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    Ready for JEHAD

    Ready for Jehad

    A first-hand account from Pakistan on how the proxy war is bred and sustained

    By Ghulam hAsnain in Muzaffarabad and Karachi

    Sitting cross-legged, facing the first Indian ridge at the border town of Ath Maqam in Pakistan-held Kashmir, Abu Mahaz, 25, anxiously awaits the moment when he would be behind that mountain. A Lashkar-e-Toiba militant, Mahaz had been to India twice and returned home safely after participating in various missions. But this time, this village school dropout from Abbotabad in Pakistanís North-west Frontier Province (nwfp) has been selected for a special task: a suicide mission, or what the jehadi groups call fidai missions.

    On an earlier operation in India, Abu lost one of his friends, Abu Talah Hazarvi, who was killed during an attack on the 15 Corps headquarters at Badamibagh, Srinagar. But not before Abu and his friend gunned down Maj Purushottaman and two others. Recalls Abu, "Our target was to kill Gen Krishan Pal. But somehow, we could not get hold of him... This time, I am going on a suicide mission. And I am happy. I will soon achieve martyrdom."

    Indeed, this Pakistan-based mujahideen group launched the new strategy of suicide missions soon after Kargil in an attempt to boost the sagging morale of the militants and deliver deadly blows to the Indian army.

    Abu has been in the Lashkar for only three years but has already witnessed the death of several friends in clashes with the Indian army. His family has a tradition of militarism. One brother is in the Pakistani army, another fought in Afghanistan and is now a religious cleric in Abbotabad. His father is a farmer.

    But not everyone has the same social background. In fact, hundreds of other young Pakistani jehadis fighting the Indian forces in Kashmir are from all strata of Pakistani society - innocent village boys, sons of urban middle-class families and highly-qualified expatriates who chucked their cushy jobs to rough it out in the strife-torn Valley. What brings together these boys from diverse backgrounds is the one-point agenda: the destruction of Hindu India and the renaissance of Islam. For them, itís a brotherhood, secure as they are in the knowledge that their families would be taken care of were they to be killed in India. The families of the dead are provided a monthly stipend. Usually, the militants are expected to marry the womenfolk of their dead comrades.

    The modus ope***** is to recruit the future militant at an early age. At a Lashkar madrasa in Karachi, children as young as eight are groomed for the guerrilla warfare during their religious education. For instance, every night, teachers issue a new code for each class and the boys have to remember it for the next 24 hours. This, because the armed guards at the gate of the premises would allow them in only after the code is given. In the afternoon, the students listen to lectures on the importance of jehad in a Muslimís life.

    Pakistanís madrasas are the recruiting ground for militants. Pampered and officially patronised during the 11-year regime of the late Gen Zia-ul-Haq, the country has now over 2,000 madrasas spread across Pakistan. Some of these religious schools are directly manned by the jehadi leaders; most others recommend the potential terrorist to myriad militant organisations.

    The selection process is tough. A new entrant has to first undergo a training for three weeks at one of the camps the jehadi groups have established in Muzaffarabad and the nwfp. Here, basic training in handling arms is imparted, as is a course of ideological indoctrination.

    Initial training completed, the boys are sent to their respective towns and cities, where for the next few months they work as volunteers for different militant groups. However, what the young militants donít know is that during this period they are closely watched and assessed for their commitment to the cause of jehad. Those selected are then sent for a three-month commando training.

    The teachers at the training centres are former Afghan veterans or senior mujahid who have spent a good part of their life fighting in the Valley. Under them, the boys learn to use AK-47s, handle explosives and participate in mock attacks on dummy Indian convoys and positions. In all, it costs Rs 1 lakh to train a militant.

    Their final test is an endurance test. The selected boys walk and climb for 72 hours without food and water and are allowed a few hoursí nap. Once they pass this test, the recruit is ready to cross the border.

    The jehadi groups seek the permission of parents before sending the militant to fight across the border. Often, though, the indoctrinated boys force their parents into allowing them to wage the jehad.

    Take the case of Gulzar Ali, 40, a labourer from Okara in Punjab. He wanted his son Rizwan Ahmed to seek a job in the Gulf. Instead, Rizwan joined the Pakistan-based Al-Badr organisation. He died in Sopore, 60 km from Srinagar, in 1997, at the age of 16. Says Gulzar, "I thought that he will become my right hand. However, he was adamant to go there. My wife was also in favour of his going. So I let him go. He was so young that no jehadi group was willing to take him to India. Finally, Al-Badr gave him the chance." Ironically, Gulzar is now himself a member of Al-Badr and wants to fight Indians.

    There are families here which have committed their sons to fight India. For instance, Syed Rizwan Ali, 70, a retired draftsman, sent three of his five sons to Kashmir. Two of them, Arsalan and Yassir, died there; the third, Irfan, is now the chief launching commander of Al-Badr in Muzaffarabad. "I donít feel any regret or guilt. Instead, Iím ready to commit my other sons too," says Rizwan Ali, himself an activist of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

    Karachi-based Parveen Akhtar, who lost her son Rashid in Kashmir, has no regrets either: "When I was told about his death, I wept like any other mother. But then itís a big honour for me. I am thankful to god that I have produced a warrior who died fighting the infidels," she adds.

    Every year, hundreds of young volunteers from across the country go through a rigorous guerrilla training for three months at the Muzaffarabad-based Maskar Abdullah bin Masoud training facility of the Lashkar. In the odd hours, the hills surrounding the city echo with gunfire or explosions. People here know that another band of mujahids is being prepared to fight Indians.

    There are 18 or so jehadi organisations operating out of Pakistan. And none denies they enjoy official patronage. The bigger jehadi groups - such as Lashkar, Al-Badr and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen - have their own training facilities in various Pakistani cities. There are camps at Ugi in Mansehra, nwfp; smaller groups, including those of the Kashmiris, send their boys to government-run training facilities.

    Obviously, the isi plays a crucial role in sustaining the jehad factory. Everyone agrees that jehad canít be carried on without the support of the isi. Indeed, the isiís stranglehold over these groups is such that even an irresponsible press statement by a jehadi leader can put him in trouble. "Sometimes you find a junior-level isi clerk knocking at your door, carrying a clipping of your press statement, asking for an explanation. Itís humiliating," recalls the once-powerful chief of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. "Therefore, I am always cautious while talking to the press," he says.

    Adds another militant, "The moment the isi feels a jehad body is becoming powerful, it incites trouble in that party or tries to split it. Breaking the bigger groups by throwing money, arms and vehicles and putting new leaders in the driving seat is their style."

    However, the groups fall in line as they canít operate without the institutional help the isi provides. This was proved true in Afghanistan; and there is consensus that the Kashmir movement would collapse were the isi to withdraw its patronage. "It will be a tragedy. We could still operate in the absence of the governmentís help but the movement will soon die out," says a senior jehadi leader.

    Currently, there is some heartburn among the militants that Maulana Masood Azhar is the new horse the isi has put its bet on. Azhar, who formed his own jehadi organisation, Jaish-e-Mohammad, after he was released in exchange for the hijacked passengers of IC 814, has an ambitious plan to raise an army of 5,00,000 volunteers to fight in the Valley. The Maulana has been successful, largely because he took over the offices and facilities of his parent party Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, whose in-house publications he edited once.

    Indeed, the ranks of the militants swelled following the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, which allowed the veterans of the war there to shift their attention to Kashmir. Thus, most jehadi outfits, with the exception of a few Kashmir-based groups, are being overseen by the Afghans.

    Thereís no dearth of new recruits for these groups. Often, it becomes difficult for them to handle the pressure trained militants mount for crossing the border. No wonder the Hizbul Mujahideenís ceasefire shocked these Pakistani groups. Even now, they are angry with those Kashmiri leaders who wanted to hold peace parleys with New Delhi. They have now been dubbed as traitors. "There canít be any peace while India remains intact. Cut them, cut them. Cut them so much that they kneel before you and ask for mercy. Only then can we think of any talks," roared Prof Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, chief of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, at an independent rally in Karachi. Warns Bakht Zameen, Ďamirí of Al-Badr, "Syed Salahuddin (the leader of the Kashmiri-dominated Hizbul Mujahideen) should not try to become Yasser Arafat."

    An in-house publication of Al-Badr warned thus, "Salahuddin should make it clear that it is not just the Kashmiris who shed their blood for Kashmir. There are thousands of Pakistani families whose boys have nurtured the Kashmir movement with their blood... Donít fall in the trap of America and India."

    Hizb leaders have now become suspect in the eyes of other jehadi groups. Its chief Salahuddin has been accused of being a traitor by all - from Jamaat-e-Islami to outfits like Al-Badr and Lashkar. The ceasefire interlude has also brought the undercurrent of hostility between Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri jehadi outfits to the fore.

    "Earlier, we used to work together with the Hizb. But our casualty rate was abnormal. It appears that someone was leaking information. So we decided to operate independently. Since then, we are not facing that problem," remarks an Al-Badr leader in Karachi. But Abdul Musawir, a former Hizb leader, counters, "Kashmiris should be left alone to decide their own destiny. Pakistan should not impose its will on them."

    Indeed, the Pakistani and Kashmiri militant groups have started pulling in different directions. Hizbul leaders confirm that Salahuddin is bringing together all the Kashmiri groups in the hope of evolving a consensus on how to deal with India and find a solution to the Kashmir problem. Once this is achieved, the Hizb would then approach the Pakistan groups.

    Meanwhile, the Lashkar last week decided to give another twist to its strategy of fighting the Indian army. The militants have been asked to attack the Indian armyís convoys and its facilities. "The Indians are already disturbed over the attacks on their camps and military facilities," boasts Abu Omair, a militant leader, who has fought in India.

    Inside India, various jehadi groups often fight together or carry out joint missions against the Indian army, but at home they are bitterly divided on sectarian lines and desist from sharing a common platform. Thus, a student from a Deoband madrasa would prefer to join the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen or any of its splinter groups; those owing allegiance to the Ahle Hadith (a sect which believes in the primacy of the Quran and the Prophetís tradition) would opt for the Lashkar.

    Despite these internecine squabbles and emerging differences between the Kashmiri and Pakistani groups, thereís no denying that what keeps the Kashmir cauldron on the boil is the machinations and institutional support the Pakistan establishment renders to the militancy there. But then, as long as the jehad factory in Pakistan-held Kashmir continues to have fresh recruits, and churns out hardened militants willing to risk their lives for that intangible and inexplicable dream of martyrdom, peace in the Valley will remain elusive.

    (The writer is a Pakistan-based journalist)