In northwestern Pakistan, where militants rule

Foreign jihadists in an ungoverned tribal belt kill leaders, recruit locals.

Kamran Wazir/Reuters/File
Militants: A combatant waits on a mountain in Shin Warsak, South Waziristan, an agency in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt.

Every so often, the world witnesses the malice that lives in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt – bombings in London and Madrid and the plot to blow up airplanes over the Atlantic, all had ties to terrorists there.

But Khalid Aziz Khan has seen that evil daily. As a resident of North Waziristan, an area in the tribal belt and perhaps the world's foremost finishing school for terrorists, he has seen a cousin killed, a school friend "brainwashed" and turned into a suicide bomber, and families murdered for opposing terrorists.

Mr. Khan, a student, offers a rare look inside the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – increasingly the focus of the US war on terror, yet a place shrouded in mystery, since journalists are officially prohibited.

People there are being held hostage by foreign terrorists, he and other Peshawar University students from FATA say. They kill with impunity and have replaced tribal leadership with their own, bent on war in neighboring Afghanistan and jihad against the US.

But their comments also offer hope that the terrorists threatening Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the West can be uprooted.

"People say the local people support them, but [locals] are scared," says Khan, sitting in the office of a professor with three other students from Pakistan's unsettled border areas.

More than a week after the Pakistani elections, the two largest parties – the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz have agreed in principle to form a coalition. They are still working out details, which could include who becomes prime minister and how strongly to confront President Pervez Musharraf. Decisions could be made by the weekend.

Khan says that 90 percent of his South Waziristan hometown of Wana – a terrorist stronghold – oppose the terrorists. "But they have taken us captive and demolished the tribal system," he says. "This is a reorganized mafia."

The students acknowledge they offer only a limited, personal view of FATA. Yet among them, clear patterns emerge. Like international analysts, they agree on the basics: After the 2001 fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, foreign terrorists came to FATA to exploit its weaknesses. A 17 percent literacy rate, together with a failing agricultural economy, has offered a large pool of disgruntled, uneducated recruits.

"In the last three months there has been no sign of electricity in my village," says Khan. "With no electricity, what about agriculture? People will search for alternatives, and the Arabs are going there with money."

Taliban fighters receive as much as $300, says Ijaz Khan, the professor who has gathered FATA students in his office. It is part of a hierarchy that he and his students portray as almost a graduate program for terrorists. Recruits are used locally before moving on to other missions – first in other parts of Pakistan and then abroad, as their experience grows.

Terrorist leaders have found wide latitude in FATA because Pakistan's government has a negligible presence there. It leaves control of the area to tribal leaders, but terrorists have killed these leaders, leaving the area essentially ungoverned.

"What they have done is target all those people who have influence," says Khan, who has come to Peshawar University to study political science and speaks fluent English. "Everyone is fed up with these people, but there is no one to lead them."

Little is known about the Taliban recruiters, he says. They move about in stealth, driving cars with tinted windows and emerging only masked or in sunglasses. Khan calls them "Uzbeks," saying they have no land or family in the area – meaning the local population has no recourse against them.

Another student, Naveed Iqbal from Malakand, a district bordering FATA, tells of how a masked man stepped from a car in the main bazaar, walked to a shopkeeper and asked for money. When he was refused, he shot the shopkeeper dead.

The story is met with nods from the others. "The people have created a reign of terror so no one will question their rule," says Gul Marjan, a student from South Waziristan.

As a member of a political party that opposes the jihad in Afghanistan, Mr. Marjan's parents do not allow him to leave the house after sunset when he is at home. Already, four of his colleagues have been killed.

Like the others, however, Marjan disputes the commonly held idea that terrorists have been radicalized at Islamic seminaries, called madrassahs.

"In Waziristan, there is not a single madrassah-educated Taliban," he says.

Instead, he says, they are drawn from the ranks of criminals and the destitute. The criminals "want to exercise their authority," says Lateef Khan, a second student from Malakand.

Khalid Aziz Khan, the student from North Waziristan, says a childhood friend, who dropped out in the sixth grade is typical of those who can be "brainwashed." Already, he has been sent to Afghanistan twice on suicide bomb missions, though both times he failed to detonate the bomb.

To drive out extremism, the help of the Pakistani Army would be welcome, he says. But military efforts in Waziristan have created more enemies than they have eliminated – overreliance on artillery and airstrikes has caused widespread collateral damage, the two students from Waziristan say.

"This is a true guerrilla war, and in a guerrilla war you need the support of the people," says Khan.

Moreover, there is the sense that Pakistan is not serious in its efforts to destroy militant networks. Marjan's uncle, Haji Sharif, is a well-known militant – he participated in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s as well as the Taliban army of the 1990s.

Yet Marjan says his uncle often drives to Peshawar, the capital of the neighboring North West Frontier Province – passing more than 20 checkpoints – and has met with the regional governor there. "Why has he not been arrested?" Marjan asks rhetorically.

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