x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

The making of a terrorist

As the sole survivor of the group that lay siege to Mumbai, Ajmal Ameer Kasab's life has come under a microscope as investigators try to work out what drives young men to extremism.

In a dingy room in a large but poorly lit compound just across Lahore's River Ravi, a man who claims to be a fighter and organiser for Lashkar-i-Taiba, the proscribed terror organisation now widely believed to have been behind last week's siege of Mumbai, holds court. As he speaks, running his fingers thoughtfully through his bushy beard, a handful of youths, aged from 15 to 20, sit in raptured awe at his feet, hanging on his every word. If intelligence agencies from India to the US are correct, two years ago one of these suggestible young men could easily have been Ajmal Ameer Kasab, the sole surviving and captured member of the team that last weekend left at least 160 dead at the end of an unprecedented three-day assault on India's business capital. "We're still well organised and active," says the man, who has agreed to speak to The National on condition of anonymity. "We have a huge strength - somewhere in the thousands - and are mainly concentrated in Fata (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), Wana, and South and North Waziristan." What he says chimes with the profile of the organisation produced by the US government's Overseas Security Advisory Council. Lashkar-i-Taiba, it says, "is one of the three largest and best trained groups fighting in Kashmir against India ? It has several thousand members." Most, it says, "are Pakistanis from madrassas across Pakistan or Afghan veterans of the Afghan wars". The organisation relies on "donations from the Pakistani community in the Gulf and United Kingdom, Islamic NGOs and Pakistani and Kashmiri business people". Wearing tracksuit bottoms and a faded brown sweater, the anonymous fighter has led the way up three flights of stairs to a doorway covered by a threadbare curtain. Inside the room beyond is a wooden cupboard, a bed and two chairs. The walls are blank and the space is lit by a solitary lamp. His voice is soft, gentle even, but as he speaks he stands uncomfortably against the wall, avoiding eye contact. Lashkar-i-Taiba, he says, has a huge camp in the Mansehra district of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, which borders Kashmir. This week, although spokesmen for the group have denied it, evidence has mounted that Kasab may well have been a product of the organisation's highly organised political and military indoctrination and training programme. Still avoiding eye contact, the unnamed "organiser" freely admits that only recently he has delivered two young recruits to Mansehra for training. According to the US Department of State, Lashkar-i-Taiba, the "Army of the Pure", was born in the late 1980s or early '90s as the militant wing of Markaz Dawa ul-Irshad, "a Pakistan-based Islamic fundamentalist mission organisation and charity", established to oppose the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Some sources say the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency, was behind its formation. On Dec 26 2001, just months after the September 11 attacks on the United States, Lashkar-i-Taiba was one of two Pakistan-based groups designated as foreign terrorist organisations by Colin Powell, the then US secretary of state. "These groups, which claim to be supporting the people of Kashmir, have conducted numerous terrorist attacks in India and Pakistan," he said. Lashkar-i-Taiba and other groups "seek to assault democracy, undermine peace and stability in South Asia, and destroy relations between India and Pakistan". Over the past week, a steady drip of information has been leaked from the interrogation of Kasab by the Indian authorities. What is emerging is the story of a young man from a poor rural background seduced and recruited to violent action by promises of a combination of spiritual and material riches. According to one former member of Lashkar-i-Taiba, who spoke to The National by telephone in Lahore on condition of anonymity, many but not all of the organisation's recruits were school drop-outs. The 27-year-old said he had joined the group about four years ago, but became disillusioned and left within months. "We were a group of 16," he said. "Most of them were drop-outs but we also had some highly educated young men. I had finished my BCom [Bachelor of Commerce]. Some of them had done master's." According to reports in the Indian press, Kasab, 21, possibly speaking under the influence of the "truth serum" sodium pentothal, has told his interrogators that he was among 24 young men recruited by Lashkar-i-Taiba. "There were 24 of us who took one-year training in camps ? at Mansehra and Muzzarafabad in Punjab province of Pakistan," he is reported to have said. He named a former soldier, known to the recruits as "Chacha", or uncle, as one of the men who had put them through "very hard physical training", divided into seven phases and including distance running, swimming and weapons training. In a series of camps around Pakistan, he learnt how to shoot, handle explosives and take hostages. According to a senior police officer, he emerged "physically tough, ment-ally tough". With the training complete, said Kasab, "10 of us were later hand-picked for the Mumbai operation" and sent to the city, reconnoitring targets, including the Taj and Oberoi hotels. His trainers used Google Earth and video footage to acquaint him with his targets. Separating fact from propaganda in the murky soup of misinformation that swirls between Pakistan and India is not easy, but according to leaked details of Kasab's interrogation, at one point he and the other recruits were visited by Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, a former university lecturer who is believed to head Lashkar-i-Taiba, and given a motivational speech. Kasab, a Pakistan national, is said to have been born in or just outside the village of Faridkot, in the south of the province of Punjab. The village is small and unremarkable; it has a population of about 2,000, intermittent water supplies and no gas connections. Children run around barefoot and the solitary school for boys functions only up to the eighth grade, for 14-year-olds. The lush potato fields and dusty mud enclaves house a single mosque but nothing even remotely resembling a madrassa or religious organisation. Kasab has reportedly told Indian police that his childhood was blighted by poverty and hunger; his father, according to some reports a casual labourer, fed him and his four siblings by selling snacks from a cart at the village's shabby market, which today houses little more than a grocery store and a tyre shop. Kasab went to the school but, like many of Faridkot's youth, he dropped out in the fourth grade. In 2005 he followed an older brother to Lahore, where both worked as day labourers. It was there, according to Indian police, that he was recruited by Lashkar-i-Taiba, "preying on a combination of his religious sentiments and his poverty". Ghulam Abaas Bhatti, a businessman who lives in the UAE and is a supporter of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, said yesterday that poverty was at the core of militant recruitment in the region. "Many young boys who are stricken by poverty are hired by some groups into such activities," he said, condemning the Mumbai attack. "They are often told they can never earn so much in a lifetime and also that everyone has to die someday." But many in the Pakistani expatriate community in the UAE are reluctant to accept that anyone from the village of Faridkot or the surrounding region could have been involved in Mumbai. "My home is just 60km from the place we are talking about," said Akram Farooqi, president of the UAE branch of the PPP. "The moral values in such villages are much higher than in towns and it is unimaginable for us to believe that terrorists are coming out of such places." However, one Dubai taxi driver from near Faridkot, in the district of Multan, said: "I am aware of such attempts to brainwash people. Like many others, I ignored such attempts and left the villages to lead a good life here." Another rejected the claims that Pakistanis were behind the attack, but added: "However, I can say that people adopting such ideology are driven by unemployment and frustration. I left my village and came here for a job and making money. Similarly they too found a way to make money." According to leaked details of his questioning, Kasab claims his father, named as Amir, sold him to Lashkar-i-Taiba for 150,000 Indian rupees (Dh7,000) and introduced him to "Chacha". If he was "martyred", his family would receive more money. Improbably for a community where everyone knows everyone else, reporters - and security personnel - who have visited Faridkot have been unable to find any trace of the family. But this comes as no surprise to the unnamed bearded fighter in Lahore: "All those who join these organisations are given Arabic names like Abu Hunza," he says. "Sometimes to make them less conspicuous they're given non-Arabic but purely Muslim names. Additionally, it's normal practice in these organisations to change the names of their fighters every six to eight months." Recruited two years ago, at the age of 18 or 19, Kasab's training is said to have started last December. He named some of his tutors, appearing to add credibility to his story; Indian authorities who have leaked the names say some of them were retired members of the Pakistan military. The training gave Kasab "a sense of purpose for the first time in his life", according to his interrogators. "He was led to believe he was doing something holy," Rakesh Maria, the joint commissioner of Mumbai police, told the media. Although Lashkar-i-Taiba, which was banned in Pakistan in 2002, has denied involvement with the Mumbai attack, in the US Department of State's most recent assessment it "and its leader, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, continue to spread ideology advocating terrorism, as well as virulent rhetoric condemning the United States, India, Israel and other perceived enemies". On Thursday, details emerged of the treatment of the six Jewish hostages who had been taken during the Mumbai attack. "The victims were strangled," Mr Maria was reported as saying. "There were injuries on the bodies that were not from firing." Most of Lashkar-i-Taiba's members, says the department's 2008 report on world terror, "are Pakistanis from madrassas across Pakistan or Afghan and/or veterans of the Afghan wars". Whether or not the group has links with al Qa'eda, the US says that in March 2002 Abu Zubaydah, one of al Qa'eda's senior members, was captured at what it says was an Lashkar-i-Taiba safe house in Faisalabad in Punjab. Whoever recruited Kasab, and whatever his motivation, he stepped on to the world stage a week ago; a baby-faced killer, wearing trainers and cargo pants and toting a rucksack packed with ammunition, he was captured by CCTV as he and another gunman walked through Mumbai's main train station, firing indiscriminately. According to his interrogators, after arriving off Mumbai by boat from Karachi, the 10 attackers came ashore in rubber dinghies and split into two-man teams. Primed with amphetamines, they were told to "kill until the last breath". Kasab and his partner, named as Ismail Khan, took a taxi to the train station, where they murdered more than 50 people with guns and grenades. They left a bomb in the taxi, which later killed the driver and his passenger. Finally cornered by police, Kasab was shot in both arms and came close to being beaten to death by an angry crowd before being taken into custody. He was the only survivor among the attackers. It remains to be seen whether Kasab will be granted his apparent wish for martyrdom; India's death penalty is rarely carried out. In 2004, Mohammed Afzal was sentenced to hang for his part in the 2001 attack on India's parliament which, like the Mumbai assault, was supposedly also carried out by Lashkar-i-Taiba gunmen, who killed 12. He remains on death row. * The National