Pakistani militants fighting one jihad for many reasons

Tom Hussain, Foreign Correspondent

Last Updated: January 29. 2010 12:18AM UAE / January 28. 2010 8:18PM GMT

Religious schools are one of the means – but far from the only one – by which jihadists are recruited. Khalid Tanveer / AP Photo

LAHORE // A year ago, in the central industrial city of Gujranwala, a gentle, thoughtful giant of a man named Asim Goraya agreed to arrange meetings for The National with local representatives of Lashkar-i-Taiba, the militant group accused of carrying out the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

However, Goraya had little in common with LiT. Rather than spend his days plotting the destruction of India and the United States, he believed in a romanticised jihad that was a duty for practising Muslims and involved fighting only the non-Muslim powers occupying Muslim lands.

That sense of duty led him to run away in 1980 from home at the age of 12 to join the jihad against the Soviet forces then occupying Afghanistan; he got as far as a training camp in the north-west Khyber tribal agency before his father tracked him down four days later and took him home.

He went on to become an engineer and joined the family’s steel business, but his fascination with jihad lingered. He came to view that process of recruitment through the eyes of a businessman: it was, he said, a case of taking the natural propensity for violence of Gujranwala’s youth as a raw material, and giving it productive purpose and direction.

It was a self-confessed “hobby” that nearly got him into trouble with the Pakistani intelligence agencies, particularly when a correspondent for Al Jazeera who sought his help, as The National later did, broke a promise not to reveal his identity.

“After that, my friends in the Lashkar told me to stop dabbling. They told me, either commit to the jihad or keep away. So I kept a distance,” Goraya said. He died in a road accident in October.

There are many decent, reasonable individuals like Goraya around the Pakistani hinterland whose profiles – and motivations for engaging in militancy – defy the stereotype of the brainwashed, wild-eyed terrorist.

While Goraya saw jihad as a romantic duty, others view it as a grand adventure. One of the latter was Chaudhry Iqbal, the lambardar – a village headman appointed by the provincial government to keep the peace and facilitate revenue collection – of a village in Bahawalnagar, a central district bordering India.

The villages of Bahawalnagar were, for about 15 years up to 2002, a prime recruitment area for militant groups such as LiT and Jaish-i-Mohammed that waged war against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Poverty was not a factor in the decision of the then 19-year-old Mr Iqbal to sign up for training with the Jaish, a group suspected in the brutal January 2002 murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter.

As the eldest son of the most prosperous farmer in his village, Mr Iqbal’s financial future and societal standing were assured.

But a programme conducted at the local high school by the Jaish, with the blessings of the government, turned Mr Iqbal’s thoughts to the nearby border, the scene of fierce tank and infantry battles in the war with India.

“I thought that, as a man of standing, I did not want to be helpless in case of another war. I did not want to be like my grandfather and father in the 1971 war, the head of an impotent home guard carrying staffs and sickles,” he said in an interview.

He was subsequently made the head of a unit of 15 volunteers who travelled from Bahawalpur, home to the Jaish headquarters, via Miranshah in North Waziristan tribal agency, into Afghanistan on March 23, 2000.

Five days of walking and road travel later and the group arrived at a training camp on the outskirts of Kabul. “I remember the sign. The name Harkat-ul-Ansar [a Pakistani militant group] had been crossed out and replaced with Jaish-i-Mohammed,” he said.

A daily regime of indoctrination classes, rest, prayer and military training followed for three months, after which the recruits from Bahawalpur were taken to the area around the Bagram airbase, then the front line between the Afghan Taliban and its rival, the Northern Alliance.

“We got there at night and were told to shoot at certain fixed positions, so we fired off all the ammunition we had and returned to the camp in the morning,” said Mr Iqbal.

He was also deployed as a guard for a makeshift jail at the camp, made out of a 20-foot steel container used to transport goods. He said the sole prisoner was a Pakistani from Islamabad, who had been infiltrated into the camp by a rival Shiite sectarian group.

“I was told to treat him roughly and not feed him more than one piece of nan [bread] a day. But I thought that was wrong, so I had long conversations with him and gave him biscuits from my ration,” he said.

But, despite the constant, passionate pleading of his militant instructors, the young Mr Iqbal stuck to his plan and returned home to his village, where he has since succeeded his father as headman.

The lives of Goraya and Mr Iqbal – and the many people like them – are reminders that those who embark on the jihad cause cannot all be easily labelled.

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