Kashmir dispute as a jihad

Pakistan's open support of 'holy war' emboldens a new cadre of militants.

Outside a sleepy little farm town off the famed Grand Trunk Road here in the flat fields of Punjab, is the headquarters of the fastest growing militant group in Pakistan, the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Five years ago, few Pakistanis had heard of Lashkar - one of four main groups responsible for sending young men across the border to Indian-controlled Kashmir to attack Indian positions. But last November, a million followers met at this markaz, or "center" in Muridke, dramatizing a truism here: jihad is a growth industry in Pakistan.

No signpost marks the turn-off to the center. Clusters of armed men stare at, but do not stop, a white sedan as it crawls toward a set of buildings covered with Urdu language script so large it can be read for acres in all directions: "O Faithful, taking revenge is your duty," reads one. "Yesterday we beat Russia, now it is your turn America," says another, which gives way to an ethical reminder, "Killing someone for money is terrorism. "This is a complete jihadi environment," smiles one local, wearing a camouflage jacket over a Nike T-shirt. "We prepare for jihad here, but we don't train."

At this center, or "campus," as it is sometimes called, there is a strong feeling, emphasized by the No. 2 in command of Lashkar, Zakir Iqbal, that the fulfillment of jihad has arrived.

An open policy toward jihad in Kashmir by the new military-led government of Pakistan has emboldened Lashkar. The group boasts 2,500 recruiting offices in Pakistan and reportedly trains more than 40,000 men a year in guerrilla warfare and infiltration tactics - reasons why Lashkar is the most-feared group across the border in India, Pakistani sources say.

Lashkar's growth means it likely has the backing of the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, Pakistani experts say.

Mr. Iqbal denies this. He says Lashkar's sudden street power is due to a "Muslim renaissance that is coming just as the Kashmir jihad most needs it."

"[Pakistan's new chief executive] Gen. [Pervez] Musharraf says there is only one point to make - Kashmir. We agree," says Iqbal, a tall strongly built middle-aged man who carries a cellphone, wears an expensive green designer safari jacket over a pure white shameez, and talks about the need to teach both the Koran and computer science. "We will not go back from jihad. Our jihad is against the terrorism of the Indian Army, against the Muslims of Kashmir. We will fight until India talks. That is what we preach."

In visits to several groups, it is evident that the foot soldiers of the jihad are ordinary Pakistanis - not the radicalized elite corps that made up mujahideen in past decades. Many plan careers as doctors or engineers once their Kashmir mission is complete. Also, while Pakistani officials long argued that jihad was a Kashmiri movement - it is clear the next generation of mujahideen are from villages all over Pakistan and Afghanistan, along with Kashmir.

In Muridke, everything says "planning for the future." The shabby buildings inherited in the late 1980s are being replaced by new ones. A new mosque, a new college of Islamic learning, and a new primary school are finished. A large residency hall is about to be - and three more are under construction.

Two years ago, Lashkar had a small fish farm. Today, with the help of two Massey Ferguson tractors, the fish pond is acres wide, part of a farm that boasts cotton, vegetables, and cattle. "But we don't sell the fish, they feed the mujahideen," says Muhammed Ilios, a Lashkar official who moved here after a 17-year career with the Pakistan Air Force.

He likes a place where his five-year-old can memorize the Koran. "There is no music, no entertainment, no cigarettes, no noise, and no pollution. It's perfect," he says. Only 15 miles away is the headquarters of Jamaat-i-Islami, known as mansoora. At twilight, Majid ul Islam and several young men emerge from prayers at mansoora, their faces moist from ablutions.

Mr. Islam is a 23-year old district commander for Hizbul mujahideen, the military arm of Jamaat-i-Islami, a political party. His hair is neatly cut, he has a short beard, Izod shirt, and speaks articulate English. He has just come back from Kashmir, where he and his command of seven others spent five months, never sleeping in the same place more than three nights, he says, and at one point crossing so close to the Indian border patrol that he boasts he stole a water glass from them.

This center is a place where Islamic scholars, 12-year old boys, political science and engineering majors, veteran fighters, and a variety of mujahideen, all live and study together. Some from the Middle East have dubious passports, sources say. The former president of Chechnya, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, for example, was here several days earlier, asking for funds.

Judging by the number of young men who say they are ready to leave to fight in Chechnya next summer, and the number of Arab fighters who use mansoora for a transit point north, Chechnya's president was an effective speaker.

Islami himself, who trained for jihad in Kutli, a town in Pakistan-controlled Azad Kashmir, is taking a leave from from his job in Kashmir, and awaiting orders, while studying for his college exam. Among the shifting group of 10 to 12 young men, he is considered the most respected, since his rank was bestowed by Salauddin, the head of Hizbul Mujahideen.

"A few years ago no one talked of jihad, and my friends weren't interested," says Islami. "But now I definitely expect it to intensify. There is a lot more talk about it, and weapons are much more available."

Islami says the job of infiltrating is made easier by the increased use of night scopes and by better relations with Kashmiri locals. During the late 1990s, the Pakistani based mujahideen were often unpopular in Kashmir, where they commandeered food and were generally unpleasant. But the mujahideen have taken steps to improve relations.

One young Afghan mujahideen with sharp features and curly black hair, Janat Gul Ghaznavi, crosses over nearly every night he says. He did his training in Kutli where of 2,300 young men, about 500 were Afghanis. He did commando training, lived for days without food to simulate infiltration conditions, and then he says ruefully it took him 14 days to cross the first time he was given a mission. Now he does so at will, he says proudly, adding that few mujahideen get caught by Indian troops at the border, or are even confronted by them if the Indian commanding officer is not present.

"I am back here for relaxation, to get married, and to visit my village," he says casually. "Then I will go back to Kashmir."

In overall India-Pakistan relations, which by all reckoning is at a low point, much of the talk about jihad from Pakistan is designed to keep India afraid and off balance. The mujahideen have talked about jihad for years, in very lurid terms. There is also the possibility that the Pakistani army is looking for militant groups to keep the pressure on India, while its own troops are busy collecting taxes and seeing to some of the other needs of the often disfunctional civil society.

Yet much of the jihadi talk is backed up by increased raids, and bolder attacks against military targets in the Kashmir valley. In recent years, jihadi movements have taken place in the spring. Yet attacks this year have remained steady through the winter months.

Last week, for example, another of the four major Kashmir jihad groups, al-Badar announced it will launch a major guerrilla operation against the Indian army in retaliation for the killing of 14 Muslims, allegedly by Indian commandos, in a village on the Pakistani side of the LOC. The head of Al-Badar in northern Pakistan, Muhammad Haroon, said the operations would be launched under the name of "Shahadat (Martyrdom) Missions." Each of the four major militant groups now have a wing of suicide bombers, or faidi.

Most of the young men at the mansoora will either take the training, or have taken it. In the case of Lashkar, the youths go through a preliminary six-weeks training, then go home to think about whether they want to present themselves as full-fledged mujahideen. During this period, they wear the white shrouds they wear to the Hajj, the holy trip every good Muslim takes to Mecca. If they decide to become a real holy warrior, they say goodbye to their parents and friends - ostensibly for good - and present themselves at the camp.

Zakir Iqbal points out that not everyone is chosen."It is an honor, and not everyone can qualify. We have to be careful that Indian intelligence does not penetrate our ranks," he says.

"This summer I will finish my studies and present myself," says Sultan Shaiib, a soft-spoken student of economics at the mansoora. "Then, inshallah, I'll finish the training, and start fighting in Russia."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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