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Rather than religious fanaticism, poverty drives young men to become jihadi foot soldiers

Posted by :) on November 23, 2012


V G Patankar

In response to a police officer’s questions 26/11 gunman Ajmal Kasab said on national TV, as he lay injured in a hospital bed, that he didn’t know much about jihad but had joined the terrorists only to earn some good money that could help his poor family. How often i have heard a similar refrain from captured terrorists, during my deployment in the Kupwara sector of the Kashmir valley during the tumultuous years between 1997 and 1999!
They were usually young men in their late teens or early twenties, mostly unemployed, some with rudimentary education and some illiterate, but almost always from underprivileged families. The typical young terrorist usually belonged to a large family with meagre means; one among several siblings, with no more than one or at best two bread earners. Money was never adequate for basic needs and then there was always the question of marrying off the girls in the family into good families, fixing the leaking roof before the next monsoon, and so on.
The episode of 19-year-old Rizwan (name changed), from Pak Pattan in West Punjab, was typical of a young man attending a public rally organised by the likes of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), getting carried away by all the fiery rhetoric and signing up to respond to what was perceived as a solemn religious duty. Rizwan infiltrated into Kashmir after some basic training in handling the proverbial AK-47. He moved with his group from hideout to hideout. Before long he was caught by the Indian Army and brought in for interrogation.
He was pleasantly surprised by the humane treatment he was given, because it was in contrast with what he had been told. He said that at a congregation near Lahore he had heard Islam was in danger in India, as many mosques were being destroyed and Muslims were not permitted to offer namaz or practice their religion.
He was told that families of those who joined up for jihad would be paid substantial sums in addition to regular sustenance to all jihadis during their tour of duty (usually two to three years). Besides he was assured that in the event that any jihadi was martyred, his family would receive a handsome amount to at least partially compensate for its loss. Coming from a landless family of farm workers and with three older sisters to be married off, his immediate thought was that this was his opportunity to help his family financially and, if in the process, he should die, he would be a shaheed, bringing further prestige to his family.
“I am not highly educated, sahib, but within a few days of coming to India i knew that i had been led up the garden path by falsehoods. In village after village i saw that mosques were not only intact but there were several of them and these were perhaps the best maintained buildings. Furthermore, if we didn’t show up for Friday prayers in time, the mosques would be so crowded that we would end up offering namaz on the street outside!”
In the case of a ‘khansama’ from a Pakistani Rangers battalion (a paramilitary force), he was simply lured by the prospects of making some quick money. Let’s call him Hamid, a cook working for a senior officer at Hyderabad (Sind). Hamid was spending some well earned leave at his village near Muzaffarabad in PoK. A friend introduced him to the local agent (an ISI operator) who recruited him as a porter for a short trip that would earn him about Rs 15,000. The task involved carrying some ‘logistic’ loads to Indian Kashmir. “No fighting”, he was assured; just follow the leader’s instructions. Lured by money, he joined an infiltrating group. But when bullets started flying, he surrendered to an Indian army patrol. When the army began asking questions about his training and recruitment, he confessed that he could not handle a weapon but was armed with many a good recipe!
Then there was this large group of ‘Afghan fighters’ that an infantry unit of the Indian army managed to capture through some skilful manoeuvre, without firing a single shot. Only one in the group could speak some broken Hindi. It seemed that the Afghans had come to Pakistan looking for some means of livelihood. They found jobs as stevedores at Bagh in PoK, where they were threatened with arrest as illegal immigrants. Their only salvation lay in, they were informed, acting as porters for the Mujahids.
That was just the beginning of their troubles. They were held in near-captivity and treated like beasts of burden, but they were not hungry and also earned some money. So they continued to endure, till sent on a mission. When they found themselves facing the wrong end of the Indian Army’s rifles, they surrendered without a fight. So much for the fierce Afghan fighter, ten feet tall!
Kasab was just another foot soldier. He was looking to earn some good money, following his father’s advice. He could have been just another Rizwan or Hamid. But the dice that his LeT masters threw fell the wrong way.
The writer, a retired Lt general in the Indian army, was formerly a Corps Commander in Kashmir

Ajmal Kasab: responding to which siren’s call?

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