New York Times
November 14, 2006
By Carlotta Gall
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Nov. 13 — Afghan and NATO security forces have recently rounded up several men like Hafiz Daoud Shah, a 21-year-old unemployed Afghan refugee who says he drove across the border to Afghanistan in September in a taxi with three other would-be suicide bombers.
Every case, Afghan security officials say, is similar to that of Mr. Shah, who repeated his story in a rare jailhouse interview with a reporter in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The trail of organizing, financing and recruiting the bombers who have carried out a rising number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan traces back to Pakistan, they say.
“Every single bomber or I.E.D. in one way or another is linked to Pakistan,” a senior Afghan intelligence official said, referring to improvised explosive devices like roadside bombs. “Their reasons are to keep Afghanistan destabilized, to make us fail, and to keep us fragmented.” He would speak on the subject only if not identified.
A senior United States military official based in Afghanistan agreed for the most part. “The strong belief is that recruiting, training and provision of technical equipment for I.E.D.’s in the main takes place outside Afghanistan,” he said. By I.E.D.’s he meant suicide bombers as well. He, too, did not want his name used because he knew his remarks were likely to offend Pakistani leaders.
The charge is in fact one of the most contentious that Afghan and American officials have leveled at the Pakistani leadership, which frequently denies the infiltration problem and insists that the roots of the Taliban insurgency lie in Afghanistan.
The dispute continues to divide Afghan and Pakistani leaders, even as the Bush administration tries to push them toward greater cooperation in fighting the Taliban, whose ranks have swelled to as many as 10,000 fighters this year.
A year ago, roadside bombs and suicide attacks were rare occurrences in Afghanistan. But they have grown more frequent and more deadly. There have been more than 90 suicide attacks in Afghanistan this year. In September and October, nearly 100 people were killed in such attacks.
Afghan security forces say that in the same period, they captured 17 suspected bombers, two of them would-be suicide bombers; NATO forces say they caught 10 people planning suicide bomb attacks in recent weeks.
Last week, for the first time, a Pakistani intelligence official acknowledged that suicide bombers were being trained in Bajaur, a small Pathan tribal area along the border. In a briefing given only on condition of anonymity, the official cited the training as one reason for an airstrike this month on a religious school there that killed more than 80 people.
The arrests of Mr. Shah and others like him, Afghan and NATO officials say, show that groups intent on carrying out attacks in Afghanistan continue to operate easily inside Pakistan.
Mr. Shah said he was one of four would-be suicide bombers who arrived in Kabul from Pakistan on Sept. 30. One of them killed 12 people and wounded 40 at the pedestrian entrance to the Interior Ministry the same day.
The attack was the first suicide bomb aimed not at foreign troops but at Afghans, and it terrified Kabul residents. The dead included a woman and her child.
By Mr. Shah’s account, it could have been far worse. Mr. Shah said he and his cohort had planned to blow themselves up in four separate attacks in the capital. That they failed was due partly to luck and partly to vigilance by Afghan and NATO security forces. But their plot represented a clear escalation in the bombers’ ambitions in Afghanistan.
Wearing a black prayer cap and long beard, Mr. Shah recounted his own involvement in the presence of two Afghan intelligence officers at a jail run by the National Directorate of Security. The Afghan intelligence officers offered up Mr. Shah because, unlike others in custody facing similar charges, his investigation was over. He is now awaiting trial.
Mr. Shah showed no signs of fear or discomfort in front of his guards. But after two weeks in detention, he complained of tiredness and headaches from a longstanding but unspecified mental ailment, something his father confirmed in a separate interview at the family home in Karachi, the southern Pakistani port city.
At first Mr. Shah, who was educated through the sixth grade, denied that he intended to be a suicide bomber, but said he had gone to Afghanistan only to fight a jihad, or holy war. “I was just thinking of fighting a jihad against the infidels,” he said. “I was hearing there was fighting in Afghanistan and seeing it in the newspapers.”
But by the end of the hourlong conversation, he admitted that he had intended to blow himself up in Kabul, and said he regretted his actions. He was vague about the target of his suicide mission. “I did not know where I was going to do it,” he said.
After he was arrested, Mr. Shah said, he learned that one member of his group, whom he called Abdullah, succeeded in carrying out a suicide attack outside the Interior Ministry. “When I was arrested I heard about it and I thought it must be him,” he said.
“They came here to be martyred,” he said of his three companions, all Pakistanis, all around the same age, and all also from Karachi.
Mr. Shah himself is one of the 2.5 million Afghans who live as refugees in Pakistan and who, officials on both sides of the border agree, frequently cycle through the ranks of the Taliban and other militant Islamic groups.
The would-be suicide bombers arrested recently, the Afghan intelligence official said, emerge from two clear strands.
Some are linked to extremist groups that have long been set up and run by Pakistani intelligence as an arm of foreign policy toward rival governments in Afghanistan and India. They are technically illegal and the government now says it has cracked down on them.
Others are allied with Afghan groups like the Taliban and the renegade militia commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also a longtime protégé of Pakistani intelligence, who has now allied himself with the Taliban, Afghan and NATO officials say.
Like Mr. Shah, several other would-be bombers arrested recently have come from Pakistan or were run by commanders based there, they said.
After a bombing cell of 12 people was picked up in Kabul recently, two of the men continued to receive cellphone calls while in custody, urging them to explode their bombs, the intelligence official said. The calls came from an Afghan commander called Pir Farouq, who lives in the Shamshatoo Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, a frontier town, and is closely allied with Mr. Hekmatyar.
When Afghan intelligence, at NATO’s behest, passed on the cellphone number of Pir Farouq to Pakistani intelligence officers, their informer, a member of the commander’s inner circle, was swiftly killed, his body cut into eight pieces and dumped in the camp. NATO officials described the killing to journalists.
Another group of bombers was captured as they were planning attacks on NATO forces in northern Afghanistan. That cell was also connected to Mr. Hekmatyar, but organized by another of his commanders who lives in Quetta, a Pakistani border town, the intelligence official said.
In Mr. Shah’s case, he and his companions had all studied at the same religious school, or madrasa, at Masjid-e-Noor, a mosque in Mansehra Colony, a working-class district in northeastern Karachi. Mr. Shah said he studied there for four years, earning the title hafiz, given to one who has memorized the Koran.
The madrasa was run until recently by Maulavi Abdul Shakoor Khairpuri, who, Mr. Shah said, was a member of a banned jihadi group, Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen. Mr. Shah said it was the maulavi who sent them on the suicide mission.
The maulavi had given him a note addressed to a man called only Umar, who was waiting for them when they arrived in Kabul. Bearded, aged 28 or 29, Umar was a Taliban member from Kandahar, Mr. Shah said.
The note directed Umar to give the group explosives and stated that the equivalent of about $1,400 would be given to the families of each bomber after they finished their mission, Mr. Shah said.
Umar handed them a white rice bag. Inside were four khaki vests, with three pockets sewn on each side of the chest where the explosives were placed. “It has wires leading to a remote control and when you press the button it explodes,” Mr. Shah said.
“The vests were heavy,” he added. “There were a lot of explosives.”
Mr. Shah then started looking for a taxi. Someone, apparently an intelligence agent, offered to show him but led him instead to the intelligence office, where he was arrested. The other bombers slipped away with their vests. So did Umar.
The Afghan intelligence official confirmed much of Mr. Shah’s story. So did Mr. Shah’s father, Ahmed Shah, interviewed last month at his home in a run-down tenement on the east side of Karachi, though he said he did not know where his son had gone after leaving home three weeks before. The gaps and discrepancies in the father’s and son’s accounts seemed to indicate that neither was telling the full story.
When told why his son was in jail in Kabul, the father grew angry, but showed no surprise. “How can one feel when someone leaves the house without caring for his children — he has two small children,” he said, a boy of 4 and a girl of 2.
“We got tired of talking to him; you could not talk to him,” the father said. “Such a disobedient child, who does not care about anyone, who does not look after his parents, should go to hell.”
Mr. Shah’s teacher at the local mosque also contradicted Mr. Shah’s account.