Militant fundamentalists do not hide themselves away in Lahore. Soon after the attack on Mumbai which killed 171 people last November, I was talking to several young militants in a house in an alleyway near Muridke, a complex of schools and clinics run by Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a civilian front organization for Lashkar-e-Toiba, 15 miles north of Lahore.
They had not been hard to find, though I did recall nervously the fate of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and murdered in Karachi in 2002 while looking for al-Qa’ida leaders. The thin but wiry young men at Muridke seemed over-eager to stress that they were more interested in education than jihad. But the stories they told made clear that the relationship between Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Toiba, blamed for the Mumbai massacre, was like that which once existed between Sinn Fein and the IRA in Northern Ireland. The two organizations were completely intertwined.
One young man described graphically how one of his teachers at the school, named Abdul Rahman, had infiltrated into Indian-controlled Kashmir by moving through the mountains and living on packets of cold rice in his coat.
Once established in the area where he was to operate, he made himself available to local insurgents to carry out small-scale attacks, such as throwing a grenade at an officer’s house. When he returned to Muridke, he held his pupils spellbound with his account of his guerrilla days.
What was striking about the militant students was their openness about their beliefs and their lack of fear of the authorities. Though it was evident at the time that the Pakistani government, under pressure from India and the US, was going to clamp down on them, they were wholly unworried by impending arrests. The schools were not military camps but the children had a small image of a machine gun printed on their tunics.
Students said they got instructions in unarmed combat.
Back in the centre of Lahore, I had an appointment to meet a disillusioned member of Jamaat-ud-Dawa called Bilal, who was willing to speak about his experiences. It seemed unwise to invite this 19-year-old with his long black beard to my hotel, where he would certainly have been detained by highly nervous hotel security guards. I arranged instead to meet him in Lahore zoo, across the road, where, sitting on the cement edge of a non-working fountain near a large statue of a giraffe, he described his experiences with Jamaat-ud-Dawa. He praised their work. “They teach you to become a better human being,” he said. “Though they don’t engage in jihad themselves, they encourage people to move towards it.”
Bilal had only become disillusioned when he came to believe that attacks in Kashmir only led to Indian army retaliation against local people, whom the soldiers “arrested and tortured”.
Also striking in Lahore was the degree of local sympathy that the militants enjoyed even from their victims. I went to talk to the owners of fruit juice bars in the middle class Garhi Shahu neighbourhood, which had been bombed by militants who claimed the bars were meeting places for men and women. Nothing very salacious seemed to be happening, but two months earlier three bombs had gone off here, killing one man and wounding others.
The bar owners all agreed that it was unlikely that their customers would ever come back. “Everybody is frightened,” said Saeed Ahmed Afiz, the owner of one bar, who was studying his Koran. He then made a surprising defense of the bombers who had ruined his business, saying: “They were not terrorists because they did not kill anybody. They did the right thing.” As for the man who was killed, Mr Afiz added contemptuously: “Maybe he was just here to see the show.”
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.