How to defuse a human bomb: Rescuing the Taliban's teenage recruits
In Pakistan, young boys are being recruited as suicide bombers by the Taliban. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy visit a new school that offers these brainwashed children a different future
Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy
Saturday 16 October 2010
A group of teenage boys draw the landscape near Pirano in the Swat Valley during an art therapy class. Photograph: Charla Jones
The boy comes into view on the CCTV footage for just a few seconds, long enough to see that he is very young and wearing something bulky under his shalwar kameez. He walks purposefully through a crowd of worshippers gathering at Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore, and then the screen is filled with a flash, followed by a juddering cloud of smoke. The blast settles to reveal a soundless world of body parts, shoes and clothes. The teenage suicide bomber killed himself and 45 others, and maimed 175 more, in this blast on 2 July 2010 – a good result for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that trained him, and another tragedy for Pakistan.
Abida Begum, a mother of six, living hundreds of miles away in the Swat Valley, in Pakistan's north-west, recalled seeing the footage on TV in the village shop and feeling nauseous. Every time she heard of a suicide blast, she immediately thought of Attaullah, her 14-year-old son, who had gone missing in February on his way to school. She suspected he had been abducted by the TTP which had seized control of Swat in 2008, transforming this erstwhile idyll of trout streams and ski slopes into a wasps' nest of blood-letting and terror. Hundreds of young boys from Abida's village of Kabal and those surrounding it had disappeared, pressed into the TTP's ranks, leaving once boisterous alleys and cart tracks deserted after dusk. The Pakistani army had launched an offensive to drive out the TTP in April 2009 – and even claimed victory at the end of last year – but the militants' influence was being felt once more, with the bullet-ridden bodies of those who crossed them turning up in local fields.
Many boys went voluntarily, lured by the swagger of the long-haired Islamic fighters. Others were taken by force in the night, when heavily armed figures slunk into villages, demanding money and recruits. Some were even sold by their parents for 25,000 rupees (£180), the going rate paid by the TTP for a healthy teenager.
The families of the missing boys always feared the worst. News filtered back that most were destined to become human bombs. Rumours spread that if the army caught them, they were summarily executed, a story that gained credibility last month when a mobile phone clip emerged in Swat showing soldiers killing six young blindfolded men by firing squad. The army claimed the footage was faked by the TTP, but the human cost of the teen recruits was undeniable. For three years, a legion of these "dumb bombs", as the locals called them, had terrorised the country, claiming 3,500 lives in 200 attacks.
The night of the Lahore blast, Abida went to bed imagining Attaullah, a knockabout kid who had loved his English classes best, coerced into a nylon jacket packed with explosives and flesh-ripping ball bearings. Days later, she heard an extraordinary story from a neighbour – this woman's son had vanished, too, but after more than a year he had, miraculously, come home.
Recruited by the TTP, the boy confirmed he had been locked into a programme to produce martyrs. However, before he could be utilised, the army had busted his training camp. Rather than killing everyone in it, the soldiers had taken several boys to their base at Malakand Pass, 30 miles south-east of Kabal, putting them in a kind of reform school along with dozens more young, would-be suicide bombers. They were fed, clothed, taught English and allowed to play volleyball and cricket. Respected religious scholars patiently explained how killing civilians was wrong according to the Qur'an. Psychologists counselled them. Some were eventually allowed back home.
The neighbour's son said many other boys from local villages were still at the school. Abida made the dusty bus journey to Malakand Fort, at the southern end of the Swat Valley. Once a British-era military outpost, it was now the headquarters of Pakistan's 19th Infantry Battalion and the centre of a bold deradicalisation project.
Down a lane winding between apricot trees, three whitewashed compounds rise up against the stunning backdrop of Malakand Pass. The road to the Sabaoon school is blocked with steel barricades and razor wire, the entrance gate protected by blast walls and dugouts. Weapons are trained on visitors from the windows, roof, gatehouse and guard-posts that rise up at each corner.
Sabaoon means "first light of dawn" in Pashto. Beyond the soldiers are well-thumbed English books and Urdu dictionaries. Boys dressed in green-and-white striped shirts, cream slacks and white plimsolls huddle in shady corners.
For most of them, Sabaoon is the first proper school they have attended. Only a few weeks ago, some were living under rough blankets in a dark corner of a TTP training camp. Others were tramping the unforgiving terrain between Pakistan's tribal areas and neighbouring Afghanistan, acting as lookouts: spotting an army convoy to attack or a girls' school to bomb. Some were scouring the villages where they had once lived, in search of more young recruits. The one thing they all had in common was a belief in the righteousness of killing. All of them expected to die before reaching adulthood.
Abida finds Attaullah sitting with the school director in a counselling room with a two-way mirror. He has just been sprung from a TTP camp. The boy who died in Lahore on 2 July was someone else's son. Abida sobs into her son's neck. "Stop it, Mum," he whispers, embarrassed. "I'm OK." A would-be killer, he is suddenly transformed into an awkward kid. Abida's relief turns to anger as she learns from the school director that they suspect him of scouting for targets and recruits. She slaps him round the face. "Why did you go with them?" she cries. "You stupid boy!"
Before becoming director of Sabaoon, Dr Feriha Peracha had a lucrative career as one of Pakistan's most respected psychologists. Her practice in Defence Colony, a well-heeled suburb of Lahore, had a roster of clients from Pakistan's wealthy elite. In the shade of the school's volleyball court, her head covered with a silk YSL scarf, she recalls her journey here: "I needed to take responsibility," she says. "Things are now desperate for Pakistan. I want every child in here to see that they should not give in to life after death as the only option."
On arrival, the teenagers are assessed and classified according to the risk they present. Compound One contains the most trusted students: those who probably have not handled weapons, who do not display pathological behaviour and whose family have had no known contact with the TTP. "These boys are the most likely to have been used as cannon fodder," Peracha says. "The Taliban does not waste money or time training those it chooses to be human bombs."
The second compound takes the teenagers who may have straddled this world and that of the jihadi fighter. The third houses the high-risk, all of whom have received advanced weapons training and been subject to the most intensive indoctrination. As we walk around, we can feel snatched glances from teenagers hiding behind curtains and in doorways. "You are the first foreigners they have ever seen," Peracha says. She takes us into the art room. The work is a carnival of gore: paintings of limbless bodies, severed heads, rocket-propelled grenades.
Dr Peracha explains how Pakistan's normally conservative army devised this initiative. "In July 2009, they approached me to assess a group they had recovered from Taliban camps. They wanted to know if I thought they could be rehabilitated."
She drove up to Swat at the height of the army offensive known by its code name Rah-i-Rast, the Straight Path. "I was so afraid when I first arrived," she says. "Every building had a soldier on the roof, all the shops were shuttered, there wasn't a woman in sight." The army escorted Peracha to the court building in Mingora, Swat's capital, where she found herself confronted with a dozen dirty teenagers. "The first one had such a look of contempt when I tried to speak with him. I spent hours with him. Eventually, he bragged that he could take apart a Kalashnikov, and the story of his militancy spilled out."
A month later, Peracha was summoned to Malakand Fort to meet some more boys. "The skies swarmed with helicopters. I knew a bigwig was coming." In strode the chief of the army, staff general Ashfaq Kayani. "He was very curious about these boys," she says. "Many of them were compromised intellectually and had psychological problems. He asked me, 'Would a school help?' I replied, 'Yes' and then he said, 'This is the site. You will be the director.'"
Colonel Aamer Najam, fort commander at Malakand, enters the room. He has been fighting the TTP in Swat since August 2008. "Many were against the school," he says. "They said, 'Why bother, why waste the money? These boys are finished already.'"
But the colonel understood the significance of the experiment. Throughout 2009, his men had picked up large numbers of children from TTP camps. "Sometimes we'd apprehend them at militants' compounds, a child hiding in a cellar or arms store," he says. "Other times the militants would melt away during a fire-fight and there'd be kids left wandering around the battlefield. We had already witnessed a spree of suicide blasts over the north-west, carried out by bombers aged between 13 and 17. And they weren't doing it because they wanted to."
The colonel has two children of his own, currently living in Glasgow with his Scottish wife. "Children are very soft," he says, pulling on a cigarette. "They break down very easily. They have no idea what is right or wrong, and they are just as much victims as those killed in the blasts."
Right now, his greatest fear is maintaining security for the project. "We are tampering with the terrorists' investments. They have spent money on these boys, recruiting and training them. One day, they will come after us."
"These kids are completely brainwashed," says Dr Farooq Khan, a religious scholar and vice chancellor of Swat University, who was brought in to correct the boys' religious misconceptions. "In the camps, the TTP told them that Pakistan is run by foreign infidels, so it is imperative to wage jihad. They told them, 'Join with us to wage holy war and you will go straight to heaven.' At Sabaoon, we have to start again, right from the beginning, to explain true Islam and the Qur'an." Does he worry for his own safety? "The time of life and death is already given," he says.
A student knocks and enters. He has a counselling session with Peracha. Everyone is particularly jittery today. The day before, a teenage bomber devastated Mingora bus station, killing himself and five others, and maiming 50.
"This one is high-risk," Peracha whispers. "I feel threatened by him. Sometimes I think, 'You want to kill me. If we were in another environment and you had a chance, you would do it.'" The boy calls himself Saddam, a popular name in Swat, where Saddam Hussein is a hero. This 17-year-old is from the first intake of pupils who arrived last August, but he is unlikely to be going home any time soon.
Eleven months on, he still denies any involvement with the TTP, even though he was caught trying to attack an army convoy in a suicidal assault. His parents have filled in large parts of his story, claiming they lost control after sending him to a madrassa at the age of 11. The offer of free board, lodging and education proved irresistible, despite rumours about the seminary's extremist connections. Soon after, Saddam disappeared. "When he came home again, his father says he was completely changed," Peracha says. He was aggressive, obsessed with guns and had unexplained shrapnel wounds to his leg. "We still have a long way to go with him."
She dismisses Saddam and calls in some others.Brothers Mohammed, 16, and Amjad, 14, sit on their hands like naughty kids summoned to the head teacher. "You would think that butter wouldn't melt in their mouths," Peracha says, "but Mohammed was a handler, scouting the target and dropping the bomber off on his mission. We think his other job was to recruit young boys to wear the jackets. There are lots of Talibans in their family, so there is a lot of peer pressure."
Like these two, the vast majority of boys come from around the Mamdheri, Tal and Peochar settlements on the left bank of the Swat river. While the right flank of the valley once boasted tourist ski resorts, few outsiders ever made it to the left bank, where the roads and even the electricity fizzle out. Communities here became cut off altogether after Maulana Fazullah, the popular leader of the Swat Taliban, began building a complex of madrassas and training camps in 2007. Fazullah, a one-time ski trolley operator who found support among the poor and marginalised through nightly broadcasts on a pirate radio station, graduated into the real business of jihad after the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation in July 2007, where police and armed forces stormed a mosque in Islamabad that had become a militant redoubt. Scores of religious students died and religious conservatives across the country vowed revenge.
Signing an alliance with Baitulluh Mehsud, then the overall leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a newly armed and funded Fazullah had, by 2008, established a parallel government in Swat, his followers setting about the slaughter of anyone connected to the state. By June 2009, there were only 30 serving police officers left in the valley, with more than 2,000 having fled or been killed. By the time Mohammed and Amjad disappeared from their village in late 2009, the army had destroyed Fazullah's bases and silenced his radio show, although Fazullah himself had vanished. He is said to be in hiding on the Afghan border.
There are new arrivals at Sabaoon. Peracha rushes over to Compound Three. On the way, she tells us how difficult it has been to recruit staff. The stigma of working with suicide bombers is enormous. Joining us is "Rafi", a psychologist from Peshawar, who has not even told his family of his work here. "When I came, I was so frightened. I arrived in the dark to face all these suicide bombers, expecting them to be wild-haired and crazy, but they were just kids," he says. Rafi has become a father figure to many of the children here, who call out for him at night when the nightmares begin. "In the day they are boastful," he says, "but by night they dream of the people they have seen shot and mutilated." Many dwell on friends who were taken off one day and never returned. The camp commander would choose his boy, take him off for a haircut, measure him up for new clothes, always a size too large to accommodate the explosive waistcoat. The chosen ones were treated as if they were about to be married, fed meat and given milk or Pepsi. Then a handler took them away to board a bus to Peshawar, Islamabad or Lahore. Some would be given drugs to pump them up or calm their nerves. "A few days later, the remaining boys would hear that their friend had reached paradise," Rafi says.
He has traced some of these teenagers to their villages. "Slowly we are putting together a profile of the communities. How many militants live there? Does the family have any TTP connections? Can they afford to look after their son? Is there any local schooling? We cannot keep them here for ever." Boys who go home are kept on parole for two years, monitored by the school and army. Families have to sign an agreement that if the boy goes missing again, a family member will surrender to army detention until the child is recovered.
A boy with bad acne and a startling grin enters the room. Fifteen-year-old Sajad's father had two wives and nine children, and the family lived in a kutcha (temporary shack) near Nowergali, at the heart of Fazullah's former power base. Sajad's mother died when he was seven and he became the family's main breadwinner, bringing home 8,000 rupees (£60) a month as a labourer. At the age of 11, two friends took him to a TTP training camp. There was food, weapons and militants who talked of a better life by winning a respectable death. To Sajad, it seemed a far better option than rising at 5am to dig fields by hand. He underwent basic arms training in Orakzai Agency, a tribal area dominated by the TTP. One day, he was strapped into a suicide jacket. He and his TTP handler tried to cross into Afghanistan, but an alert Pakistan border guard spotted them and Sajad was captured. "I was very sad," he says, his fingers tensing and flexing. "I wanted to die." Peracha asks him if he would have blown her up if they had met at the border. "Why, yes," he replies. "And these foreigners, too, if they had been there?" His smile returns. "Of course," he says.
After the previous day's blast at Mingora, a calming excursion has been planned: tonight, some of the boys from Compound One are to be taken to a local riverside beauty spot where they will draw. A dozen of them pile excitedly into a minivan with an armed guard, while Colonel Aamer, Peracha and a visiting lecturer from the National College of Arts squeeze into an army pick-up. The threat of ambush is constant. Scanning the faces along the roadside, it is impossible to ignore their undisguised contempt for the military. Almost immediately, we have to stop for the soldiers to check out an abandoned car. By the time we reach the beauty spot, crowds have gathered, making the place too difficult to secure. The colonel aborts the trip and we head back towards Malakand.
Still, Peracha refuses to give in. She diverts the convoy again, to a ridge outside the colonel's fort, a place that offers breathtaking views over Swat and a safe vantage point for the army. The art teacher hands out drawing pads and pencils. Soldiers stand guard at a distance. The colonel blows smoke rings.
"Sometimes I come here to pray," Peracha says. "If I start thinking about all that needs to be done, I frighten myself, but we have to save Swat. The terrorists are not far off. They are never far off."
It begins to rain, a slow patter on Swat's scorched earth. The drops pick up pace, until rivulets form. Within a day of our departure, the entire valley is flooding. Within a week, it is cut off from the rest of the world. Within two, bridges are down across Pakistan, leaving 12m people stranded and starving, many of their homes and livelihoods destroyed. Cholera sets in. The army, fighting a war on so many fronts, cannot cope with a disaster on this scale. Nor can the government.
Soon, skimming across the muddy tide, come wooden skiffs heaped full of privately funded aid and medicines, paddled by the very people the Pakistan state has fought so hard to keep out. Here are the jihadists and insurgents, their charities and front organisations laden with gifts for the sick and the suffering. Floating by is Lashkar-e-Taiba, accused of plotting the Mumbai hotel attacks of November 2008, and the TTP, too, broadcasting a threat for the government: "Do not take western aid." Rumours spread that the TTP is planning to kill foreign aid workers.
Soon, the bombings begin again, too, with more than 150 killed in the first nine days of September: Lahore, Quetta, Lakki Marwat and the tribal areas of Kurram and Kohat. On 2 October, the TTP gets Dr Farooq Khan, too, assassinating him while he's having lunch with an assistant, sending a chill through everyone who works at Sabaoon. On 7 October, two teenage bombers blow themselves up at a sufi shrine in Karachi, killing nine and injuring more than 60.
But the school survives. Even in the flood, Colonel Aamer's men have made sure the pupils are fed and classes continue. Established as a beacon of hope, the school is now an island.
All names of boys and their families have been changed to protect their identities.
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