April issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

For many mujahids in Waziristan, their wedding vows were pledges of ’till death do us part’ in the most literal sense — these men were wedded to jihad. When the US launched its bombing campaign in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime after September 11, the foreign mujahideen settled in South Waziristan had to contend with more than one problem: before going off for battle, they had worldly responsibilities to fulfill.

“After the bombing started, many Al-Qaeda mujahideen married their daughters off in a rush to the sons of tribesmen, whom they had known since the jihad against the Soviets. Dozens of weddings were arranged overnight,” says a local tribesman, Nasir Khan.

Describing one of these alternate ‘shotgun’ marriages, he recounted, “There was no decoration, no singing of traditional songs, no celebration. After the nikah was read, a meal was served, everybody offered prayers for the couple, and the evening ended with the guests taking vows to wage jihad against the US forces in Afghanistan.”

Just a few days after the ceremony, the father of the bride, an Uzbek national, left for Afghanistan. Suleman Mujahid, as he was known, had been living in South Waziristan along with his family for years.

Like Suleman there are many other foreign mujahideen, particularly from Uzbekistan and Chechnya, who settled down in the tribal belt after the first Afghan War. Since the region was used as a ‘launching pad’ into Afghanistan for thousands of anti-Soviet mujahideen, trained and funded by Pakistani and American intelligence agencies, fighters, who over the years became familiar with the terrain, never left. And two decades later, these foreign fighters were no longer seen as aliens by local residents.

But it was only after September 11 and the ouster of the Taliban by US forces, that the ideological bonding between the locals and the Al-Qaeda fighters turned into a real relationship.

“They look like Waziristanis now. The foreign mujahids residing here wear the traditional dress, speak fluent Pashto, and follow our traditions,” said a tribesman, Saeed Wazir, himself a former mujahid. “Some of them do farming, others do jihad, but all of them are pure Islamists. They have never harmed Pakistan.”

But that is a moot point. President Mushrraf’s policy vis a vis foreign militants is clear: they should surrender or prepare to face the full might of the Pakistani forces. “Their agenda is not a religious one. They have a political agenda of destabilisation. They masterminded several bombings in Pakistan, and elsewhere. The attempts on my life were masterminded by Al-Qaeda,” maintained Musharraf in a television talk-show.

Tribal sources estimate that around 600 foreign militants, mainly from Uzbekistan and Chechnya are in hiding in and around South Waziristan. Among them are 200 Uzbek militants, including a “high value” target — Tahir Yaldashev — who managed to escape after breaking through a cordon of paramilitary troops on the first day of the operation in Wana. Yaldashev became the head of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) after the founder of the movement, Juma Namangani was killed in the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan in November, 2001. Reportedly Yaldashev has since worked with the Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership, carrying out raids on US and allied forces in Afghanistan.

Like many other foreign fighters, Yaldashev too fought against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and following their withdrawal, remained in the region. Subsequently, the stocky, heavily bearded Yaldashev was assigned to train Central Asian militants by the Al-Qaeda leadership. “He is very popular among the mujahideen because of his leadership qualities and fiery speeches,” said a tribal source. The audio and video recordings of his speeches urging volunteers to come forward for jihad have been distributed across South Waziristan

Apart from Central Asians, after the fall of the Taliban and the Tora Bora bombings, hordes of mostly Arab Al-Qaeda militants also crossed into Waziristan. It is also widely speculated that Osama Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman-al Zawihiri, are hiding along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, possible in South Waziristan. Video footage of the two men shown on the Arabic channel, Al Jazeera, in September last year, heightened this speculation since the terrain captured on camera seemed similar to that of Waziristan’s. Foreign militants have always been in South Waziristan, but after the video was aired, the Americans’ focus increasing shifted to this area. Now it seems they bet on catching Osama and Zawihiri from this region,” said Sailab Mehsud, a well-known writer from South Waziristan.

Apart from the foreigners, there are local tribesmen who were trained by the Arabs in the Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and are now committed jihadis. Among them are Naik Mohammad, Mohammad Sharif, Noor-ul Islam, Maulvi Abbas and Maulvi Abdul Aziz, all five of whom fought against the Soviets in the first Afghan War and are now considered hardcore Al-Qaeda men and addressed thus. They are accused of fighting the government forces alongside the foreign Al-Qaeda militants and harbouring the latter. Currently on the run, Maulvi Abbas is said to have been provided shelter in a madrassah run by a well-known leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal.

During the military occupation in Wana, Naik Mohammad and Mohammad Sharif, the most wanted of the five, took 12 paramilitary troops and two local administration officials hostage, and fled, reportedly to the Angoor Adda area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. They agreed to release their hostages after a delegation of four ulema — influential clerics from the region — visited them along with tribal elders of the Zalikhel tribe. “Surrounded by around 75 armed men the two were fully armed with explosives and carrying hand grenades,” says a member of the delegation “We are mujahids. We cannot surrender to the authorities, we do not trust them. But since you are religious men, we agree to release the hostages at your request,” one of the kidnappers told the clerics.

“These Al-Qaeda men are powerful and ruthless. They have dollars, weapons and a vast spy network. Additionally, they enjoy the support of the influential Maliks,” said a tribesman. “If they have the slightest suspicion that someone has been spying against them they get him killed, dubbing him an American agent. An influential tribal elder was so afraid of them that he didn’t even register a complaint when his son was murdered by these men. And if somebody is seen visiting an official, he is immediately sent a warning threatening dire consequences.”

These five men have helped foreign militants recruit and train scores of unemployed youths and have distributed weapons among them in the name of jihad. “These youths get 5,000 to 7,000 rupees every month and modern weapons,” says a tribesman.

The Al-Qaeda men in South Waziristan are believed to be operating with the help of two top Taliban commanders, Maulana Jalal Uddin Haqqani, and Mullah Saif-ur Rehman Mansur, both from Waziristan, who know the area’s terrain and escape routes well.

“By the look of it, Pakistani security forces are committed to eliminate the Al-Qaeda guerillas at any cost. And the mujahideen are equally committed to fighting to the death. They will never surrender,” said an analyst.

In the balance, peace and security, not just in South Waziristan, but given the dimensions of the situation, the country.