On the trail of Pakistan’s Taliban – The vast majority [of suicide bombers] came from just one tribe, the Mehsuds of central Waziristan, aged 16-20…

On the trail of Pakistan’s Taliban

The authorities in Pakistan have often seemed in cahoots with home-grown terrorists. Not any more. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark report from Islamabad and the border badlands as a new intelligence unit gets serious about tackling the bombers.

Adrian Levy – The Guardian Saturday 10 January 2009

Special Investigation Group files

Special Investigation Group files. Photograph: Warrick Page

As the first reports of explosions at the Taj and Oberoi hotels in Mumbai reached Islamabad just after 9pm on November 26, Pakistan’s counter-terrorism investigators twitched. Later that night, CCTV cameras inside Mumbai’s Victoria railway station relayed footage of a blood-spattered concourse and the faces of some of the gunmen. The guests fleeing from the hotels told TV reporters that their assailants were speaking Urdu and were hunting down British and American passport holders. Almost immediately, over the border, the Pakistani investigators began pulling out files and photographs that accompanied the “Red Book” – their most-wanted list.

Pakistan’s foreign minister condemned the attacks and expressed his sympathy to the families of the 173 killed. Even before India began making accusations – and despite subsequent Pakistani denials – detectives in Islamabad privately feared the outrage had Pakistani roots and might even have been rehearsed two months earlier, when the five-star Marriott Hotel in Islamabad had been obliterated. It all sounded grimly familiar: the methodology, the soft targets, the singling out of westerners.

On September 21, just after 8pm, a truck packed with explosives had detonated outside the Marriott, killing 60 and injuring 260. The toll could have been far higher if the bomber had managed to drive into the lobby. There, 700 Pakistanis had gathered to break the daily fast during Ramadan, mingling with western officials, diplomats and spooks.

Sadruddin Hashwani standing outside the Islamabad Marriott
Sadruddin Hashwani standing outside the Islamabad Marriott. Photograph: Warrick Page

Mumbai shocked the world, just as the Islamabad attack stunned Pakistan. The terrorists had targeted one of the country’s few prestigious western companies, an embodiment of luxury in an impoverished land. The conclusion most people drew was bleak: if the Marriott could be hit, in the heart of one of the most secure neighbourhoods in the Islamic Republic, then no one was safe. After Mumbai, it appeared from the outside as if the entire subcontinent might become engulfed in the kind of terror associated with Baghdad and Kabul.

The political ramifications were devastating. As evidence mounted that Pakistanis had played pivotal roles in both plots, many feared that the new civilian government in Islamabad – the first in nine years – would topple. Feeling the heat most intensely was Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s new president, who had had little formal political experience until his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in December 2007 and he became leader of her Pakistan People’s Party. He had a reputation in Pakistan and abroad as a grifter; from the start of his presidency in September, the US had made it clear that it had no confidence in his civilian administration, dispatching special forces into Pakistan behind his back to hunt down Islamists. He was held in such low esteem by some at home that initially a scandalous (and improbable) rumour spread that he had killed his wife to take control.

But after the Marriott blast, Zardari visibly took command, condemning terrorism as a “cancer in Pakistan”. Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s health and information minister, recalled: “Unless we took ownership of this fight against extremism, Pakistan was done for.” Prime minister Yousuf Gilani said: “There will be no second chances.” By the time Mumbai exploded, there was a plan to change direction. While attacks on India had often, under General Pervez Musharraf, Zardari’s predecessor, been greeted with private glee, the new president revived the cabinet’s defence committee, a defunct forum for politicians and military chiefs, which now ordered the rounding up of key Sunni extremists and the closing down of charitable fronts used by them.

It was a dramatic volte-face. During nine years of Musharraf’s military dictatorship that ended in February 2008, the Taliban had reformed in Pakistan, al-Qaida had re-grouped there, and banned home-grown militant outfits had re-emerged to join them. Musharraf was accused of speaking out against terror while at the same time encouraging extremist forces to foment insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir and to undermine the pro-Indian government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.

Zardari, however, had no connection with the Musharraf epoch, or with the terrorist outfits. He had been in prison on corruption charges or in exile for the entire time the Islamists had been allowed to proliferate. His family was from Sindh province in the south, whereas the military leadership and vast majority of Sunni extremists were from the Punjab, in the east.

When we visited Pakistan in October, the country was in crisis but Zardari was receiving praise from most quarters for having seized it by the scruff of the neck. Somehow, too, he had seemingly co-opted the military, even though it had long been accused of having sheltered Pakistan’s extremists.

Zardari was intent on pushing through an ambitious counter-terrorism strategy. It centred on the elite Special Investigation Group (Sig) – a squad that Musharraf had originally set up to investigate assassination attempts against himself and his officers. The new president intended the Sig to model itself on MI5’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, Britain’s response to 9/11, and to acquire the forensic skills of an Islamic CSI. For that he needed cash and outside help. Since his first days in office, Zardari had been lobbying foreign secretary David Miliband to fund a joint terrorism initiative. The sweetener was an offer by the Pakistan High Commission in London to open up an intelligence cell to monitor British Pakistanis travelling back and forth, to which the British security services would have access. Downing Street was intrigued, especially as MI5 had briefed Gordon Brown in the summer that three-quarters of 30 major terror conspiracies in the UK had links back to Pakistan. However, it was only after Zardari’s energetic responses to the Marriott and Mumbai attacks that Brown put his faith in the new Pakistani president.

On December 14, the British PM flew to Islamabad to announce a £6m “pact against terror”, saying he wanted to “remove the chain” that led from the mountains of Pakistan to the streets of Britain. A significant part of the funding was intended for the Sig currently a tight-knit cell of 37 full-time specialists that was to be expanded into a 300-strong force with an investigation division, an armed wing, an intelligence department and a research section. In return, Britain asked for access to the Sig’s raw data and captured extremists who might illuminate British plots.

The Sig headquarters are concealed behind concrete barriers, checkpoints, razor wire and electronic ramps. The need for security was rammed home on March 11 2008 when a suicide attack on its provincial office in Lahore killed 25 people, including 13 officers. We were granted privileged access to witness the workings of the Sig as they investigated the Marriott plot, found common threads that led to the Mumbai attacks, and built up a picture of a new terrorist structure in Pakistan.

Today the Sig answers to Tariq Pervez, a veteran cop who is also head of Pakistan’s Federal Investigations Agency, the national crime squad. Pervez has been on the anti-terrorism beat for most of his career. Behind his desk is a multi-shelved book rack that holds only three large box files marked Taliban, al…#8209;Qaida and Miscellaneous: Pakistan’s trinity of terror. Since 9/11, these three forces have launched an all-encompassing Islamist uprising, emanating from Quetta, the chaotic capital of Balochistan province, in Pakistan’s west, and spreading to mountainous eyries in the neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Pervez tells us that by the end of 2007, suicide strikes from this region had killed 597 security force personnel and 1,523 civilians, including Benazir Bhutto on December 27.

The border crossing into Khyber Agency
The border crossing into Khyber Agency. Photograph: Warrick Page

That same month, after five years of germination, the disparate forces behind most of these attacks formally merged into the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) under the leadership of an illiterate 35-year-old commander, Baitullah Mehsud, confirming western suspicions that the epicentre of global jihad had shifted. Soon militias allied to the new grouping had permeated all of Pakistan’s border regions, even the northern ski slopes and trout streams of the former tourist haven of Swat.

It is the Sig’s job to make sense of the maelstrom. It is an ambitious goal, as most of these tribal areas have become no-go zones and Pervez’s men have only limited access to the forensic and surveillance techniques used by counter-terrorism experts in the UK and the US to backtrack from an attack – CCTV footage, vehicle licensing details, passport records, plane manifests.

Pervez grits his teeth as he describes how crime-solving Pakistan-style has, in the past, most often involved disappearances, habeas corpus writs, bent informers and a heavily-wielded bamboo cane. Even after Benazir Bhutto’s death, investigators failed to cordon off the crime scene, enabling passersby, press photographers and voyeurs to trample through the blood and debris before it was washed away by high-powered hoses. In a country where the military and intelligence establishment have been accused of complicity in many such crimes, there has been little incentive to solve them. Now Zardari claims he wants the terror to end.

The Sig director takes us upstairs to a suite of offices where his men busy themselves at computers, their workstations stacked high with blue paper files. Beyond lies the Sig lab, where technicians are poring over scraps of clothing, hair and shrapnel, using tweezers, tiny brushes and miniature shovels – kit sent over by the FBI and Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist squad. Pervez’s men are learning to secure a blast site for DNA evidence, scouring it for flaps of skin or shards of bone. “We are trying every new method to identify the bombers,” a senior officer says, explaining that since an explosive jacket usually decapitates the wearer, heads can be recovered, or at least fragments of the skull and face. These body parts are packed in ice and flown down to plastic surgeons at a hospital near Karachi for reconstruction. Pervez says: “Since one-third of Pakistan’s adult population does not have any form of identification, these remains are often the only link back to the madrasa that indoctrinated the bomber and the extremist group that dispatched him.”

We flick through a morbid photograph album of heads. “From the 26 suicide attacks where we recovered a head in 2007, we made a startling discovery,” says the Sig analyst. “The vast majority [of suicide bombers] came from just one tribe, the Mehsuds of central Waziristan, all boys aged 16 to 20.” Until the Sig team analysed the 2007 bombings, no one realised how successful the Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud had been in recruiting his extended clan to the martyrdom business.

In an attempt to glean an insight into why so many young Mehsud men were willing to die, Pervez co-opted police officers from the tribal areas on to his team. One of them, now a senior investigator, pokes his head around the door. “The Mehsuds have a predisposition to fight,” he says. “Young Mehsud lads used to fight for the Afghan Taliban against the US. Before that, they fought the Soviets. And before then, they fought the British Empire.”

The officer found out more when a few Mehsud boys, who escaped a suicide training camp, recently contacted him. “They told me, ‘We have nothing. Simple things would make a difference. We are fond of football. Give us a ball and we won’t bomb.’ ” The officer is working to recruit informers, but tentatively. Those who resist Baitullah Mehsud have been brutally dealt with – like the 600 elders who spoke out against him in 2005 and were, according to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, each sent a needle, black thread and 1,000 rupees with which to buy some cloth to stitch their own shrouds; all of them were then killed.

A guard on the Pakistani frontier
A guard on the Pakistani frontier. Photograph: Warrick Page

“The suicide bombers would be nothing without the bomb makers,” says Pervez, describing how men in caves and cowsheds, operating with a generator, a soldering iron and a pair of pliers, have become eminently adaptable. What the Sig proved was the axiom that today’s Islamic war zones inter-relate, how advice is passed down the line, in knapsacks and saddlebags, in encrypted computer files, in postcards and even in love letters. After insurgents in Iraq began to use mobile phones to detonate roadside bombs in the summer of 2003, the same technique emerged in Pakistan, deployed in one of the two assassination attempts on Musharraf in December. However, as western intelligence agencies caught up, developing high-frequency jammers to block the phone signals, the bombers changed tactics. Pervez says: “In Pakistan they returned to older techniques, using a 300-rupee [£2.50] wireless doorbell to send a low-frequency signal for which no one had thought to make a jammer.”

Exploiting what was readily available was critical to the bomb makers’ success. Most large towns in the Punjab have textile factories that use potassium chlorate as a colour fixative. “After only some minor adjustments, adding sawdust or petroleum jelly, it becomes a powerful explosive,” Pervez says. Next they moved on to the tons of munitions left over from the Soviet war in Afghanistan or stockpiled in the border regions by the Afghan Taliban. In July 2007, the Sig captured two Toyota Corollas in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), each containing 109 mortar rounds intended for an illicit bomb factory where they would be packed around a potassium chlorate core to deadly effect. The location of the cars, the quantity of munitions and the presence of potassium chlorate led Sig detectives to an inevitable conclusion: there was an al-Qaida bomb factory somewhere in the tribal areas. Potassium chlorate had been a key ingredient in many successful al-Qaida attacks, such as the Bali bombings of 2002 and the Marriott Hotel blast in Jakarta in 2003.

Pakistani soldiers
Pakistani soldiers. Photograph: Warrick Page

The bomb makers went on to make ever more powerful devices, and changed targets, too, after the Pakistan military belatedly began to strike at them in the summer of 2007, under pressure from the Americans. On November 24 2007, at 7.50am, a suicide bomber drove into a bus carrying intelligence agents in Rawalpindi. Thirty men were burned to death in their seats. The attack shocked the establishment because it was among the first to single out the Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) previously close to the Islamists. The device was found to contain RDX, a military-grade high explosive, bound together with TNT. On June 2 2008, a similar device was used to bomb the Danish embassy in Islamabad.

The bomb makers had obviously been able to source highly restricted materials. “The network was growing,” Pervez says. “That brings me to my third box file, Miscellaneous, a hotchpotch of Sunni extremists I have tracked throughout my career.” In the 80s, when Pervez was a young officer, the military and ISI had established hundreds of Sunni madrasas in southern Punjab that were aligned to a strict revivalist sect, the Deobandis, similar to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. On graduation, most of these students were funnelled by the ISI into the secret war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, used to target Pakistan’s minority Shia population or infiltrated Indian Kashmir. “All the groups we are familiar with today came out of this process, and by the late 90s these men had had more consistent exposure to war than most officers in premier league armies in Europe.”

Now the Sig suspected these Punjabi groups were assisting the bomb makers, creating a network that would come together with deadly effect in the attacks in Islamabad and Mumbai in September and November 2008.

A clear sign of the dynamics of the new terror came in the spring of 2008 when a veteran from a Punjabi terror group, “Nawaz”, was spotted in Miranshah, in north Waziristan. He was tracked as he collected 700,000 rupees (£5,800) from an

al-Qaida banker and moved on to the Punjabi textile town of Faisalabad, where he bought a large quantity of potassium chlorate. He returned to Miranshah to recruit an Arab explosives expert.

The Arab bomb maker prepared two unlicensed 4X4s, each carrying 1,120 pounds of potassium chlorate. Three Waziris from the Mehsud clan were hired to drive the bombs to Rawalpindi. The plot was set. The Sig analyst says: “Luckily one of Nawaz’s aides got cold feet. He snitched to the intel guys.” The vehicles were intercepted in June this year just hours before they were to have been driven into a convoy carrying General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief.

“Pakistan is now a one-stop shop,” Pervez says. “Ideas, logistics, cash from the Gulf. Arab guys, mainly Egyptians and Saudis, are on hand to provide the chemistry. Veteran Punjabi extremists plot the attacks, while the Pakistan Taliban provide the martyrs. And it all came together in the Marriott case.”

Gunsmiths make shotguns
Gunsmiths make shotguns. Photograph: Warrick Page

The truck driver who detonated the bomb is thought to have been a Mehsud. He was sitting on 600kg of RDX and TNT, bound together with mortar shells and metal to maximise shrapnel injuries. “The top guy was a Pakistan-born al-Qaida man, a qualified chemical engineer, educated in Saudi Arabia, who fought in Afghanistan in the 80s, Kashmir in the 90s,” Pervez says. His group had been funded by the ISI before it melded with al-Qaida in 2002. The Mumbai assault would reveal the same blueprint, with a Punjabi group, Lashkar-e-Toiba, providing the weaponry and training for the attackers.

The clues to this assault and hundreds of others can be found in the Sig’s database consisting of a bewildering mass of names, groups and aliases, charities and welfare associations, which the British are keen to access, and which has enabled the Sig to identify four bomb factories and the names of 160 key suspects, 66 of whom have prices on their head, with around 20 classified as masterminds. Number one on the list is a diminutive 32-year-old, Mati-ur-Rehman, whose career perhaps best illustrates why the British government is prepared to gamble £6m on Pakistan’s counter terrorism experiment. Rehman was born in the Punjab in 1977, educated in a madrasa, graduating into the extremist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, where he became an explosives expert. When Pakistan signed up to the “war on terror” after 9/11, Rehman joined an al-Qaida cell in the tribal areas. From there he conceived of the idea of mounting suicide attacks on five-star hotels as early as 2002. He is thought to have played a role in the Marriott and the Mumbai hotel attacks.

According to the Sig database, Rehman is also the main conduit for foreigners, especially from Britain, who arrive in Pakistan looking for terrorist training, including at least one of those involved in the 2006 liquid bomber’s plot.

We are about to leave the Sig offices when a call comes in. It’s 1.30pm. A suicide bomber has blown himself up outside the office of the deputy inspector general of police in Mardan, NWFP. Nine people, including five policemen, are dead. The bomber’s severed head has been recovered at the scene.

It is only a 90-minute drive from Islamabad to Peshawar, capital of NWFP, the last major centre en route to Afghanistan. This former transit point on the Silk Route is now choked by road-blocks, checkpoints and anti-blast barriers. Nonetheless the Pakistan Taliban has repeatedly struck in the heart of the city, most recently on December 6, killing 27 and injuring hundreds. From a friend’s office, we watch a plume of smoke rising – a car bomb has exploded below us, injuring many attending a regional sports event. Javed, a normally fearless local crime reporter, tells how he now seldom works after dusk since he was kidnapped and held for more than 20 days.

How did the tribal areas and Swat so quickly transform into killing zones? Some tribal leaders from Waziristan who act as intermediaries between the Pakistan Taliban and the government are gathering for a meeting in a small village 20 miles south of Peshawar. We send a message to their head, a powerful malik, who agrees to see us. As we drive out of town, brick houses give way to mud-walled compounds. The only shops that are open sell wooden coffins.

At the agreed rendezvous point, we find the malik sitting cross-legged drinking cardamom-scented tea. All around are men clutching semi-automatics. To discuss the Pakistan Taliban with outsiders is to take a great risk. The malik explains how his homeland has been transformed. “When the Afghan Taliban retreated from Kabul in December 2001, Pakistan border security suddenly evaporated to allow them to flood in,” he says. “While Musharraf in Islamabad was claiming to be fighting them back, the Taliban leadership was sheltered, and openly recruiting porters and bodyguards from the Mehsuds.” With Taliban backing, Baitullah Mehsud, a veteran of the US war in Afghanistan, raised his own militia. “The Mehsuds were soon running an empire of their own and we were eaten up by it. Now we live in constant fear from Pakistan Taliban and al-Qaida raiders, while US Hellfire missiles rain down from the sky. No human should be forced to live this savage existence.” The malik has said enough. He and his guards clamber into their pick-up and disappear down the track towards the icy heights of Waziristan.

The closer you get to Baitullah Mehsud, the more of his strategy you can see. He is estimated to need one billion rupees (£8.6m) a year to keep his operations going. “It’s Jihadi Inc out here,” one senior police officer says. Among the Pakistan Taliban’s most recent recruits are a serial killer and two criminal dons, all of whom have been invited to become commanders. The officer says: “Mehsud’s Talibs now act like criminals, too, mounting a protection racket, charging road tolls, stealing fuel at gunpoint, blackmailing communities.”

They reach out across Pakistan. After arresting Qasim Toori, a wanted villain, in Shah Latif town, southeast Karachi, in January 2008, police learned he had been sent by Baitullah with 19 Taliban fighters to begin a crime wave. In Toori’s most successful raid, on October 30 2007, he held up the Bank al-Habib and stole 5m rupees (£43,000), money that was used to buy arms from al-Qaida. Baitullah’s men simultaneously began kidnapping: last March, Fahran Qasim, a veteran criminal, was caught trying to abduct a wealthy Karachi landowner and confessed that he had done it for his boss in Waziristan.

What does the Pakistan Taliban really want? Baitullah Mehsud is famously shy and we cannot get to him. But we do reach by phone Muslim Khan, a garrulous spokesman for Baitullah’s partners in the Swat Valley. We notice the American twang in his voice, and he reveals that for many years he lived in the States. “I liked life there. I respected the Americans. But then Afghanistan and Iraq happened. The slaughter. Now we are at war. Give us Sharia law. Let Pakistan dump America and Britain, then we will be at peace.”

We press him about recent events in Swat, where we have heard that his compatriots are mounting a campaign of beheadings and hangings. “You are trying to bring us down,” he snaps. We ask about the hundreds of girls’ schools they have burned down, the boys’ schools without teachers, while his own son is receiving a first-class education elsewhere in Pakistan. Muslim Khan cuts the line.

We return to Islamabad to hear that an American aid worker, Steve Vance, whom we had met in Peshawar, has just been murdered along with his Afghan driver. The next day, we find a gift-wrapped rose addressed to us thrown over the wall of our heavily guarded compound. Tied to the stem is a message from the Swat Taliban. “Thinking about you,” it says playfully. We had told no one where we would be staying, but they found us anyway – a demonstration of how pervasive is their grip, and how hard it is going to be for anyone who stands in their way, even with the resources the Sig has brought to the conflict.