Born John Burke. Died Muhammad Omar.
For The Irish Times, this story began with a note in a book, about an Irishman who had died fighting in 1980s Afghanistan. Foreign Correspondent MARY FITZGERALDtraced his origins to a terraced house in Clonmel, where a father still grieves for John Burke, Tipperary man and Ireland’s only known jihadi ‘martyr’
ON A SUN-BLEACHED plain some 30km from the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan lies what is believed to be the final resting place of the only Irish person known to have died in the cause of jihad. As is the custom in that part of the world, his is a simple grave, its boundaries marked by a circle of stones. It is also anonymous; there is no headstone or plaque to tell what few travellers may pass by this remote spot that here lies Muhammad Omar, born John Gerard Burke in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, in October 1962; died April 1989.
There are several accounts of the circumstances surrounding his death.
Afghanistan in the early months of 1989 was a dangerous place. After a decade of bitter conflict, the Soviet Union, bloodied and cowed after what some refer to as “the Soviet Vietnam”, completed the withdrawal of its troops that February. Those who had helped drive the Soviets out, the ragtag army of Afghans and other Muslims drawn from more than a dozen countries who called themselves the mujahideen, continued to fight the forces of Afghanistan’s Russian-backed government.
A letter received by John Burke’s father, a former corporal in the Irish Defence Forces also named John, some months later recounts his passing in heroic terms. “They say that [he] was fighting with confidence and determination against the enemy,” the letter, written on behalf of a Muslim cleric in Pakistan who knew the deceased, reads. “He held the gun in his right hand.
“Suddenly the enemy shell hit him on the right shoulder and he fell down. But soon he got up holding his gun in his left hand and continued fighting. Again a shower of enemy bullets hit him in the breast and our youthful daring friend was martyred.”
Another letter sent to John Burke senior from the central tracing agency of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva cites an account given by one Comdt Amir Jan who was apparently with his son when he died. “[He] was taking pictures of the combat, while holding a Kalashnikov in the other hand. At a given time, the Mudjaheddines retreat [sic] and then [he] walked on a mine. The Mudjaheddines tried to give him help but he quickly died and they buried him.”
Zaid Hamid, who quit university in his home city of Karachi to join the mujahideen, met the young Irishman the week before he died at a guesthouse in Peshawar, the lawless Pakistani frontier town that served as a staging post for foreign fighters streaming into Afghanistan.
“I remember it very clearly because he made a real impact on me,” recalls Zaid, now a TV presenter in Pakistan. “I had never seen a convert with so much intensity. Many came to Afghanistan for adventure or self-aggrandising but you could see he really meant it. He was very enthusiastic, very emotional. He truly believed in the values he was defending and my impression was that he was eager to die there so that he could go to paradise.”
THE STORY OF how John Burke’s search for meaning in his life took him from a small terraced house on a Clonmel housing estate to a grave in the windswept vastness of eastern Afghanistan is pieced together from interviews with his father and brother, as well as numerous letters he sent home over several years.
I first came across the story in the index of a slim volume on the Afghan jihad, published by a Pakistani think tank. There were few details apart from the name Mohammed Omar and the fact he came from Ireland. After I made inquiries in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a series of contacts eventually led me to Burke family in Clonmel.
John Burke’s story is of a spiritual journey that began in a mosque in south London, led him to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage, and from there to the madrassas of Karachi where the siren calls of jihad in neighbouring Afghanistan proved too strong to resist.
In some respects, the story echoes that of John Walker Lindh, the young American Muslim convert who was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001 while fighting with the Taliban. It also helps unpick some of the complex reasons why young men such as John Burke are drawn to a particular interpretation of Islam and then caught up in it to the extent that they are prepared to die in its name.
The story begins when the young Clonmel man, then just out of his teens, decided to emigrate to London. After coming of age in 1980s Ireland, John Burke felt restless despite completing a training course that led to a job at a local engineering firm. He was also struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother three years before. His family remembers him as quiet and introspective, always immersed in books and painting. A portrait of Che Guevara hung on his bedroom wall. He had strong opinions about the conflict in Northern Ireland. His younger brother Derek recalls that he began to get into scrapes after their mother passed away. “That’s when he went off the rails a little. He got into trouble for silly things – you could say he had a bit of a problem with authority.”
Life in London was different. Close to where he lived in Stockwell was a mosque run by Khatme Nabuwwat, a Pakistani movement that espouses an austere interpretation of Islam. John began to spend a lot of time there. Soon he was using the mosque as a forwarding address. In August 1987, John changed his name by deed poll to Muhammad Omar and used it to sign off his letters home. Things moved quickly after that. He told his father about an opportunity to study at university. In December 1987 he left for Saudi Arabia, where he spent two weeks before travelling on to Karachi.
John moved between several madrassas in the city, including one in the Binori Town district that has since become infamous as a haven for a constellation of militant groups. His correspondence with his father at this time is a mix of lengthy treatises on Islamic history and the differences between Islam and Christianity; often pithy observations on Pakistani politics; gripes about the muggy climate; and requests for packages containing familiar items from home such as Ovaltine and Cadbury’s chocolate.
But there are also hints of the type of Islam he was imbibing both inside and outside the madrassa. In one letter to his father, John claimed Shia Muslims were not real Muslims. In another, he deplored the prospect of Benazir Bhutto becoming prime minister of Pakistan. “If she does, goodbye Pakistan,” he wrote. “Prophet Muhammad said that if a woman rules a country, it will collapse. So far he has been right. Thatcher has divided Britain, Indira Gandhi ruined India, Bandaranaike ruined Ceylon, Eva Perón and her husband sucked Argentina dry and Cory Aquino ain’t doing so hot in the Philippines.”
In a letter dated February 1988, John told his father he had been invited to attend a training camp in the badlands that straddle Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Five months later he wrote of the 18 days he spent at what he called a “mujahideen base camp” inside the border. “While there I had army training – guerrilla style and also how to assemble and dismantle different types of guns,” he wrote. “The guns I was using were a .303, Kalashnikov, Chinese light machine gun and an RPG 7 rocket launcher.”
John wrote that he went to the front three times to attack a Soviet base. “We would bomb it with mortars and anti-aircraft gun . . . the Russians would reply with mortars and tank fire. I always thought mortars used to whistle as they came down, like in the movies, but they don’t. You hear the explosion as they blow up.”
In the same letter, John wrote of the beauty of Afghanistan’s rugged landscape. “The villages are like something out of fairy tales . . . The sad thing is that all the villages I saw had been destroyed by the Russians – one of the tragedies of war.”
He added that on his way back to Karachi, he underwent surgery to be circumcised. Back in Clonmel, his father was growing increasingly anxious. “I was worried because you could see what was happening there every day of the week on the television. I told him it was no place to be and no one lasted very long over there,” he says. “Nobody knew who was who or what was what, that was my impression. It’s a different thing if you’re in a proper army and you’re fighting, but this was nothing like that.”
There is a testy defensiveness to the letter John wrote his father on pink floral notepaper dated August 1988. “When I went to Afghanistan, I went of my own free will . . . jihad is not war as you understand war,” he wrote before going on to detail atrocities committed by the Soviets and how Afghan lives had been turned upside down by the war. “You think the Russians wouldn’t do the same if they occupied western Europe,” he admonishes his father. “Their philosophy is a philosophy of animals. Read George Orwell’s Animal Farm.”
Zaid Hamid, Burke’s friend who later became a TV presenter, says he came across many converts who had flocked to join the jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “You must remember that it was a very intoxicating environment and it was so easy to get caught up in it like John Burke did, and like I did,” he says. “But John was different. There was a softness to him. His was a sacred soul. I cried when I heard he had been killed.”
THE FINAL LETTER John senior received from his son contained no hint that he was planning to return to Afghanistan. Instead, he talked of plans to travel to Egypt to continue his studies at Al Azhar university in Cairo, Islam’s foremost seat of learning. He had previously mentioned ambitions to become a Muslim cleric. In Karachi, however, John was writing his will. The document, which he gave to a Somali friend for safekeeping, requested that the money in his bank account be used to buy books for the madrassa and his few belongings distributed among friends and fellow students.
The last correspondence with his family was a letter dated April 8, 1989 to his brother Derek and Derek’s wife Bernie. The letter, written on paper headed with the insignia of Hezb-e-Islami, one of the main Afghan mujahideen groupings, reveals that John was in Peshawar and provides a glimpse into how international the struggle for Afghanistan had become. “Everything here is fine,” he wrote. “In the past few months I have been with people from many different countries – India, Bangladesh, Burma, Philippines, Iran, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, America and Europe.”
Many of the foreign fighters funnelled into Afghanistan at that time would go on to form the foundation of what would later become known as al-Qaeda.
John Burke appears to have aligned himself with a faction of Hezb-e-Islami led by a commander named Yunus Khalis. In what must have been the last document he wrote before his death, he neatly transcribed his father’s full name and address on Hezb-e-Islami headed paper.“In the event of my death during jihad . . .,” he began before giving details about his will and requesting that his family be “invited” to Islam.
John’s death was recounted in a typically overblown obituary published in Al Jihad,an Arabic language magazine published by Arab fighters then based in Peshawar. “The Muslims of the European continent offered a martyr to start a new page of the history of such a glorious jihad,” it reads beneath a photograph of the Clonmel man looking sombre with a luxuriant beard and turban. “He carried his weapon to take part with his brothers in the battle of conquest . . . he was shot in his heart and, God willing, martyred. Muhammad Omar, who did not marry although he was 27 years old, met his Lord while pleasing Him . . . Glory be to He who guided him to Islam and jihad and granted him martyrdom. Let him enjoy it.”
John’s father received many letters from those who had known his son in Pakistan and Afghanistan. One, from a mullah named Fazal U Rahman, hailed him as “our great mujahid”. He continued: “We, as Muslims, believe Muhammad Omar has followed the path of truth and courage against those who disobey their creator – Allah.”
Two months after John was killed, his father received a letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs containing his son’s passport, an identity card he used in Karachi, and some documents, including his will. The Burke family had inquired about the possibility of repatriating his remains from Afghanistan but Ireland’s honorary consul warned that this would be “extremely difficult” for a number of reasons.
“As he was fighting against the Afghan authorities no assistance will be forthcoming from the Afghan government,” the letter reads. “Your son is buried in an area controlled by Muslim extremists who may not, under their religious law, allow the exhumation of remains . . . In addition . . . there would be major transportation problems involved.”
A letter from one of John’s associates in Pakistan put it differently: “He lies buried where he wanted to be . . . it does not seem proper and advisable to get his body back to Ireland because it would be against his wishes and irritating for his blessed soul.”
More than two decades have passed since the day John Burke answered a knock on the door at his home in Clonmel only to be told his son had been killed fighting in Afghanistan. “It was very hard,” he recalls. “My only hope was to see if I could get his body home. I wrote to everyone I could think of to see if they could help. The Red Cross eventually found out where he was buried out in the desert but there are still questions over whether it is his actual burial place. Other people have said he was buried in a cemetery somewhere.
“We still don’t know how he was killed, whether it was a shooting incident or whether he was killed when he stepped on a mine.” Now and then, John takes out the file of yellowing letters sent by his son to puzzle yet again over why he chose that path. “It really shocked me. I never thought he had gone that far into it,” he says.
When the attacks of September 11th, 2001 brought Afghanistan back into the headlines, the memories came flooding back, and John found himself wondering if his son had survived would he too be fighting with the Taliban. Sitting in the family’s livingroom, there are reminders all around of the young man who later became known as Muhammad Omar. Framed photographs hang next to landscape scenes painted by John junior. On a bookshelf stands a windmill he constructed out of matches. “It is still devastating to think about it even after all these years,” John says, shaking his head. “Sometimes I find myself talking to his photograph here in the room, asking him why did you do it . . . I just can’t find the answers.”