x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Tales from the Taliban

For nearly five brutal years, Ijaz fought in the Pakistan Taliban. Under a pseudonym, the former militant tells Rebecca Conway about his life as a Taliban fighter and what made him turn away from a harrowing life of radicalism and bloodshed. Here is his account.

Photograph by Rebecca Conway
Photograph by Rebecca Conway

For nearly five brutal years, Ijaz fought in the Pakistan Taliban. Under a pseudonym, the former militant tells Rebecca Conway about his life as a Taliban fighter and what made him turn away from a harrowing life of radicalism and bloodshed. Here is his account. I was involved with jihad for five years. When we started, we were trained to fight in the Kashmir struggle. We wanted to travel to Indian-held Kashmir and join the conflict. It is the duty of every Muslim and every Pakistani to attend military training. I believe it is not necessary to fight against all non-believers, but it is my duty to fight against the non-believers who threaten Islam and Pakistan.

I was interested in learning to fight, and the local messages from militant groups, and what we heard in the mosques and speeches during Friday prayers, made me want to join the jihad. They talked about the threat to Pakistan and the threats to Islam. I did 45 days of training. There were 2,000 recruits in the camp from across Pakistan. There was no distinction in terms of where recruits came from. It was difficult training. Not everyone could complete it. But those who did were sent to fight jihad.

Manshera was used, because it resembles the terrain you find in Indian-held Kashmir. The area is very hilly, there are cedar forests. Taliban fighters are trained to fight in a similar area to the one where their operations will take place. The militants running the training camps prepared our minds and bodies for the fight. We prepared for many night attacks because it was thought we would often fight at night. It was very strict, with a heavy focus on religion. We had to pray five times a day. That was compulsory. We didn't smoke or relax. Some people left, but those who left had still gained a level of military expertise and undergone the mental and religious preparation. Around half went on to fight in Indian-held Kashmir or Afghanistan.

Some trained fighters who left the jihad are coming back even now, because they have no future outside the conflict - they aren't trained for anything else. Some are engaged in jobs elsewhere but it is hard for people who return. We did a lot of exercise to prepare us for the tough conditions, for travel on foot and fighting. There was a lot of weapons-training - that was a key aspect. We learned reconnaissance, how to recognise mines, how to use AK47s, pistols and .303 weapons, how to manufacture and plant explosive devices and how to avoid them. We were able to plan and carry out attacks using explosives and weaponry.

The camps were run by men who had fought against the Russians after the 1979 Soviet invasion; they were mujahideen, or ex-mujahideen. Most of the fighters were sent directly to Kashmir, and then they would return to their villages after fighting. Some were sent straight to Afghanistan because we started hearing that the Americans would be coming - this was after the September 11 events. One man from here was trained to fight in Kashmir but was then sent to Afghanistan. He's still missing.

I was one of those sent to Afghanistan. We travelled through Peshawar to the Torkham border and crossed close to the main border crossing. The Americans were entering Nangarhar, Bagram, and coming to Kabul, so we went across the border to fight. We initially left after the bombing of Bagram in 2001 but went back to fight the American advance. We were sent to Bagram airport to fight. We hoped to take control of the town and keep them from entering and taking control themselves. But when the Americans arrived the level of power they had meant we were outnumbered and outgunned. When Bagram was bombed, we fled back through the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

From then on we would spend a few days or a few weeks in Afghanistan and then return across the border. We had no visas or passports. We had no papers. We just found points where it was easy to sneak into Afghanistan. There are hills all along the border you can walk over to travel between the countries. They aren't guarded and it's very open. Between Wakhan and Chaman are more than 1,000km of border. It's impossible to check the flow of people. We travelled on foot over the border, and picked up a bus on the other side. It was easy to get transport in Afghanistan because there were so many cars and buses. We picked up local buses in Peshawar to take us up to the border area. Cars were crossing everywhere, not just at the official checkpoints. Now it's stricter but there are still many, many places where the border can be breached easily.

We went into Afghanistan for the enforcement of Sharia law, against the invasion of the non-believers. We were equipped by the groups already there fighting for the cause. When we got there, the Taliban fighters merged all of the Pakistani-trained fighters from all the other militant groups. Weapons, logistics and clothing came from the Taliban, who were funded from abroad. We never had to worry about raising funds or where the money was coming from.

Sharia was so important, so visceral, for us. People have problems such as poverty, unemployment and ignorance. There is less thought for Sharia when facing these issues. But Sharia is the true shape of Islam. In Afghanistan, people were controlled and Sharia existed. We went to defend it when the Americans invaded. We were very unhappy with the removal of the Taliban - many people in Afghanistan and Pakistan were. This was the real Islam - Sharia reduced crime and brought safety and peace to Afghanistan. There were still problems after 30 years of war, but you need time to change. Sharia gives equal rights, no feudalism exists, and there is fairness in society. It gives equal rights to everyone.

But then in Bagram we were outnumbered and we couldn't match the firepower of the US forces. We had information two or three days before that the Americans would be attacking, but we weren't sure if it would be a ground or an air strike. The attack started very late - maybe after midnight. It was terrible - the noise and shockwaves. I don't remember much of the night because we were so terrified that we just ran from the area around the airport where we had been based. We wanted to get to the border in case we were captured. Three of the men I trained with were ahead of me when we started running into the centre of Bagram looking for a way out. One was behind me. We were separated, and he has never been found.

The very devoted stayed near Bagram airport saying that death was nothing if we stayed to defend Islam. But it was useless to stay when we had seen the power the Americans had. We could not fight with our very light weaponry - we were mainly using AK47s against an air strike. When we found out later that many Taliban were captured, it made our decision to leave seem like the right one. Locals and those involved in jihad shaved their beards. As news of the assault's success started to reach people, people were shaving their beards in the street, in case the Americans came for them.

We went back into Bagram and tried to travel to Kabul. We were on foot and travelling in Jeeps or on local buses. A lot of people were fleeing. It was easy to go unnoticed. We fled Kabul in a truck, arrived at the border and then crossed back [into Pakistan] on foot. When we finally returned to our village, people knew where we had been. When we finally came home for good, we were questioned by the Pakistani authorities and security agencies. We had to sign documents and make statements renouncing the Taliban.

I believe that there should be a government in Afghanistan that is independent from the Americans or international involvement. I'm very concerned with the level of international activity in Afghanistan - a lot of people here are. As long as the Americans are sitting in Afghanistan, there will be no peace. As long as the Americans are there, there will be Taliban. Even with thousands of troops and sophisticated weapons they cannot control the country. Even here in Pakistan it is impossible for the Americans to control what happens. So how can they think they can work successfully in Afghanistan? They don't know the area and they aren't familiar with the people. When the Americans removed the Taliban, they posed a direct threat to Islam. The American policies are not Islamic. Most American policy is anti-Islamic. So we went to fight the threat to the religion when the Americans came to Afghanistan. The Americans are afraid of our religion.

I still believe this but I became tired, disillusioned with the messages we were being given by the groups in Kashmir and in Afghanistan. They were hypocritical. They preached one thing but did something else. An example is killing innocents with suicide bombings. When this started, I began to doubt what was going on. Then, in 2005, I decided to leave. Before I went to Afghanistan, I was involved mainly in preaching, trying to get people to consider jihad, to think about training camps and the fight for Pakistan. We were involved in a lot of Friday sermons that were very anti-US and we looked to encourage support for jihad; Friday prayers were used to promote jihad. But I never really ran a camp, for example, just tried to encourage recruitment and sympathy for jihad.

In Afghanistan, we prepared to fight the Americans. We fought battles with them, gun battles, and we wanted to attack bases and convoys. This is very hard, though. They are well protected. This is why the Taliban use explosives planted by roads or in markets - because you can kill Americans who are walking in an area. But when I saw planted explosions, suicide bombers being used, suicide attacks killing civilians, I began to think that what the Taliban and militant groups were doing was wrong. You cannot kill innocents, even non-believers. I changed what I believed, slowly, and realised that what they thought about the cause was a type of brainwashing, and that what was happening was wrong. It can't be used to rationalise what the Taliban were doing, calling it a jihad, or saying the killings were justified.

Lack of education and opportunities drives people to militancy. Maybe people feel jihad is at least one thing they can do. There aren't enough jobs or educational possibilities here, so militancy is sometimes what people turn to. Also religion. Jihad means holy war and Muslims have a duty to defend Islam, so if that means becoming Taliban, then that's what they do sometimes. In some ways, madrasa education encourages militancy, too. A madrasa is the centre for Sharia and for Islamic education and so people in the schools may want to go on holy war. But the Taliban aren't setting up their own madrasas to recruit people. Madrasas aren't militant training centres, they produce clerics and scholars. But they do promote Sharia and Islam, so maybe people who attend want to fight holy war. Some at the schools want to adopt training to fight as a result of what they learn.

Suicide attacks are an external thing. Training occurs mainly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or Afghanistan. People come from over the border and enter the cities here. This isn't militancy from inside Pakistan; it comes from enemies on the borders, funded by international donors. It could be the Americans, the Indians, another country - Yemen has been suggested - which sends people to train and fund bombers and then sends them into Pakistan to target civilians here.

There is still much Taliban training. Some people think it's to do with al Qa'eda, too. I'm not sure. There are many groups. In the settled areas, it's impossible to do anything, but in Federally Administered Tribal Areas, places such as Balakot, Muzaffarabad, Shinkiari, Mansehra, Waziristan, safe havens exist where training and recruitment take place. In the northern areas, places like Lower Chitral, the population is dense so it's easy to blend in or not be noticed. Cross-border mixing in Lower Chitral is incredibly easy. Many people just claim to be part of a local village or tribe, wherever they are found or questioned. If a person doesn't have identity papers on them, they claim to be a local. As soon as the snow starts to melt, people start crossing the border between areas such as Nuristan and Konar in Afghanistan, and the villages and towns in the Chitral area. There is no check. Militants can easily move around here, from either side of the border.

Even at checkpoints you can avoid being questioned, or can sneak past. This is a huge border. No one can control it and no one can stop cross-border transport, even if it is illegal. In places such as Bajaur and Waziristan the border crossings will be higher, because there are hills to travel through and hide in near the border, and because in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas it's even easier to travel around. The Pakistan Taliban operates here, separately from the Afghan Taliban. Mostly it's locals from the region who have converted to militancy, maybe because of ideology or religion, or maybe lack of education or jobs. They call themselves the local Taliban - the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. They have very good leaders; good commanders, co-ordination and they support each other. The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban essentially work as one.

When the Taliban regime was in place, al Qa'eda was present and there were links between the two. They have that connection, even today, but it's hard to tell precisely. Maybe al Qa'eda is weaker now - there is still a connection though. I think, though, they are based in other countries and not just Afghanistan. Maybe foreign fighters who came for jihad have gone elsewhere. I think places such as Yemen, Iraq and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas still have a strong al Qa'eda presence, but it's less powerful than before. In settled areas, you wouldn't find them."

The local population here still has sympathies towards the Afghan Taliban. Sometimes I think supplies and information is passed by sympathetic groups or individuals in say, the police. I left the Taliban after suicide bombings and attacks inside Pakistan increased. They are now escalating because, I think, of the American drone attacks. A drone attack might kill one or two militants but it might also kill eight or nine civilians. Tribal men who have lost family members in attacks fall prey to militant groups, and the attacks encourage the kind of mindset that produces bombings and attacks. Because the Americans, the local Pakistani police, Pakistani government agencies and security forces are working together, a bomber won't care if he kills a Pakistani or an American. Attackers go to the cities or to important locations to act as suicide bombers because of what's happening in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, places such as Waziristan. It's easy to train a bomber. Drone attacks are producing more and more militants and suicide bombers. If drone attacks continue so will the Taliban? and so will attacks.