Flashback to 2001: Taliban with a small “t” dream of Afghan jihad after 9/11

September 9, 2011

(Pakistani Koran students take time out from Koran lessons at the local mosque for a game of cricket in Chitral, October 2, 2001/Zainal Abd Halim)

Right after 9/11, Reuters editors asked correspondents with experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan if they wanted to go back there to report.  Within days, I flew from Paris to Islamabad, a city I’d left 15 years earlier. Soon, I set up a temporary bureau in Peshawar for several weeks of reporting from there. Among  my trips outside of Peshawar was one to Chitral, a mountain town to the north that was close to the Afghan border. One morning, I visited the local mosque and sat down with the teenaged boys gathered in a corner to avoid the disapproving gaze of the imam giving Koran recitation lessons in the main hall. After I introduced myself in Urdu as a journalist from New York, all they wanted to talk about was 9/11.  My story is repeated here to show the confused mix of reactions I found.

Taliban with a small “t” dream of Afghan jihad

By Tom Heneghan

CHITRAL, Pakistan, Oct 3, 2001  (Reuters) – It was a hot, lazy morning at the Jamia mosque in Chitral, high in Pakistan’s mountainous north, and the teenage boys here to learn the Koran were talking more about Afghanistan than about Allah.

“The Americans will attack Afghanistan and all Muslims will go to fight against them,” Mohammad Karim, a sharp-eyed boy with a whispy beard, declared with a certain bravado. “Yes, jihad (holy war)!” others sitting in the circle chimed in, pointing to the Afghan border only 60 km (40 miles) to the west. “Amreeka murdabad! (death to America!),” they murmured. Then something their Koran training never prepared them for happened. An American reporter sat down with them and began asking each one if he really was ready to go fight.

“I’m ready,” one piped up, adjusting his prayer cap. “Me, too,” another said, grinning. Boys sitting in other circles with teachers stole furtive glances over to the discussion, but then buried their faces back in the Koran.

When his turn came, Attaullah hesitated before blurting out, “It’s dangerous there. I don’t want a war. Islam is a peace-loving religion.” Slowly, others backpedalled too, despite the efforts of an older boy named Saidullah to end this talk with the infidel and herd the students back to their Koran readings.

“Stop talking to that American!” he shouted in the local Khowar dialect, rather than the Urdu they were speaking. “Doesn’t he know the Jews did it? The Jews destroyed the World Trade Center to get America to start a war against Islam.” The youngest boys, maybe about 10 or so, watched in fascination, even if they could not follow the whole discussion in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language. One waif nibbled absentmindedly at a corner of his Koran as he listened to the bigger boys talk war.

(A Pakistani man walks past a row of cannons at an old fortress in Chitral, October 2, 2001/Zainal Abd Halim)

These are taliban (Koran students) with a small “t” – poor Muslim boys whiling away their days at the madrassa (religious school) at the local mosque like millions of others around Pakistan who have no other school to go to.

Pakistani madrassas have earned a bad name abroad ever since the Afghan Taliban, a movement of fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists, transformed seemingly overnight from studying at hardline Koran schools at refugee camps in this country to seizing power in Kabul in 1996. Their draconian rule, including barring females from work and school and destroying unique Buddhist art from the pre-Islamic past, made them world pariahs even before September 11.

From that day on, their most famous “guest”, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, has been Washington’s prime suspect in the attacks in the United States and Afghanistan looks scheduled for a U.S.-led attack to punish it for harbouring him.

Chitral’s taliban talk about the World Trade Center attack as if it were a video game, although a few, like Attaullah, 17, call it “terrorism” and denounce it. They’re not very sure about the details of the current crisis, especially what to do with bin Laden.

“Maybe he should leave Afghanistan, but he can’t come here and no other Muslim country would take him,” hazarded Rahimullah. “He didn’t do it, but he’s dangerous.” “Maybe he can hide in a cave and the Americans won’t find him,” another chipped in. Zakaria, one of the older boys, ended the discussion with a classic deus ex machina. “God will come and take him far away to safety,” he intoned. Little heads nodded all around.

Another of the bigger boys, Ahmad, said no U.S. soldier would ever leave Afghanistan alive. “We hear there are ladies in the American army – we won’t hurt them,” he added. A little redhead named Aziz, one of the few Afghan refugees at the madrassa, danced around outside the mosque singing “jihad” and “Death to America.” When told the reporter he just spoke to was American, he scampered away howling “Watch out! Danger!”

(Pakistani man lies on top of a bundle of shoes in Chitral bazaar, October 2, 2001/Zainal Abd Halim)

“I don’t have a Kalashnikov, Aziz,” I protested. “But your government will give you a bomb,” he shouted back, grinning and shaking his finger.

Sheikh Abdullah, one of the seven teachers at the madrassa, graciously made room on the carpet for his rare Western guest and explained how the school worked. “We have about 200 boys who come here after five years of primary school and spend 10 years studying here,” he said in his book-lined but deskless office. “They learn classical Arabic grammar, they read the Koran and they study the Hadith (sayings of the prophet).”

Asked which other subjects were taught, he said Persian – the language spoken across the border in northern Afghanistan. No, he said when pressed, they learn nothing else. The boys were genuine Koran students, he said, not Afghan-style Taliban, and this government-sponsored madrassa had nothing to do with schools turning out fundamentalists elsewhere.

So all the pupils’ talk about joining a jihad next door was just some young boys’ bluff?

“No, I think they’re all ready to go, with their teachers too,” said Abdullah, 46, an imposing man with a distinctly unfundamentalist combed black beard. “We’ll start an intifada,” he said, using the fighting word popularised throughout the Muslim world by Palestinians protesting against Israel. “The Americans think they will fight a long war, maybe 10 years, but we will fight them 100 years,” he said. “We don’t have arms, but we have our confidence, that is quite sufficient for us.

“Please excuse me now, I’m very sorry but I must go,” he said, standing up. “It is time for prayers.”

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