June issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

“All explosives are poisonous and can explode if triggered by fire or pressure… Always cut your nails properly and do not rub your eyes with your hands during the work… Wear protective glasses especially if working with substances that bubble during a chemical reaction… Do not rely on memory. Write down all your experiments, as well as the time, date and weather…In the beginning do not try to make explosives in large quantities…”

These are just some of the tips contained in a hand-written notebook recently recovered by the police from the possession of a militant in Karachi. It reveals the contents of the clandestine training given to aspiring terrorists. According to the “aims and objectives” section of the notebook, the course teaches “techniques of making explosives and lethal poisons from substances easily available in the market anywhere in the world.” Thus, detailed in the book, accompanied by neatly labelled illustrations, are not only the differences between various explosives, but also methods for converting an innocuous washing machine timer into a timer for a bomb, purifying the lowly aspirin tablet to obtain chemicals for use in explosives, and so on.

Also included are meticulous instructions for obtaining purified alcohol for use in explosives. An excerpt reads, “Alcohol is highly inflammable and its tolerance in the air is 1000 P.P.M.” The same notebook reveals that trainees were also taught the speed of bullets fired by different weapons and the distance at which they could kill or injure. Reads an excerpt; “The bullet of an AK-47 or kalashanikov travels at the speed of 825 metres per second, while that of a G-3 rifle travels at 800 metres per second… a bullet from an automatic pistol can travel a distance of 300 metres at the most, kill up to 50 metres, and injure up to a distance of 150 metres.”

The escalation in terrorist attacks in Pakistan over the past couple of years shows that militants are putting their training to good use. They are also becoming adept at staying one step ahead of the law-enforcement agencies.

Police officials admit that when any militant is caught today, it is less on account of the civilian agencies’ efficiency than slips made by the militants themselves. “They employ methods that don’t allow modern surveillance gadgets to track them,” says a Sindh police official. According to him, militants have been given strict instructions by their high command to communicate with each other by word of mouth rather than through mobile or satellite phone unless essential, and in that case, quickly dismantle the phone once the conversation is over. “Moreover, they make calls from these phones from crowded locations, particularly commercial centres, where it is difficult for the security agencies to isolate them and listen in to their conversation to detect their whereabouts,” says a source.

However, a number of militants have been arrested, and they have proved to be a useful source of information. The police has learnt, for instance, that militants have devised a system of communicating with each other through coded SMS on their mobile phones, aware that intercepting these among hundreds of thousands of such messages is virtually impossible for local agencies. A list of these coded messages, in which each is assigned a three-digit number, has been distributed amongst its cadres. Local police recovered one such list from the possession of a recently arrested local militant in which, on a single sheet of paper, at least 250 to 300 such messages were jotted down. To direct someone to go underground, an SMS message simply bearing the number 721 would be sent, or, if a weapon was needed, the number 730. All important meeting places, different kinds of weapons, explosives, and other communiques likely to be used on a regular basis were included in the list.

The situation today, with militants driving the agenda and keeping the police guessing, is an outcome of the unfortunate confluence several decades ago of international policies and self-serving, short-sighted strategies on the national level. Before the 1980s, religion was not a contentious issue in Pakistan. A fundamental change, however, that altered the very character of Pakistani society, occurred after the installation of a Soviet-backed communist regime in Afghanistan. In order to fight a proxy war against the Soviets, the US bankrolled the arming of the mujahideen who were motivated for battle through religious propaganda urging them to expel the ‘infidels’ from Muslim Afghanistan. The policy was executed through General Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan, who was desperately seeking a raison d’etre for his military rule, and who seized upon this opportunity to ensure his political survival and establish his Islamic credentials in the process. Thus the two agendas coincided and the war against the Soviets became a 20th century gun-and-rocket jihad against ‘infidel invaders’.

militant-2-jun04Between 1979 and 1988, the Zia government gave free rein to the proponents of jihad and strengthened the hand of the Muslim clergy. Official funds were increasingly channelled into the establishment of religious seminaries, which began to mushroom across the country. Local youth, stirred by the call of jihad emanating from pulpits, were encouraged to join their Afghan brethren across the border in their fight against the ‘infidel forces.’

A few years later, the struggle for the liberation of Kashmir received fresh impetus and Pakistani jihadis discovered another arena in which to wage holy war. Some even joined militant forces in Sudan and Algeria, while others went to Sinkiang province in China to lend their support to the nascent Islamist movement there.

During this period, thousands of youth were trained in militancy in camps run directly under the supervision of the Pakistan army. “They were encouraged to enlist and undergo training in return for the promise that they would not be coerced into fighting if they didn’t want to do so,” says an official. However, no effort was spared to win their loyalty and make them stay the course. According to insiders, breakfast was served with milk and honey and meat was in plentiful amounts at lunch and dinner, a far cry from the frugal fare offered to most regular soldiers. And then, of course, there was the brainwashing that ensured that most recruits would set aside their personal agendas and voluntarily turn to jihad.

Ali Khan, a hardcore militant of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is a case in point. Believed to be one of the two local militants who witnessed the slaughter of the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia reporter, Daniel Pearl, in Karachi some two years ago, Khan told his interrogators that in the beginning he had no intention of taking part in jihad. “I was a little child when my elder sister was divorced and I decided that when I grew up I would kill my brother-in-law for divorcing her without any reason,” he said.

According to Ali Khan’s admission, when he joined the training camp in Kashmir, this was the extent of his desire for vengeance. “But I realised the pettiness of my original intention during the course of my training and decided to concentrate more on jihad and fight against the real enemies of Islam,” he said. Khan, who later went to Afghanistan for further training, fought alongside the Taliban and was also involved in the sectarian killings of several Shias, including a father and son in Karachi.

Scores of other such militants went to Afghanistan during the Taliban regime, where they enrolled in camps affiliated with or even run by Al-Qaeda. According to insiders, a wide range of skills were imparted here, from the use of different kinds of weapons, to the art of converting easily available substances into deadly explosives. For instance, they were taught to extract a purified ‘finale’ from Lifebuoy — a commonly used soap in Pakistan — and mix it with other chemicals to convert it into secondary explosives.

At the camps in Afghanistan, militants were shown how to conceal weapons and draw cryptic diagrams that could only be understood by their comrades in case they needed to retrieve the caches. Sources said that they mastered a method in which diagrams were drawn using colour-coding, the initials of the location’s name and minute symbols for various buildings, railway stations, cemeteries and trees, as well as the quantity and type of weapons dumped. According to insiders, just before the toppling of the Taliban, its cadres had hidden huge caches of weapons which they set about retrieving with the help of such maps once they initiated their guerrilla war against the coalition forces.

From events over the past few years — the hundreds of sectarian assassinations, attacks against western interests, and now suicide bombings — it is clear that the policy of giving institutional support to extremist elements for pursuing the establishment’s agenda abroad has now come home to roost. Religious wars are not merely being exported, they are being fought on local turf. Today, highly-disciplined and motivated groups of Islamic militant organisations operate in almost every neighbourhood of Pakistan.

These trained brigades have become a liability particularly in the wake of 9/11 when, under international pressure, President Musharraf chose to disassociate the Pakistani government with the jihadi cadres. Several militant organisations were banned and their accounts frozen. With the ousting of the Taliban, and the closure of their principal nursery in Afghanistan, the militants, now driven as much by their hatred of the state apparatus that abandoned them as they are by their abhorrence of the west, are twice as dangerous. It is open season against the establishment. No one, from President Musharraf to a lowly constable, can consider himself immune from the fallout. Several senior police officials, who feature on the militants’ hit list, have been compelled to take extraordinary measures for their security.

Senior police officials contend that by the time the Pakistan government decided to take action against these militants, it was already too late. Moreover, they say, after the banning of the extremist groups, the task of keeping track of the militant cadres has been rendered more difficult. “We used to monitor the headquarters and ringleaders of five or six groups, but after the ban, they have scattered across the country,” explains an investigator. “Many of them have formed splinter groups in different areas of Pakistan and are operating independently.”

Despite a record number of arrests of militants during the past few months, senior police officials say this is only the tip of the iceberg. “Militants are now skilled operators. Each activist is assigned a particular task and he has no knowledge of the next link in the chain that would enable us to destroy a network from its roots,” they maintain.

Meanwhile the government, it seems, is sabotaging its own efforts to distance itself from its previous pro-jihad policy. In an astonishingly undiplomatic move, the federal minister for religious affairs, Ejazul Haq, attended the launch of a book titled “Christian terrorism and the Muslim world” in Islamabad, where he reportedly stated that anyone who did not believe in jihad was neither a Muslim nor a Pakistani and that, given the plight of the Muslims today, he was himself prepared to act as a human bomb. With spokesmen like these, little wonder that the government seems to be fumbling in the dark, ill-equipped to deal with the harvest of hate it has itself sown.