Sunday, 11 September 2016

QK Archives: Mission of faith

Cover Story

Mission of Faith

The call for jihad in Afghanistan resounds across the land and inspires people from all walks of life.

By Naziha Syed Ali and Massoud Ansari

A letter, ostensibly from Mullah Omar himself, was sent to his religious affiliates in Pakistan shortly after the US declared Osama bin Laden the chief suspect behind the September 11 attacks, and demanded that the Taliban surrender him. An extract from it reads, “If I want to bargain and accept the US conditions and hand over bin Laden to them, I can get whatever I want. I can become richer than the Arab Sheikhs, but what is the worth of such material gain which makes me bow to the infidel west.”

Copies of the letter were subsequently circulated among the many religious schools all over Pakistan. Mullah Omar’s defiant words touched a chord in thousands across the country who have vowed to follow in the footsteps of the Taliban chief, perceived as “a true mujahid for his refusal to surrender to the infidel west” and fight the alliance threatening Afghanistan. The prospect of facing the most powerful military force in the world has left them undeterred. On the contrary, they are fired with the zeal to embrace “martyrdom” in the “defence” of Islam.

The call for “jihad” has, since then, resounded from virtually every pulpit in every mosque in the country. Religious literature of the militant kind has found yet another cause to champion. Zarb-i-Momin, a paper brought out by a group of jihadi organisations each Friday (reported readership 150,000), Jaish Mohammed’s fortnightly magazine of the same name (estimated readership 100,000) and Harkatul Mujahideen’s Al-Hilal weekly newspaper, carry emotional appeals for donations in cash – sterling pound, dollar or rupee – and material relief for the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Afghan people. Aid organisations, in particular the Al-Rasheed trust, whose accounts have been frozen by the State Bank, have the locations and phone numbers of their offices listed in these publications. The appeals placed by the Al-Akhtar trust for cash donations list three separate account numbers, depending on the currency. Stalls have also been set up all over the country with collection boxes for funds in the name of the “Afghan victims of the US terrorism”. Some of the collection methods are rather innovative: one butcher has announced on a chalkboard that all the proceeds from the sale of meat from his shop would go to the Afghans. Substantial aid is reportedly finding its way to the mujahideen, both Afghan and Pakistani. Sources maintain that the Al-Rasheed trust manages to feed three lakh people a day in Afghanistan. “As it is,” says a Harkatul Mujahideen activist, “their needs are very frugal. A few pieces of bread a day is really all that they need.”

According to the interior ministry, there are some 20,000 madrassahs in the country with nearly three million students. Of these, 7000 madrassahs belong to the Deobandi sect, from which most of the militant cadre is derived. Approximately 700,000 students, aged four years and older, study in the Deobandi religious seminaries. It is estimated that, at the current rate of growth, by the year 2010, the number of madrassahs will be equal to the government-run primary and secondary schools in Pakistan.

Moreover, highly disciplined and motivated groups of Islamic militant organisations operate in almost every neighbourhood of Pakistan, attracting college and university students and medical, engineering and computer professionals to their ranks.

The Deobandi organisations most active in Afghanistan today are the Harkatul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Harkatul Jihad. According to sources, a group of jihadis killed during an US air strike on Kandahar recently included about 25 Harkatul Mujahideen activists. Among them was Farooq Commander, who had left for Afghanistan just three days earlier and whose was the first Pakistani corpse to be brought home, to Karachi, since the US air strikes began. Another recent Pakistani casualty in Afghanistan was that of another Harkatul Mujahideen member, Abdul Wahab, who had been elected councillor from Golimar in the local elections a few months ago. A couple of Barelvi organisations, the Harkat-e-Inquilab and the Lashkar-i-Islami, are also said to have a presence in Afghanistan, albeit a negligible one. Courtesy Darra Adam Khel’s booming weapons industry in the Frontier, not to mention conduits through China where TT pistols and Kalashnikovs are manufactured, these militant organisations are armed to the teeth. Most militants claim however, that they do not need to take weapons with them to Afghanistan, because of the massive arsenal of Soviet-era weapons that remain in the possession of the Taliban. Then there are some fortuitous acquisitions such as the 300 machine guns reportedly seized from the pro-Zahir Shah aides of Hamid Karazai after their unsuccessful attempt to instigate rebellion among the Pakhtuns against the Taliban government.

According to those with links to the Deobandi madrassahs, their students are basically taught the Quran, and its interpretation until they become “baaligh ” (the age of puberty, judged by the appearance of facial hair), and it is after this that they are motivated for jihad. By this yardstick, say sources, there are at present some 300,000 young men being motivated for jihad in the madrassahs. However, the recent promotional video circulated by the Al-Qaeda organisation includes footage of what are undoubtedly teenage boys undergoing military training in Afghanistan. Moreover, in the Frontier and Northern Areas of Pakistan in particular, children are familiar with the use of weapons by the time they reach adolescence. But, with their limited ability to defend themselves effectively, many children end up as canon fodder in different conflicts and there is little doubt that this conflict will be any different.

A Harkatul Mujahideen activist however, insists that Mullah Omar has sent instructions that only men between 20 and 50 years be recruited for jihad.

One would imagine that most of those planning to take part in the holy war would be from the militant cadres of jihadi organisations. However, it has become patently obvious that this modern version of the David and Goliath fable has an emotive appeal across the spectrum of Pakistani society. Many, even those who do not agree with the Taliban’s obscurantist version of Islam, have found inspiration in the obdurate refusal of one of the world’s poorest, and Muslim, countries, to give in to the demands of the only global superpower.

A 16-year-old who until recently had been studying for his ‘O’ levels at a City School branch in Karachi and whose father is a production manager with the FM100 radio station, has made his way into Afghanistan. He left armed with nothing more than a mere 3500 rupees in his pocket and a vague notion to help the Afghan people. His mother, who says she sent him with her blessing, insists that as he has no training in weapons and had been studying at a madrassah only for three months, his aim is solely to provide humanitarian assistance. He has written to his family, informing them that he is at the Pakistan-Iran border near Quetta along with a group of 300 volunteers; two members of the Taliban, he said, are in charge of their contingent.

A 63-year-old retired civil servant and ex-army man in Lahore, left his wife reeling with shock when he announced that he was going to join the war effort in Afghanistan. His family was recently forwarded a message on his behalf asking for warm clothes to be sent to him.

In his late 30s, Zafar Iqbal Memon is also preparing to leave for Afghanistan. An erstwhile playboy turned born-again Muslim, Memon says, “Life is an amanat (something given for temporary safekeeping) from Allah and it does not matter if we sacrifice it while fighting for his cause.” As for the fate of his three young siblings and his wife in the event of his death while in Afghanistan, he simply shrugs and says, “It is God who takes care of people.” If reports are to be believed, some volunteers also appear to have acted on impulse; according to a recent report in an Urdu newspaper recently, a bridegroom decided to bolt for Afghanistan and his younger brother had to be persuaded to marry the bride instead.

Four British Muslims have also been killed in a US bombing raid over Kabul. Led by a 25-year-old Pakistani taxi driver from Luton, Aftab Manzoor, they were recruited by the London-based Islamic organisation Al-Muhajiroun. Manzoor had become the father of a baby girl only last year. Sources disclosed that he went to Afghanistan under the assumed name of Mohammed Omar, and is thought to have travelled with at least one other man from Luton. Manzoor and the other three Britons set out for Kabul from Pakistan soon after the US attack on Afghanistan.

Jameel Khan, a 30-year-old peon at a Karachi school, with a wife and three young children, is a more likely recruit for the jihad. He is affiliated with the Harkatul Mujahideen and left for the three-day Raiwind tableeghi congregation in early November, planning to head for Afghanistan after it concludes. “Our religion is like a prison in which we have to serve a sentence, after which we will be set free. How can one anger God for a life of maybe 70 years at the most?” According to sources within jihadi organisations however, most recruits to the Afghan cause belong to non-madrassah backgrounds. In Karachi particularly they say, many of them are members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), whose activists are acknowleged for their skilled use of weapons.

Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, most volunteers have been stopped short of the border or if allowed to cross over, restrained from going deeper into the country. In Balochistan, five minutes from the border town of Chaman, is a Taliban centre where entry passes for Afghanistan are issued; many volunteers are being turned back. Until a few weeks ago, border guards at Chaman claimed that anywhere between 100 to 300 religious students were crossing over into Afghanistan to fight on a daily basis. The local office of the pro-Taliban party, the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam located on the main Chaman road, was swarming with Pakistanis, and foreign Muslims, eager to leave for Afghanistan.

According to sources, at least three thousand youth from Karachi alone ventured into Afghanistan soon after the US launched its first air attack, but all were sent back by the Taliban.

There are believed to be two reasons for this approach on part of the Taliban; one is that without a full-scale commitment of ground troops in Afghanistan by the US, there is little required from the jihadis in a land where resources are already strained. Moreover, the intention to hasten the demise of the Taliban government by creating a rift between the moderates and the hardliners among them, has made the regime wary of infiltrators. It is believed that the only jihadis currently operating within Afghanistan proper and allowed to enter combat areas are those with long-standing links with the Taliban and those who have trained in Afghanistan. In the northern areas, 5000 activists of the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-Shariah Mohammed (TNSM), led by Maulana Sufi Mohammed, chanting slogans and armed with an array of weapons, including swords, axes and bazookas, left recently for the Kunar province via Bajaur. It is reported that three weeks ago about 150 students from the Binori Town madrassah in New Town also left for Afghanistan.

An activist of the Harkatul Mujahideen, who has been involved in jihad in Afghanistan since 1988, concurs with the contention that “until the guerilla warfare begins, there is no point in jihadis being stationed within the country.” He adds that “Amirul Momineen Mullah Omar has himself announced that for the moment they should prepare themselves, and that when the time comes, he will give the signal for the Pakistani volunteers to join the war.” However, he maintains that the Taliban do not fear infiltrators, on the grounds that “the Taliban have an extremely efficient intelligence system. Anyone with suspect intentions will be found out very soon; Abdul Haq is one recent example.”

Sources within the militant cadres hasten to add that not all volunteers, when they make their way into Afghanistan, will be engaged in combat. “They are recruited according to their abilities; some are doctors, engineers etc. We have an intelligence system in every locality; that of the Jaish-e-Mohammed is the most well-organised. These people check the background of each volunteer, process his recruitment, and facilitate his departure for the border,” they say. They maintain that there are hundreds of thousands, particularly from Balochistan, the Frontier and the tribal belt, who have committed themselves to the jihad when the call comes. In fact, sources say, in many villages in the Frontier and Balochistan villages along the Afghan border, families deem it their religious duty to send a loved one to fight in the jihad.

Many of the men who are potential recruits for the jihad, such as Zubair Khan – a young JUI activist from Quetta – condemn the US as “a bunch of cowards who will think a thousand times before sending in their ground troops.” Another says, “Even if they do, they cannot win a ground war because they don’t know the terrain, and don’t have the experience of fighting a war.” He dismisses the Gulf war and the current strikes on Afghanistan as “one-sided attacks.” According to him, “A face to face battle is war, such as the confrontation between US soldiers and local commanders in Somalia – and the US soldiers ended up getting killed in that.”

Questioned as to the Taliban’s ability to withstand the superiority of the warfare equipment available to the US, they maintain it is the will of God alone that matters; all, of course, are convinced that God is on their side.

Says another JUI activist, “Do you know that one of our colleagues who was seriously wounded and hospitalised in Jacobabad during a clash with the law enforcing agencies recently, dreamt that very night that Amir-ul-Momineen Mullah Omar was sitting in the company of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and his close aides? He saw the Prophet (PBUH) tell Mullah Omar that his difficulties will be over very soon and that he would ultimately become the ruler of entire Islamic world.”

Many young militants we spoke with described their motivation for participating in a jihad as being the desire to “to see God’s religion prevail on the earth. We will decimate the enemies of Islam such that they will kneel before us and ask for mercy.” They feel that they have nothing to lose. On the contrary, they fervently hope their desire to embrace martyrdom will be fulfilled. Whenever any of them voiced this, the rest of them responded with the words, “Insha Allah ” (May God grant your desire). And this is not just the fervour of youth; there are many families who have happily committed their sons and brothers to fight for Islam. Says Ismail Khan from the Frontier province, whose son has already gone to Afghanistan, “When my son was leaving town, I asked two things of him: one, that he will receive a bullet in his chest – and not in his back. Secondly, that he will not forget us on the day of resurrection.” In the same vein, an emotionally charged woman wearing a burqa, during a women’s protest rally organised by the Jamaat-i-Islami ladies’ wing in Rawalpindi, said vociferously, “I’m ready to sacrifice all my children to fight against the enemy of Islam inside Afghanistan.”

In this gathering maelstrom, where an overtly militant segment of the population is seething with rage against the government’s official policy, one wonders if, and when, the battleground of the Afghan jihad will be extended to Pakistan. One of the leaders of the Pakistan-Afghan Defence Council, Mufti Jamil, who is believed to be very close to Mullah Omar and had accompanied the official Pakistani delegation to Kandahar headed by the former ISI chief General Mehmood, to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama to the US, has said that “we do not want to create any trouble inside Pakistan. We don’t want to divert attention from what is taking place in Afghanistan. But, when our Council decides that we need to do something, we will.”

Superintendent Farooq Awan, who heads the anti-terrorist wing in Karachi, believes that preparations are already underway for such an undertaking. He concurs with reports that several terrorists who had sought refuge in Afghanistan have made their way back to Pakistan and are stockpiling weapons. “We recently arrested one Gul Tiaz Khan from Sukkur with a cache of 30 grenades. He was transporting them to Karachi on the orders of the chief of the Karachi wing of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi’s Qari Hye faction, Atta-ur-Rehman, who has a 10 lakh rupee price on his head.” Lashkar-i-Jhangvi is the militant wing of the Sipah-i-Sahaba, one the parties on the Pakistan-Afghan Defence Council. SP Awan believes that the bomb explosion in a Bahawalpur church last month was the work of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and also holds them responsible for planting a bomb adjacent to the gate of the Karachi YMCA which was discovered before it detonated.

The virtual cessation in the sectarian killings of Shias in Karachi over the last two months is also significant in the context of the current situation. SP Awan contends that while the arrest of some top operatives of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, who were the main perpetrators of the murders, has disrupted their network, this is only one reason for this development. “It is also owes to the fact these militant outfits are otherwise occupied because of the war in Afghanistan,” he says. “However, when they begin their jihad here in earnest, it will have manifold targets - not only Shias, but foreigners, Christians, Aga Khanis, as well as government institutions.” In a teeming metropolis like Karachi, with its varied religious affiliations, ethnic groups, financial and economic interests, the prospect of such a “jihad” can scarcely be more chilling.
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