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24 March 2003

Hail, the mini Bin Ladens

Among the silky black turbans of Quetta, otherwise known as Taliban Central, Christina Lamb hears gr

By Christina Lamb

The New Muslim Speeches Music Shop in Quetta does a fine line in posters and stickers depicting grenades, hand-held rocket launchers and other jihadi weapons of choice above slogans calling for youth to rise up against the west. It is a shack really, rather than a shop, part of a crowded bazaar just along from the bus station where a man with a muddy pelican stands. Any stranger who lingers long outside the music shop is quickly told to move on in warning whispers, for this is the gathering place every Thursday of a group of men with the silky black turbans and kohl-rimmed eyes that mark them out as Taliban.

The dusty, earthquake-prone town of Quetta amid the fudge-coloured rifts of the Baluchistan Desert, just across the Khojak Pass from Mullah Omar’s spiritual heartland of Kandahar, is known as Taliban Central these days. Several former Taliban ministers live there, helped by their former backers in Pakistan’s military intelligence, ISI, according to close advisers of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who believes Islamabad has not given up its long-held designs on its neighbour.

“The Taliban were defeated but they were not eliminated,” warns Yahya Massoud, sitting in his Kabul house beneath a picture of his younger brother Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance who was assassinated by al-Qaeda two days before 11 September 2001. “ISI continues to support them and al-Qaeda while paying lip-service to helping the west”.

The Taliban presence is not only a clear reminder that peace in Afghanistan is far from assured, but also that Quetta is a particularly unwise place for westerners to venture. Sadly, such hostility is becoming a feature of all Pakistan’s major cities. In the late 1980s when I was in my early twenties, I spent two years in Pakistan and loved to wander the narrow streets of the Storytellers’ Bazaar of Peshawar and the Old Town of Lahore, which I had read about in Kipling. Sitting and enjoying cups of green tea with merchants, I was always regaled with fond tales of British colonial masters. Today as a British passport-holder, I would be terrified to enter those same places.

As the west’s key ally in the war on terrorism, Pakistan might be expected to support its aims. After all, ISI has been crowing about its recent string of successes in capturing senior al-Qaeda members such as the operations chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Earlier this month, it even held a bizarre press conference at which spymasters drew flow charts of the organisation while waiters in white gloves and astrakhan hats served tuna sandwiches and tea in china cups. But such arrests have also raised the question of how so many terrorists have been able to seek refuge in Pakistani cities; it suggests considerable local support for their objectives.

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The most high-profile of those arrested were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, known by western intelligence as “the Brain”, and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, known as “the Paymaster”, arrested together in a smart suburb of Rawalpindi on 1 March. Yassir al-Jazeeri, a communications specialist, was found in the posh Gulberg district of Lahore on 17 March. Ramzi Binalshibh, the suspected 20th hijacker, was captured after a six-hour shoot-out in an affluent part of Karachi last September. Others have been arrested in Peshawar, Quetta and Faisalabad, often in the houses of doctors.

The past year has seen a string of attacks in Pakistan on western and Christian targets such as churches, the American consulate and the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi. In elections last October, 20 per cent of the seats went to religious parties campaigning on an anti-American platform. In the North-West Frontier Province, now governed by an alliance of mullahs, Taliban-style measures such as the banning of music and satellite television have already been introduced.

No one doubts that an American attack on Iraq will intensify antipathy towards the west. Already Saddam Hussein’s picture has joined that of Osama Bin Laden on the barrows of street vendors selling pistachio nuts and sugar cane juice. Neither man is in any way representative of Islam, a religion which preaches tolerance. One is a suit-and-tie-wearing secular dictator of unspeakable brutality and the other a long-beard from the extreme Wahhabi sect, which rejects modernity. Yet the two have become icons for Muslim youth.

“By making them such objects of hate, the west has turned them into heroes,” complains Mehmood Shaam, editor of the Daily Jang, Pakistan’s biggest-selling newspaper, sitting in his office in Karachi not far from some of the recent bomb blasts.

After suicide bomb attacks on the US consulate and the Sheraton in Karachi last year, Shaam wrote an article entitled “Letter to a suicide bomber”, urging the nation’s youth to follow the peaceful way of the poet Iqbal, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Gamal Abdel Nasser, instead of choosing militancy. “I got hundreds of threatening letters saying: ‘We are on the right track, who are you to question us?’,” he says, shaking his head. “Even political leaders contacted me saying you should not discourage this tendency.”

Such sentiment is likely to be exacerbated by a war in Iraq. “I’m afraid war in Iraq will create lots of mini Bin Ladens,” warns General Rashid Qureshi, a spokesman for President Musharraf.

A country where a third of children are educated in madrasas, many of which espouse an extreme, Deobandi version of Islam similar to Wahhabism, is fertile ground for breeding terrorists. A recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group entitled Pakistan: madrasas, extremism and the military accused President Musharraf of failing to integrate or reform the madrasas as promised after 11 September, and warned that “their constrained world-view, lack of modern civic education and poverty make them a destabilising factor in Pakistani society. For all these reasons they are also susceptible to romantic notions of sectarian and international jihads which promise instant salvation”.

“It’s a very dangerous situation,” echoes Yahya Massoud. “If you take the official figure of 10,000 madrasas and say each has 200 militants, that’s two million. Then, if a quarter of these get military training, that’s a potential army of 500,000.”

Even in Pakistan’s ordinary schools, the standard textbooks contain numerous examples of distorted history and the preaching of intolerance and hatred. “Minorities are described as inferior entities or second-class citizens,” says Mohammed Shehzad, author of a survey on textbooks for the Future Youth Group of Liberal Forum. “It’s basically state-sponsored terrorism.”

Pakistani youth are not the only ones in the Islamic world who increasingly reject the west and all it represents. From Cairo to Jeddah, the plumpest and sweetest dates on sale are sold as Bin Laden Dates. In the soft drink wars, Muslim Up has joined Mecca Cola to take on Seven Up and Coca-Cola. Started by a group of French Tunisians, the company states its aim on its internet site as being “to thumb our noses at the ‘Made in USA’ superpower and the arrogance it demonstrates in wanting to manage world peace”.

Top of the Arab charts is “The Attack on Iraq” by Shaaban Abdel-Rahim, an Egyptian folk singer. The chorus goes: “Chechnya, Afghanistan, Palestine, South Lebanon, Golan Heights and now Iraq, too. / It’s too much for people, shame on you!”

Not everyone in the region agrees. As one Afghan lawyer now working in the Karzai government says: “We should realise that while Saddam might be a Muslim leader, the people of Iraq who he is oppressing are Muslim, too. Maybe if the war goes well and Saddam is removed quickly and democracy established and the Iraqi people then tell the stories of what he was doing, it will also be hard to criticise that war.”

Christina Lamb is a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times

and the author of The Sewing Circles of Herat: my Afghan years, published by HarperCollins