Guwahati: Even as the country is yet to come to terms with the recent terror attack in Pulwama in Jammu & Kashmir, the shadows of heavy radicalisation and the devastation it would leave behind is a new reality for all, and cannot be wished away. This new form of terrorism that eulogises ‘fidayeen’ (suicide bomb attacks) and justifies it as ‘Virtues of Jihad’ is set to drastically change the conflict theatre in Kashmir.
The most vocal proponent of this is none other than Maulana Masood Azhar, founder of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), whose book, Fazail-e-Jihad (Virtues of Jihad), in fact has been one of the driving factors, the key foundational basis, for turning young boys into suicide bombers from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The chapters of this book along with Islam Aur Fidai Hamlay (Islam and Suicide Attacks), written by Mufti Abdul Bashar Qasmi, has been key to attracting young men into joining fidayeen training camps.
Perhaps the story of how 19-year old Adil Ahmed Dar, who blew himself up on the CRPF convoy in Pulwama on February 14, is no different. Although it is still early days and the pieces of the puzzle of Dar’s journey into the JeM jihadi camps are yet to fall in place, I am compelled to share some experiences from Afghanistan which would help to bring to fore some real time stories of how Azhar and others like him have been turning simple and ordinary youths into human bombs.
But at the very outset it is important to state that the narrative that is presented here is neither that of a security expert (I am not a security expert) nor does it forebode the Kashmir situation going forward. The attempt is to bring to fore some tell-tale accounts of the shifting paradigm in a conflict theatre owing to intense radicalisation of youths. These are recollections of the stories (my experiences) of radicalisation which I saw from very close quarters in Afghanistan during my visits from 2009 to 2014, both as a journalist and a democracy activist.
Glimpses into the life of a ‘fidayeen’
It was on the morning of August 10 in 2009 when I first stepped out of my hotel room alone, breaking all security norms, that prohibited anything less than a bullet-proof SUV with four armed security guards and a translator. I was still a full-fledged journalist then with a part-time assignment as a media officer for an election observation mission, and so the journalistic curiosities made me to seep through the security cover and step out of Golden Star hotel located right on the heart of downtown Shar-E-Naw onto the streets of Kabul. I boarded a local taxi, which was a complete “no no” as per security protocols, and asked the driver to take me to the nearest market.
Little did I realise that first outing would bring me face to face with a former Taliban fidayeen trainee. I was walking around the Frosgah street and then ventured into flower street close to the famous Chicken street, where I came across Mansoor. As I was trying to figure out my way back to the hotel, a tall, good-looking stout young man in his early 30s walked up to me and smiled at me in way that we had met previously. “You Indian, Pakistani?” he asked. When I said India, he hugged me and said, “Hindostan (in a typical heavy Pashto accent) bahot accha, mera bhai (Hindostan is very nice, my brother).” I reluctantly reciprocated, remembering security tips not to hug any stranger.
He then made me sit in a local tea shop and offered me ‘Afghan chai’. I politely refused (as the security advice went), but said I would have a bottled cold drink instead. Soon, he started to narrate his story and from what I heard from him for the next one hour sent chill down my spines.
During the heights of the Afghan War between the United Front (Northern Alliance) and the Taliban in 1998, Abdullah (Mansoor as he was known when he was child until joining the Taliban) was in the holy city of Mazar-e-Sharif where the Taliban supported by Pakistan’s armed forces and Osama bin Laden’s ‘055 brigade’, killed over 4,000 civilians mostly of Shia and Hazara ethnic background. This was a “holy war” he was told by Taliban soldiers and “being a Sunni Mussalman and a Pashto, you must join and try to find ‘Jannat’ (heaven).”
This was the beginning of the first dose of indoctrination. In 2006, he was sent to a camp in Pakistan, which I faintly recall as somewhere near South Waziristan. Mansoor had just begun telling me about his meetings with “Jihadi trainees from Pakistan in the suicide training camps” that were supporting the cause of Kashmir when his mobile phone rang and he signaled to me that he has to leave. Before leaving he told me to call “a friend”, and left a number.
After a few days had passed by and with a momentary break from a very hectic schedule, I decided to call the number which Mansoor has given me. I was afraid that my phone may get tracked, so I used the hotel landline. But the phone was switched off and I was giving up on my hope of talking to Mansoor again and hearing about the “Taliban radicalization” story. I kept my meeting with Mansoor a closely-guarded secret to avoid setting off any alarm that would only result in my security getting tightened, meaning my movements would be closely watched henceforth.
However, as luck would have it, a day before I was on my way to Mazar-E-Sharif, the holy city in northern Afghanistan bordering Uzbekistan for a field visit, I bumped into Mansoor and that too almost close to the same place I had met him earlier. On seeing me, Mansoor seemed extremely delighted. There was no nervousness on his face as he came up to me as and said, “my Hindostani brother, very good Hindostan.” He took me to the same tea shop, even as I insisted that I have come with some other people from team who were shopping and that I could not spend much time with our armed security officers loitering around.
So quickly without any formality, Mansoor began by telling me how he was asked to join a special training camp for ‘fidayeens’. He had a faint idea of what it was to be a fidayeen, except that it was meant for “only a selected few”. Now was his chance to get a closer look and feel “the difference”. He was introduced to the camp as “Mansoor “(where he got his new name) near Peshawar and then taken to Charbagh in the Swat valley. He stayed in a camp for four months before fleeing.
Of the few things Mansoor remembered is the Fazail-e-Jihad written by Maulana Azhar and Islam aur fidai hamlay (Islam and Suicide Attacks), written by Mufti Abdul Bashar Qasmi, and mentions of Kashmir and Palestine as places where Muslims are suffering.
Scratching his forehead so as to remember more “crucial” stuff, suddenly there was an emerald like glow emanating from Mansoor’s green eyes as he pulled out his mobile to show me a short video clip. The journalist that was embedded deep inside me wasted no time but look at the video which had young boys (possibly in their early 20s) entering a camp, (which was perhaps an old deserted classroom of a school). They are first asked to see a video, where instructors are heard saying, “This is a call to avenge atrocities against Muslims.” The boys are then shown pictures of how Muslims have been attacked by non-Muslims (“infidels”) and their allies and also alleged atrocities committed on Muslim women languishing under the captivity of the latter. “This was to make our blood boil with anger and seek revenge,” said Mansoor.
When I met Mansoor it was almost five years after he fled from the camp was leading a normal life as a local businessman in Kabul and also working part time for private agencies, but the emotions that once felt for fellow Muslims in Kashmir and Palestine was still evident.
He did not deny it either, but said, “He is not sure who is responsible for all this. It may be our own people, we like Hindostan, our friend, so why not friend of our Kashmiri brothers as well.” He, however, warned that this delicate emotional balance could make even the Kashmiris vulnerable and his words were prophetic in that sense. The process of radicalisation that has gripped southern Kashmir is no different from the experiences of Mansoor and many like him.
Then after a year I was again in Afghanistan in connection with election to the Wolesi Jirga (the house of representatives). This time, during the heights of summer. I was asked to go to Herat in the southernmost province for a few days. A domestic flight in Afghanistan can be a harrowing experience, to say the least, completely chaotic and noisy and you are almost pushed into the aircraft by the rush of passengers. On landing in Herat, I was escorted away by a Swiss security officer who took me straight to my place of stay, guarded by gunmen on almost all sides, resembling a mini fortress.
Nabi, my young translator who traveled with me from Kabul, kept telling me not to venture out alone as “Herat is dangerous”. He told me of how people are kidnapped here and released only on ransom or killed. I wondered if young boys were kidnapped to become suicide bombers. Soon enough my doubts were set to rest, with news coming in from the security officer that we cannot move out as there has been a case of suicide bombing close to the Iranian border.
Of the next two days of my literal confinement in the only concrete house in the vicinity, my luck would make me meet my local security guard, Ahmadullah, the local fruit supplier to the guest house I was staying in. Son of a former Mujahideen warrior, he grew up hearing stories of war against the Soviets. Although he did not train to become a suicide bomber, which his influential political family background did not permit, Ahmadullah worked as a key fixer for the Taliban leaders with “influential persons” from foreign countries and in Pakistan. He had bag full of stories about how fidayeens were made and used by “all terror groups in Pakistan”.
“I stayed in Peshawar for five years and I know exactly how these things are done,” he said, while telling me that religion forms the only basis of a war involving suicide attacks. “I have seen and heard how Islam permits suicide attack on everything that is non-Muslim,” Ahmadullah recalled saying, “Even Muslims that help non-Muslims can be targeted.”
Hearing these stories and yet not being able to write, given my professional engagements with an international agency, I decided to document all that I heard and read. Along the way I came several illuminating documentations done by various researchers. One such study by S H Tajik titled, “Insight into a suicide bomber training camp in Waziristan,” corroborates what Ahmadullah narrated that of an instructor, Maulvi Rahimullah telling suicide bombers in a camp in South Waziristan that “suicide attacks on the army, security forces and even all government employees was permissible under the injunctions of Islam.”
The author also cites anti-Shia teachings of other religious teachers that tell the trainees at the camp that Shias are kafirs (infidels) and therefore can be killed. Instructors are said to justify these teachings with references to the Qur’an and hadith. “They use decrees by religious scholars, and cite the precedent of the famous commander and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, Khalid bin Walid, whose outnumbered army fought bravely against the enemies of Islam,” Tajik records in his paper.
Instructors tell stories of past suicide bombers who have appeared in dreams saying that they are now in paradise. Sayed Zafar Hashimi, a former deputy spokesperson for the president of Afghanistan, claimed in a TED talk that “there are cases where the Taliban have injected young Afghan men with Anesthesia. and when you wake you are in paradise, you have wine, honey, you have milk, you have girls.” “And this is not a Hollywood movie, it is the reality of this country,” he asserted in the talk. When young men asked, “How would I stay there, how would I get there for good? The message they get from the instructors or Maulvis is ‘Well, blow yourselves’.”
These were the narratives I heard when I first visited Kabul and after there were many such tales. That young men recruited for becoming a fidayeen are told they would win paradise for giving up their life for Allah who would then honor their wish of bringing 70 more people to paradise.
In his book, Tajik writes that “throughout the training period, the instructors make emotional speeches designed to influence the trainees. DVDs and CDs about Jihadi attacks, speeches from maulvis on the virtues of becoming a suicide bomber are openly circulated and fund their way into the hands of young fragile minds”.
Another author, Marisa Porges, in a research study from 2012 titled, Radicalisation Processes in Afghanistan, opines that “religious rhetoric is critically important to the radicalisation process.”
She further writes that the use of religion “is threaded throughout Taliban messaging and recruitment campaigns, framing aforementioned central grievances within the context of Islamic law and manipulating local frustrations and religious beliefs to support violent action”.
Porges points to Pakistan madrasas as having a “sizeable influence on the ideological aspect of Afghan-based radicalization”, and quotes a 2010 assessment of the US Department of State which asserted that “a small, yet influential number of madrassas have taught extremist doctrine in support of terrorism”. The same was reflected by Hashimi in his talks where he spoke of how people get radicalised in madrasas and mosques owing to the absence of proper education systems lack of professional teachers and “infiltration of foreign intelligence that have their own agenda.”
In the suicide training camps too “it is constant bombardment of Koranic verses and speeches by mullahs,” remembered Mansoor. According to him the logic is simple, of feeding the same thing over and over again to a person and when you are in a vulnerable age it is easy to get influenced.
But why do the young and creative minds fall for this?
“Injustice,” says Ahmadullah. Most people, especially the youths are fed up with the government and the regular killings of innocent people, women and children in the counter terror attacks. “Injustice whether perceived or real is the major cause, says Hashimi in his talk, adding, “A drone attack kills members of a family and one person survives. Think about it. What he goes through. And we as a country, as a community as a people haven’t’ been able to reach out to them.”
Such stories certainly are not too far from what we have experienced in Kashmir. Killings of innocent civilians in counter terror offensives aside, the occasional abuses on the local community by security forces are a contributing factor to the alienation forcing many to pick up arms and get into the cesspool of radicalisation. Gulham Hassam Dar, the father of the Jaish suicide bomber Adil Ahmed Dar, remembered a few things that clearly pointed to why the latter was attracted to the path that he chose.
There were surely many reasons, like growing up in a violent environment, his active participation of “pro-freedom” rallies as his uncle Abdul Rashid Dar confessed and perhaps more. But one of the incidents of 2016 that could have started it all, which Adil Dar’s father said his son had “kept mentioning this incident again and again.” The Special Task Force (as the Jammu and Kashmir police’s counterinsurgency unit was initially called) had made him rub his nose on the street and make a circle around their jeep. He was on his way home from school when he was made to do this.
So, does that speak of the abuse that an ordinary Kashmiri goes through, or if it has a more lasting impact on the people from certain parts like Anantnag, Baramullah, Kulgam and Pulwama which undoubtedly are the only districts (of all the 22 districts in Jammu and Kashmir) apart from Srinagar which form the hot bed of terror and separatists’ activities. But wherever it may be the question is, does it add up to the other forms of abuses that we keep hearing.
The nose rub may have been the trigger, but that he had no gainful employment could have also swayed his young mind to participate in “pro-freedom rallies.” Adil Dar’s father has told media persons after the bombing incident that during the 2016 Burhan Wani uprising, “He got hit by a bullet in the leg and it was in plaster for three months.” Burhan Wani who was a Hizbul Mujahideen commander was killed by security forces on July 8, 2016 and soon after that mass protests raged for months in the Valley.
There is no denying, that the government’s handling of the Kashmir situation since the killing of Burhan Wani has not only failed to contain the insurgency but may have given it a new lease of life. Could the government have done better, especially when it was in alliance with the local PDP? Or is the government oblivious of the local mood in Kashmir which has brought us to where we are today?
There can be many arguments and many counter arguments, but what is true and for which no one seems to have a convincing answer is when the religious and mostly Sufi loving people of most parts of southern Kashmir are turning radicals and willing to blow themselves up.
Defence psychologists that this author spoke are of the opinion that the reasons for radicalisation could be related to personal trajectories, stories and an enabling environment.
Like Afghanistan as has been pointed out by Hashimi in his talk perhaps the reasons are: “Injustice, lack of proper education, infiltration of radical movements within our educational systems and in our institutions, humiliation, marginalisation in society, suppression by the State, grouping and othering, lack of belonging, lack of emotional support from family and friends, that we rarely talk about and a paradigm of us versus them.” Otherwise, there is no other reason to make us believe that this young guy, full of energy, full of dreams turns into this dangerous thing that kills, explode themselves in others.
Jaish has penetrated deep into Kashmir and if the Pulwama incident was the tip of the iceberg, then our policy makers and the security apparatus have to do some serious introspection. Kashmir still hasn’t got into completely enmeshed into the web of radicalisation, but as things are today, if New Delhi does not act fast then there would be no end to the likes of Adil Dar and more like him friends and perhaps less of Mansoors who have managed to walk out of the trap.
The government, the intelligentsia, the political class, the people, in fact all of us, must reach out to these young men and allay fears of injustice and assure justice where it has been denied and must do that before the Jaish or other radical forces gets there. Or else if radical war gets out of control, then it wouldn’t be wrong to say that like the war on terror in Afghanistan there will be no end where even the strongest militaries of the world led by the US have given up.
(The author is a senior journalist who has spent most of his time working in Northeast India since 1990s and in Southeast Asia where he spent considerable time working and researching and writing on developmental politics, human rights and democratic transitions. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies in Thailand. The above article is a result of his extensive travels to Afghanistan and its borders with Pakistan near Peshawar. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)