads prayers at the holiest site in Islam. Fai recalled inviting the imam to a Kashmir conference sponsored by Jamaat in Srinagar. The cleric agreed. At age 31, Fai returned to Kashmir, escorting perhaps the most influential Islamic leader in the world.
Tens of thousands of people showed up to hear the imam give a series of speeches. At one point, the scene was so chaotic Fai lost a shoe.
“It really revolutionized the whole thinking of the people of Kashmir: We are not alone,” Fai recalled.
Fai and the imam of Ka’aba played a pivotal role in introducing the strict Saudi vision of Islam to Kashmir, which traditionally had been more moderate, said Arif Jamal, a Pakistani journalist who has written a book on the shadow war in Kashmir and who researched Fai’s role.
After that visit, Fai left Kashmir and never returned to India. He said he had heard he would be arrested for treason. Several family members said they hadn’t heard from him since.
“No phone, no letter, nothing, no correspondence right from 1980 until now,” said Syed Ghulam Mohiuddin Habib, Fai’s half-brother.
“Ghulam Nabi never wrote to me, never sent any money,” said Peera Bano, his first wife.
Fai said he didn’t write or call because he didn’t want to endanger his family. He also said he divorced his first wife, which she denies.
By the end of 1980, Fai landed in the United States. Through the King Faisal Foundation, the Saudis agreed to pay for his schooling and living expenses, at least $50,000 a year. The Saudis even chose where he studied.
“They told me that you should go to Temple University, because one of the giants of Islamic scholarship was there; in fact, two giants,” Fai recalled.
The late Ismail Raji al-Faruqi was a professor specializing in Islam at Temple and would soon help found the International Institute of Islamic Thought. (The institute later came under investigation in a federal probe into terrorism funding, although no charges were filed.) Another professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a respected Islamic scholar, was trying to “Islamicize” the social sciences, Fai said.
At Temple, Fai became president of the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. & Canada, an organization started in part by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had spread from Egypt through the Middle East. Some branches of the Brotherhood were hardline; others, more moderate.
Fai also started working for the ISI in about 1985 while at Temple, according to correspondence cited by the FBI, although the affidavit does not make clear what he was doing.
After earning his doctorate in 1988, Fai joined the advisory council for the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group started by the Muslim Students Association that also received Saudi funding.
Soon, violence bloomed again in Kashmir. The Indian military cracked down on indigenous groups. Pakistan’s ISI was blamed for sponsoring insurgent groups across the border in Kashmir.
A confidential witness allegedly told FBI agents that in 1989 the ISI picked Fai to run the Kashmiri American Council because he had no overt ties to Pakistan. Similar groups were set up in London and Brussels, the FBI said.
Incorporation documents filed in Maryland in April 1990 show Fai was one of three people who established the Kashmir center. A second founder was Rafia Syeed, the wife of Sayyid Syeed, one of the organizers of ISNA. The third founder’s father, who retired from the Pakistani military, also held a key post in a charity run by Fai’s alleged accomplice, Zaheer Ahmad. The Syeeds did not reply to requests for comment. The third founder, Mohammad Bilal Yousaf, denied knowing Fai. “I have never heard of Dr. Fai before, only what’s been reported in the media,” he said.
IRS filings show the group got startup funds from two board members and a $20,000 loan from the North American Islamic Trust, an ISNA-linked group that hold titles to about 300 U.S. mosques, Islamic centers and schools.
Fai rented an office suite about three blocks from the White House, IRS records show. The Kashmiri American Council was open for business.