INDIA

Teenage terrorist held on Line of Control reveals Lashkar-e-Taiba still operates in plain sight across Pakistan

Teenage terrorist held on Line of Control reveals Lashkar-e-Taiba still operates in plain sight across Pakistan, the vie

Fired up by its triumph in Afghanistan, and the pressure the Indian Army faces on its eastern border with China, the ISI might be lifting the shackles it placed on jihadists in 2019, the argument goes

Late one Friday morning in November, 2012, small groups of men solemnly filed through the dust-blown road in the small town of Basirpur in Pakistan’s southern Punjab, past Waris Ali’s grocery store and Nice Tailors, to the Ammar bin-Aas mosque. Two days earlier, 26/11 terrorist Muhammad Ajmal Amir Kasab had walked to the gallows at Pune’s Yerwada jail; the men in Basirpur gathered at the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s local markaz, or centre, to conduct funeral rites for the local boy they hailed as a martyr.

Ali Babar Patran, the teenage jihadist held by the Indian Army near the Line of Control this week—in the course of the most serious clashes since February’s ceasefire—was then 10 years old. Like hundreds of others, he watched the spectacle from the sidelines, little understanding the significance of these events.

Late in 2018, though, Indian investigators believe, Ali Babar was recruited to train at the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Khyber camp outside Garhi Habibullah, in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Following three weeks of military training and indoctrination in January 2019, investigators allege, Babar was sent home—until called up, in April, to prepare to cross the Line of Control and fight in Kashmir.

The story of Ali Babar and the Ammar bin-Anas Markaz casts new light on Lashkar as the group continues to operate in plain sight, despite international proscription, and an ostensible ban in Pakistan itself.

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Like many of their neighbours, Ali Babar’s ancestors had relocated around the village of Wasewawala, just outside of Basirpur, from Patran, near Patiala, in the colonial period, when Imperial Britain began building an elaborate system of canals through western Punjab. The irrigation network transformed the fortunes of the dominant landholding Jat caste; elites from the community have since dominated local politics and the economy.

Tiny Wasewawala has seen significant development, in large part because of the political power of its élite Wattoo clan—the most illustrious member of which is Mian Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo, who briefly served as Punjab’s chief minister under prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, in 1996. The village even has its own cricket stadium.

For families of agricultural labourers like Ali Babar’s parents, though, development brought few benefits. Ali Babar’s father, who passed away when he was four years old, left few assets. Even though Ali Babar was the family’s only child—bar a girl adopted from even poorer relatives—he dropped out of school in the seventh grade, and never held a job.

, the vie

The Lashkar mosque in Basirpur. Image procured by Praveen Swami

Ever since the late 1970s, with the support of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamist-leaning military dictatorship, networks of seminaries and mosques linked to jihadist groups like the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Taiba had blossomed across southern Punjab, reaching out to these impoverished families.

Lacking “alternative ideology like Marxism or liberalism or even the language symbols which may challenge the feudal stranglehold”, the scholar Tahir Kamran has noted, “militancy remains one of the few ways to counter it”.

Fed up with his life as a labourer, Ali Babar began spending time with the jihadist gatherings at the Ammar bin-Aas centre from the winter of 2018. From the mosque, he would have seen the bright lights of the al-Nur and Chishti marriage palaces across the road, where the town’s élite celebrated weddings and events. Lacking any prospect of entry to this earthly paradise, Ali Babar listened, instead, to stories of the rivers of wine and heavenly maidens who awaited jihad martyrs in paradise.

In interrogation by Indian intelligence services, two sources involved in his questioning told Network18, Ali Babar said he was initially drawn to the Lashkar by the prospect of military training and using weapons—not religion.

At the Khyber training centre in January, 2019, though, Ali Babar developed close bonds with Atiq-ur-Rehman—slain on September 26, in the firefight which led to his capture. A much older jihadist from Attock who had received religious training at a Lashkar-linked seminary, Atiq-ur-Rehman introduced Ali Babar to the Lashkar’s ideological programme of war to conquer India for Islam. Like many other young jihadists, Ali Babar seems to have found a sense of purpose in the camp lacking in his everyday life.

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Ali Babar’s story is exceptional only in its detail: cases of the Lashkar preying on the semi-educated rural poor of southern and central Punjab to fill its ranks are common. Like Ali Babar, 26/11 terrorist Ajmal Kasab—who grew up just five kilometres from Ali Babar’s village, in Faridkot—grew up in grinding poverty. Muhammad Amir Iman, Kasab’s father, wran a snack-cart, selling dahi puris in the village. His mother, Noori Tai, was a homemaker, and mother of four.

The family spent its meagre earnings on educating their oldest son, Afzal Iman, and could not afford to educate Ajmal past fourth grade. Ajmal dropped out of the government primary school at Faridkot in 2000 when he was 13, and went to live with his older brother. He never settled in a trade, and would frequently shuttle between Faridkot and Lahore.

, the vie

Image procured by Praveen Swami

Ajmal soon began spending time with small-time criminals in Lahore. Along with a friend, a one-time Attock resident named Muzaffar Lal Khan, Ajmal decided to launch a new career in armed robbery. On Bakr Eid day in 2007, he later told the Mumbai Police, the two men made their way to Raja Bazaar in Rawalpindi, hoping to purchase guns—and ended up joining the Lashkar instead, hoping to secure the weapons needed for the crime.

Lashkar jihadist Sajjad Ahmad, captured in 2009, Aiz Baksh, a landless agricultural labourer and homemaker Pathani Mai in the village of Kot Addu, Ahmad is the third of four sons and a daughter. Like his brothers, Sajjad didn’t have much of an education. Having dropped out of the local municipal school in Class 4, at age 10, Sajjad and his younger brother Javed Iqbal were put to work, grazing cattle for local landowners.

In 2011, Sajjad was convicted of murdering a man he thought was stalking his teenage sweetheart, Hajira Mai. Following his release from prison, Hajira Mai’s parents refused to allow her to marry Ahmad—leading him to drugs, and, eventually, seeking redemption by joining the Lashkar.

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Instead of heading across the Line of Control in 2019, though, Ali Babar was asked to go home to Basirpur. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but the answer likely had something to do with the lethal terrorist attack on Indian police forces in Pulwama that February. Faced with war threats, Pakistan’s National Security Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan, had reinstated a ban on the Lashkar’s parent organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

Like other jihadist groups, the Lashkar came under pressure from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate to disband its camps, and empty them of jihadists.

The action ran to a well-worn script. Faced with international pressure following a 2001 attack on Parliament House in New Delhi, the ISI had shut down the Lashkar—only for it to emerge inside months.

, the vie

The Lashkar mosque in Basirpur. Image procured by Praveen Swami

Following 26/11, Pakistan again promised a crackdown. “Even if Saeed is technically not roaming the streets, the Government of Pakistan’s inability to win the legal case against him is embarrassing,” then-United States Ambassador Anne Patterson wrote in a cable to the State Department. “Realising the importance of Saeed’s detention, [Prime Minister Yusuf Raza] Gilani and [Interior Minister Rehman] Malik are determined to use any law or means to keep him confined to his home”.

Again, however, the Lashkar and Saeed were set free, raising funds and recruiting cadre through a Punjab-wide network of centres like the Ammar bin-Aas centre. In 2016, following the Lashkar’s attack on an Indian Army base in Uri, the terrorist group even put up posters for funeral prayers in Gujaranwala to honour the slain terrorists.

The Lashkar chief was eventually convicted on terrorism financing charges and announced to have been jailed—only to be exposed, by an assassination attempt alleged to have been conducted by Indian intelligence, to be living at home in Lahore.

In April this year, though, Ali Babar was recalled to the Garhi Habibullah camp, and then sent on to an outpost on the Shawai Nullah, near Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. According to investigators, given further training in an advanced class called the Daura Hatf, or Tour of Revenge. For four months, the young jihadist was taught to use matrix sheets for encrypted communication and operate Global Position System sets.

Then, in September, along with other Lashkar operatives positioned elsewhere on along the Line of Control, Ali Babar was launched across the mountain passes leading to Uri. The groups are believed to have included both trained fighters and porters carrying large caches of weapons and ammunition, to supply terrorists already operating inside Kashmir.

In India’s intelligence community and military, there is mounting concern more infiltration could follow. Levels of violence have been low since February; far fewer terrorists have been shot in Kashmir this year, compared with the same last year, a rough-and-ready index of infiltration levels. Fired up by its triumph in Afghanistan, and the pressure the Indian Army faces on its eastern border with China, the ISI might be lifting the shackles it placed on jihadists in 2019, the argument goes.

There’s no way to know if the ISI will take the risks—of international pressure or even war—that would come with resuming the jihad it has sponsored in Kashmir. Ali Babar’s story tells us, however, that the Lashkar’s jihad factories remain at work, preparing for that day to come.

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