The Chilling Goal of Islam’s New Warriors
Abu Samara was a gangling lad of 14 when he joined the jihad. He was still too much of a boy to grow the beard required of holy warriors. But he wasn’t too young to master the weapons of war.
Within weeks, his long, thin fingers were proficient with assault rifles, hand grenades, rocket launchers and the militants’ deadliest device: remote-controlled explosives.
Then he volunteered to die.
Over the next decade, Abu Samara learned advanced weaponry in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. He trained alongside Muslim militants from Arab and Asian countries at Afghan camps later attacked by the United States for fostering extremists. Then he joined the Army of the Prophet, or Lashkar-e-Taiba, the most feared of Pakistan’s 14 private armies.
“From the moment I discovered the idea of jihad [holy war], I knew what I’d do with my life,” he explained, sitting cross-legged and barefoot on the ground, an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.
The former peasant boy, who at 24 now has a full, untrimmed beard and a head of long, tousled black hair to match, spends most of his time these days in Kashmir, the idyllic Himalayan territory of snowcapped peaks and verdant valleys that has become the world’s highest battlefield. His cell of commandos crosses into Kashmir from Pakistan for months at a stretch to carry out suicide missions intended to wrest all of the disputed region from Hindu-dominated India. Most volunteers don’t survive more than four years.
Abu Samara is the archetype new “Jihadi,” a breed of Islamic warrior whose mission is no longer simply fighting infidels and oppressors in Muslim lands--the kind of campaign that put earlier generations of holy warriors on the map in war zones such as Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon and Chechnya.
The new Jihadis are the most dangerous face of Islam today. In Pakistan, they are the most aggressive among a growing array of activists and organizations replacing or challenging crumbling state institutions. They’ve already played a major role in transforming South Asia into the world’s most volatile region--and Pakistan into what the United States views as the world’s most explosive country.
As a result of escalating tension over Kashmir, a U.S. intelligence estimate predicts a 40% to 60% chance of open warfare within the next couple of years between India and Pakistan--two countries that openly tested nuclear weapons in 1998.
Yet Abu Samara’s mission is not limited to Asia’s subcontinent. He’s out to change--perhaps even conquer--the world in the name of his faith.
“Jihad is not just about fighting against oppression and occupation. Jihad is about the way you think and say prayers, the way you eat and sleep. It’s about creating an Islamic environment. It’s about the struggle of life,” said Abu Samara, a nom de guerre that means “father of bountiful.”
“Jihad gives life purpose,” he said. “Without it, we’re useless.”
Inspired by Success Against the Soviets
Virtually all of the private armies in Pakistan, the only Muslim country created solely to preserve a religious identity, are offshoots of groups launched with the help of Pakistani intelligence during the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan in the 1980s. But they weren’t disbanded after Moscow’s 1989 withdrawal. Inspired by Islam’s role in defeating a superpower, their mission and numbers expanded rapidly.
The impoverished South Asian nation is now home to at least 128 camps for militants dedicated to retrieving Kashmir and widening the Islamic world. Once the militants were proxies of the government. Now, even the new military regime is unable or unwilling to rein them in.
“If the government tried to stop us, we’d just carry on our jihad. We do what we want,” said Abu Samara.
In Pakistan, Abu Samara operates out of a secluded compound run by the Center for Islamic Teaching and Guidance, or Markaz al Dawa Wal Irshad, in the countryside beyond Muridke, a half-hour’s drive from Lahore. It’s one of a growing number of Jihadi camps throughout Pakistan that offers both religious and military training.
The center is a tranquil compound tightly guarded by the Army of the Prophet, the group’s armed wing formed in 1993. “Jihad for Peace” is crudely slopped on the entrance wall in English.
Inside are training fields, obstacle courses and tightropes strung treacherously high between trees to train Jihadis how to cross Kashmir’s rivers and ravines. To qualify, militants as young as 12 must be able to carry another fighter across the high wire. There are no safety nets.
The compound is self-sustaining: Wheat fields, orchards, a dairy and man-made lakes to cultivate fish surround small apartment blocks. The extensive facilities include a clinic, grammar and secondary schools, an Islamic university, homes for families of those who died for the cause, a mosque and barracks for fighters.
There’s no entertainment, however. Fighters are instructed to smash television sets owned by their families before joining, since anyone unwilling to comply is also unlikely to forfeit his life for the jihad.
Long rows of large tents quarter new trainees who’ve exceeded both the compound’s limits and the expectations of its 2,200 recruiting stations.
The Center for Islamic Teaching and Guidance was founded in 1986 by Hafez Sayeed, a senior Muslim scholar whose white hair and beard are dyed a deep rust by henna, in keeping with Pakistani tradition. Sayeed cultivates volunteers, most between the ages of 12 and 15, steeps them in Islam, arranges their training in guerrilla warfare and then dispatches them to fight.
‘We Want One System in the Whole World’
His description of the movement’s goals sounds benign enough.
“We’re Muslims, and we believe Islam is more than a few rituals. It’s a religion of peace with solutions to all of today’s political and economic problems. It’s important for us to spread that message because we want one system in the whole world, which, of course, is Islam. And to make Islam dominant, we must do jihad,” Sayeed explained. “Today, Western systems are dominant, but they’ve failed to deliver, so people are returning to divine systems.”
Sayeed’s center, one of the largest and most important of the camps, has produced more than 3,000 Muslim preachers and scholars as well as dozens of spinoff religious schools.
But the center’s lofty ambitions sound less benign on an evolving set of Web sites it has launched in recent years, the most recent of which is https://www.markazdawa.org.
“The Islamic ruling system does away with all nationalities, tribalistic bonds and races and melts them into Islam,” boasted a previous site. “Under the Islamic ruling system, foreign policy is tied with jihad, conquest and the spread of Islam. It destroys borders and physical barriers to lead humanity from worshiping each other to worshiping the Lord of humanity.”
Islam also has its “own rules” regarding individual rights, it added, “in contrast to Western notions of freedom and liberties.”
The movement’s conspiratorial, even paranoid, mind-set is reflected in its admonition not to drink Coca-Cola, because, it says, the name reflected in a mirror forms the Arabic words “No Muhammad, No Mecca.”
Like all Pakistan’s Muslim movements, the center gets most of its recruits for both fighting and preaching from the 8,000 madrasas, or religious academies, that have sprung up throughout Pakistan during the past two decades.
Most are a byproduct of a crumbling state. More than a million youths are now enrolled in madrasas because of Pakistan’s deteriorating education system and the growing appeal of Islam.
A typical madrasa is the Place of Islamic Knowledge and Help, one of dozens in and around Peshawar, the lawless frontier city and gateway to Afghanistan that has long been a refuge for militants. It attracts boys as young as 7.
“Anyone who memorizes the Koran will go to heaven--as will his parents and 10 others,” said Hamim Ullah, a small 12-year-old dressed in a long blue shirt and white prayer cap. The fourth of 11 children from a tribal family, he memorized all 30 chapters of the Koran in three years.
“I’ll be here a few more years to study Islam and then I’ll join the jihad. God willing, I’ll go wherever in the world I’m needed. I’m not afraid,” he added earnestly as two dozen boys crowded around him.
The Place of Islamic Knowledge and Help was originally set up for Afghan refugees after the Soviet invasion of 1979. Many of the Taliban, the rigid fundamentalists who took control of Kabul, the Afghan capital, in 1996, emerged from this and other Peshawar madrasas. “Talib” means student. Now most of the academy’s students are Pakistani.
Ghulam Mortaza has witnessed the transition. The plump Koranic scholar fought in Afghanistan. Now he prepares Pakistani boys for a new jihad.
“A day will come when the Taliban system of ruling is here too. The situation is heading that way,” he explained after breaking up the crowd of boys. “Then the jihad will spread wider. That’s what globalization is really about. Definitely the world will become a village and the whole world will be Islamic. Globalization is making Islam universal.”
The Milder Side of the Movement
Qazi Hussain Ahmad is the grandfather of the Islamist movement in Pakistan. With his snowy white beard, wire-rim glasses and furry lamb cap, he looks the part. Qazi is an honorific title and it signifies his leadership of the Islamic Party, or Jamaat-i-Islami, the largest, oldest and most influential Muslim party.
It’s also the mildest side of Pakistan’s Islamic movement.
The Jamaat was a political player even in the days when Pakistan was part of India during British colonial rule. Since then, the group has worked both inside and outside government. But its agenda has never changed.
“Pakistan is the outcome of a struggle, a jihad in the subcontinent over Muslim rights. That struggle continues today between the people and the ruling class because we never fulfilled our mandate,” Qazi said.
“With the failure of all the secular parties and the military, Pakistan is now in a liberation period. It may take five or 10 years to fully liberate the masses. But there’s no alternative for Pakistan now but Islam.”
Jamaat has never garnered more than 10 seats in parliament. Yet the party increasingly reflects the views of the silent majority in Pakistan, according to the results of a State Department survey. The U.S. poll, released earlier this year, found overwhelming support for Islamist solutions to Pakistan’s problems.
At least 60% said religious leaders should play a larger role in politics, and 78% said schools should teach more religion. Nearly half favored limits on men and women working together.
Discontent With Conventional Parties
Of the five largest Muslim countries in regions outside the Mideast--Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Uzbekistan-- Pakistanis are the most Islamic, the survey concluded. “Solid pluralities see Islam as having a large and increasing impact on society,” it said.
The key reason is widespread discontent with the conventional parties that have dominated politics for more than half a century but left Pakistan on the brink of failure as a state--with political instability, debilitating economic woes and a breakdown in law and order. Four military coups haven’t helped.
In a Lahore suburb, Jamaat has created an alternative model for the system it wants for the whole country. About 6,000 people live in 16 apartment buildings, 50 homes and a guest house. They are served by their own mosques, schools, a clinic, maternity hospital and playground. Pakistan’s equivalent of a gated community is clean, safe and free of corruption.
Most of Jamaat’s activities are moderate and related to societal change, such as a network of 3,000 schools. But it, too, has a militant side.
A telling touch is Martyrs’ Park, honoring members who died in Kashmir with the private army Hizbul Moujahedeen. Through Hizbul, Jamaat has played key roles in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Jamaat was also responsible for mobilizing the first protests against Salman Rushdie’s book “Satanic Verses” for its “blasphemous” dream sequences of the prophet Muhammad. Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s edict imposing a death sentence on Rushdie grabbed headlines in 1989, but the Islamic world’s fury was ignited by Jamaat.
The party is also opposed to surrendering Pakistan’s right to carry out nuclear tests. Pakistan and India are the only nuclear powers not to have signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
With branches throughout Asia, Europe and even North America, Jamaat now has a wider network than Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, one of the Islamic world’s oldest movements. It is active in the five Central Asian former Soviet republics as well as among the Muslim Uighurs of western China. It has strong ties to Muslim groups as far afield as Malaysia and Sudan.
“A feeling is emerging in Pakistani society that we have a special role to play in uniting Muslims all over the world. It seems like wherever there’s war, Muslims are being killed. People feel that we need to get together to stop it, but there’s a leadership vacuum,” said Khalid Rahman, executive director of the Institute of Policy Studies, an Islamist think tank in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, that reflects Jamaat thinking.
“With our independence and history of democratic institutions, what we have is better than many Muslim countries. And as a nuclear power, Pakistan is a country looked up to by the Muslim world--and the obvious place to provide new leadership.”
A Former Leader Sees a Revolution Coming
Hamid Gul is a charismatic former lieutenant general with a flair for the dramatic. Attired in a dark suit, his hair and mustache neatly groomed, he sat back on a green brocade sofa and reflected on the days when he orchestrated the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. As head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, he channeled tons of American arms and billions in Saudi petrodollars to Afghanistan’s moujahedeen.
That made him, for a decade, the most powerful man in Pakistan.
Now retired, he’s still a force to be reckoned with. And his vision of Pakistan’s future is distinctly Islamist.
“Pakistan will go through its own version of an Islamic revolution,” Gul predicted. “The army is the last hope. And if the army fails--and it probably will--then people will realize they have to do it themselves, revolt against the system. Everyone sees this on the wall.
“Because everything else in this country has failed, Islam will have to lead the way.”
The army, he predicted, will probably offer little resistance, mainly because so many of the troops already are sympathetic to the Islamist cause.
In many societies, the military is the instrument and guarantor of a secular state. But Islam has always been a strong undercurrent in Pakistan’s army, dating back to colonial Britain’s encouragement of worship as a form of discipline. Pakistan’s army also has gone through a transformation during the past two decades that gives it an Islamist veneer and increases the dangers of a wider regional conflict that could make the Afghan war look small by comparison.
The trend got a major boost in 1979 from the simultaneous onset of the violence in Afghanistan and the revolution in neighboring Iran that ended 2,500 years of monarchy. In both, Islam was the idiom of opposition.
“Pakistan has been sitting in the lap of revolutions for more than 20 years. This can’t help but have a big impact on people’s thoughts and expectations,” Gul said.
“The Afghan jihad, particularly, produced a tremendous headiness. Here were the moujahedeen in traditional dress dating back centuries fighting a modern superpower. No one ever expected them to win. Then Islam triumphed and communism withdrew. This sent a powerful message to Muslims everywhere,” he added. “A new breed of young people emerged from all this.”
Military Is Also Getting Involved
They didn’t all join militant movements. Many in the military, both young and old, also now believe that their mission is not merely defending Pakistan. Like the Jihadis, they’re intent on defending Islam throughout the region--and beyond.
Last year, the military intervened in clashes in Kashmir, a role usually left to the Jihadis. Gul regards the troops’ seizure of part of the strategic Kargil Heights as proof of Islam’s power to inspire Pakistani soldiers. “India’s superior technology failed when it came in direct contact with determined human spirit,” he explained.
The conquest was short-lived. President Clinton persuaded Pakistan’s democratically elected then-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to withdraw from Kargil in mid-1999 to avoid a wider regional conflict. The immediate flash point dissipated. But in less than four months, Sharif was ousted by the military.
Loss of ties with the West has also spurred Islamic sentiment.
Throughout the Afghan war, Pakistan’s military had close ties with its Western counterparts. Many officers were trained in the United States or Britain. The exchanges, cooperation and bonding ended abruptly with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and U.S. military sanctions in 1990 imposed because of Pakistan’s nuclear capability.
Today, the only senior officer in the government with experience in the West is Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the leader of last year’s military coup, who was trained in Britain. The rank and file have had no firsthand exposure to the West.
Mahmoud Ahmad Ghazi reflects the growing Islamist identity of Pakistan’s military. Ghazi graduated from a madrasa that also produced several Taliban leaders, some of whom were his classmates. Last fall, he was appointed to the ruling National Security Council by the coup leaders.
Ghazi said he’s not worried about the “Talibanization” of Pakistan.
“Oh no, if you compare Pakistan with the religious leaders of Afghanistan, you’ll find a helluva difference,” he said emphatically during an interview in the marble office block in Islamabad he shares with the generals.
Yet he also sees Islam as the key to Pakistan’s salvation--as he regularly advises the military.
“Islam is the most dynamic force today because, unlike other major religions, it hasn’t succumbed to secularism. It doesn’t divide human life between the religious and the secular, the spiritual and the profane,” he explained with the gravity of total belief. “Only Islam offers an integrated approach to the totality of human existence. Only Islam is the route to victory.”