Pakistani teen tells of his recruitment, training as suicide bomber

Arshad Khan is one of countless young boys recruited by a network of Taliban commanders. His story highlights the challenge ahead for Pakistani authorities in ending the war on terror.

K. Parvez/Reuters
Residents gather next to a crater caused by a suicide bomb attack in the northwestern town of Hangu, Pakistan, on May 27.

Arshad Khan gave up his aspiration to become a suicide bomber shortly after he barely survived a drone attack in North Waziristan, midway through his militant training. He was 16 years old.

After the attack, the Taliban gave him money for bus tickets and sent him, injured and barely able to walk, back to his home in Karachi, Pakistan. In the ensuing two years, his mother nursed him back to health and worked overtime to send him to high school. He recognizes his narrow escape, but says it's hard to shake what happened to him.

“I have been caught between life and death,” says the now 18-year-old Mr. Khan, in an interview with the Monitor.

As a former madrasa student-turned-suicide bomber, Khan's experience is one of the greatest challenges Pakistan confronts. Brainwashed to challenge Pakistan's status as a secular multicultural state, he was a homegrown terrorist with the ability to put those radical thoughts into deadly action.

Khan is just one of countless young boys recruited by a network of Taliban commanders from the country's many unregulated religious madrasas. His story highlights the difficult road ahead for Pakistani authorities in ending the war on terror.

"I wanted to be an engineer and a good Muslim by going to school and madrasa both, but they [the Taliban] shattered my ambitions and changed my life," he says.

Last Sunday, Abdur Razzaq, a militant commander known to be a suicide bomber recruiter, was arrested in a predominantly Pashtun neighborhood in Karachi. Mr. Razzaq then helped police unearth an Islamic militant ring involved in the recruitment of teenage madrasa students, including Khan and a friend of his, to be trained as suicide bombers in North Waziristan.

Razzaq has worked closely with Wali Mehsud. Mr. Mehsud is deputy to one of the deadliest militant leaders, Qari Hussain, who was reportedly killed in a drone attack last year. Mr. Hussain was notorious for his Taliban leadership and for running suicide bomber training centers along the Afghanistan border.

“Abdur Razzaq was deputed by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] to recruit young, innocent boys as suicide bombers and worked directly under high command of Taliban. He is a trained terrorist,” says senior police investigator Chaudhary Aslam of the police’s Crime Investigation Department. “He would lure the innocent madrasa boys with his jihadi brainwashing.” One such boy was Khan.

Regulated and unregulated madrasas

Khan, like many young boys, was attending the madrasa, or Islamic seminary school for boys of any age, to read the Koran and offer prayers at the mosque. In poor neighborhoods, such as the one he is from, parents send their children to madrasas just to read the Koran. Some spend years in madrasas to memorize the Koran.

There are around 12,000 registered madrasas across Pakistan. The registered ones belonging to the Debandi school of thought work under their own educational board, known as Wafaq-ul Madaras Al Arabia Pakistan, with their own syllabus and examinations parallel to government educational system.

According to some estimates, there are around 1,700 registered small and big madrasas in Karachi and as many unregistered and unregulated ones. The madrasas also offer free boarding and lodging along with Islamic education for poor students coming from far-flung areas.

Razzaq himself had studied at a madrasa while he was in his teens and then worked in various madrasas doing petty jobs in the administration. He lived close to Khan's neighborhood and would regularly visit the same unregulated madrasa-cum-mosque where Khan studied.

Khan says he remembers Razzaq's charm well.

“I would start interacting with him almost every day at the madrasa,” says Khan. “He would tell me about the jihad, and hand over booklets glorifying mujahideen’s victories against infidels. Slowly and gradually, I got sucked into it and started believing that the biggest aim in life is jihad. Now I realize that it was wrong.”

He says he remembers the militant commander telling the madrasa boys that “everybody lives for worldly life, but those who choose to live for the hereafter are the most sacred.” It was exciting and radical and seemed to make sense at the time.

The closer he was getting to the Taliban local commander, the more he was drifting away from his usual lifestyle. “I stopped going to play football. My friends changed. I stopped asking for extra pocket money to play video games,” he recalls. The change in behavior infuriated his mother.

One day, Khan had an argument with her about focusing more on his studies at school and less on the madrasa. Fuming, Khan went to the madrasa that day in spite of his mother and sat in a corner to sulk.

'Let's go for a holy journey'

“Somebody tapped my shoulder saying ‘let’s go for a holy journey,’ ” says Khan. “It was him. ‘How can I leave my mother,’ I said. He replied ‘Let’s make your Allah happy, the sins of seven generations of your family be washed away.” And that was enough at that moment, Khan says.

The next morning, July 28, 2009, Khan was on his way to a terrorist training camp in North Waziristan.

When he boarded the bus, Razzaq introduced him to a group of five boys, including one other teen named Waqar. It took about a day to reach Miranshah, the capital of North Waziristan, and the group of boys spent the night at a small hotel.

“We drove in a four-wheel-drive pickup on hilly terrain and after a while were off-loaded. Then we walked for almost four hours in the plains surrounded by mountains,” Khan says. “The Taliban, armed with rocket launchers and Kalashanikovs, guided us throughout. Then we reached the area near Razmak valley on the borders of South Waziristan.”

Khan and other boys were taken inside a fortified compound on a hill. Taliban warriors greeted them with “Allah O Akber, Allah O Akber [God is great, God is great].”

'Ready to sacrifice' life

Khan says that it wasn't until Razzaq announced to the Taliban trainers that the boys were mujahideen, there to fight infidels and ready to sacrifice their lives, that it dawned on him what was going on. But by that time, there was no turning back.

“There were 30 to 40 boys. The trainer would wake us up before sunrise. After stretching and light exercise, he would make us climb up and down on the mountains.” After morning prayers, the training would start again. “Then to balance on a tightrope. They would teach us to assemble and disassemble Kalashanikovs; and the positioning and target shooting on the mountain; the handling of explosive devices.”

After afternoon prayers each day, he says another militant commander would deliver a lecture.

American and Pakistani forces are against Islam, he was told. "Let’s prepare ourselves to fight and pray to Allah that we go to paradise by sacrificing our lives,” Khan says the Taliban commanders told them. The boys were warned not to talk with each other.

'American spy!'

However, after a few days, while the boys were busy training, he says a humming sound suddenly echoed across the valley and they saw what were probably drones. “American jasoosi, American jasoosi [American spy, American spy],” Taliban commanders shouted.

“Stop your breath," Khan says they told him. "They catch the pulse of mujahideen and then kill them.” But it was too little, too late. When Khan and his friend Waqar regained consciousness, they were severely wounded and in a concrete house someplace he didn't recognize, surrounded by the Taliban fighters.

Khan says he was badly burned and Waqar had multiple fractures. Their four companions – the other madrasa students who accompanied them from Karachi to North Waziristan were not as lucky. For several days, Taliban provided treatment to Khan and his friend until they were able to hobble on their own.

Both were sent back to Karachi, but with warnings of dire consequences should they tell anyone what had happened to them. “Don’t you dare open your mouths. Otherwise, you will not only betray mujahideen but yourselves as well. We will all die,” Khan says a Taliban commander told them.

Future for a ticking bomb?

Back home in Karachi, Khan's mother, a Pashtun from the Swat district of Pakistan, was able to scrape together her savings to send him to Bright Children Academy in an effort to ensure a better future for him.

“We sent our kid to madrasa to learn the teachings of Koran but they [Taliban] turned him into a ticking bomb,” says Khan’s uncle Habib Ullah Khan.

Provincial Home Ministry official Sharfuddin Memon says Taliban recruitment at unregulated madrasas is a “grave concern,” admitting that the authorities have failed to introduce reforms to bring them into mainstream.

“We need to monitor and regulate those madrasas, which are breeding ground for holy warriors," he says. "The turf on which the war on terror is fought cannot be won unless we eliminate the overall jihadi culture prevailing in the country. It needs collective effort.”

Now what?

Meanwhile, these two former-suicide bombers recorded their statement against the militants under arrest before the judicial magistrate on Monday.

Police investigators are looking for the parents of the four boys who lost their lives in North Waziristan, to fight their case against the Taliban recruiter commander. If the parents agree to join the case, the militant recruiters may face the death penalty on the charges of murder and terrorism.

Though police investigators say Razzaq is believed to have issued warning to the boys during the past two years, both boys say they were no longer in touch with Razzaq. The boys are currently in police custody, and will be sent back to their homes soon, police investigators say.

Khan wants to leave his militant life behind him and pursue his future, but is finding it difficult.

“I have become restless and cannot sleep. When I look at the sky and twinkling stars, I feel that those will explode and tear my body apart. Then I hide myself like a kid on my mother’s lap by closing my eyes, thinking whether I be ever become engineer,” Khan says.

His friend Waqar, whose leg is still strapped with bandages, is looking ahead. “I want to become a cleric.”

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