Al-Qaeda’s Understudy

Suicide terrorism has come to Pakistan, waged by one of the most vicious Islamist groups ever known

The call in late March by al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for Pakistanis to overthrow their government came as music to the ears of militant jihadis. Their double suicide bombing failed to get President Pervez Musharraf last December, though it did kill fifteen others. Since 1996 I have researched suicide bombings by Islamist organizations in an attempt to understand, as a Muslim, the rationale of those who carry out or sponsor them. This has led me to explore the arrival of this alien method in my own country, Pakistan, where officials, field operatives, and jihadis all spoke to me recently on condition of strict anonymity.

It was easy to introduce suicide bombing in Pakistan, an Islamic country that has had a martyr culture since its birth. In 2002 Sunni jihadis who had been using Afghanistan as a safe haven were suddenly made jobless by the fall of the Taliban regime; they returned to Pakistan, where they sought retaliation through martyrdom. The jihadi agenda converged with that of sectarian extremists seeking action of any kind. Maddened and humiliated by defeat in Afghanistan, Pakistan's jihadi leaders changed their philosophy. They had condemned as sinners those bombers who died by their own hand; now they switched to support for homegrown operations based on an imported idea. Foreign jihadis brought the technique; Arab clerics escaping from Afghanistan preached its virtues; Pakistani merchants and smugglers provided funding; and local zealots supplied the bombers.

Despite a superficial similarity, Pakistani suicide bombers truly resemble neither al-Qaeda nor a reconstituted Taliban. The suicide cells are hybrids, drawn from other groups and different from old-fashioned jihadis who set off to fight for Islam armed with faith and maybe a gun. They are very well trained. Their leaders are educated middle-class Pakistanis, many from large cities. They are considered model young men by their families and comrades, and held up as examples in mosques. They have access to centers of power and information. And they operate in their own country, without foreign troops chasing them. They are independent and implacable, and command enough financing and expertise to plunge the country into chaos.

"Jihad becomes an addiction," a police interrogator told me of the young men who are blowing themselves up. "It's more powerful than a drug. That's why jihadis move around in search of a cause. If they don't find a ready-made jihad, they create one."

The major terrorist operations in Pakistan since 9/11 have a common "grandmother," one intelligence analyst told me. He was referring to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ)—the group of choice today for hard-core militants in the country, whose original jihad was directed exclusively at fellow Muslims, the Shias. The chief suspect in the killing of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, Omar Saeed Sheikh, implicated LJ when he denied his own involvement: "Pearl was worth more to us alive than dead," he told the police. Pakistani officials told me that LJ members kidnapped Pearl, though non-Pakistanis cut his throat. The video of the killing was delivered by an LJ worker.

Born in 1996 as a militant ultrasectarian Sunni group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi mutated into a terrorist outfit that is now a suicide-attack squad carrying out operations for all extremist groups. The Pakistani government banned LJ in August of 2001, but the group survived by dissolving and hiding inside other organizations. I asked a former leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba, LJ's parent body, about LJ's hallmark proclivity for excessive violence, such as killing children or pumping bullets into a body long after the victim is dead. He answered, "Violence spreads fear and panic and gives us a place in the scheme of things. The violence is never random. LJ has no problem with shedding the blood of those whom it is a duty to kill. The Prophet of Islam fought in twenty-seven battles. The Koran says, 'Kill those who kill you.' LJ's philosophy is an Islamic one: either victory or martyrdom. Combat is an essential part of jihad, and jihad is our duty."

Jihadis move between groups, which makes it difficult to hunt them. Operational cooperation among jihadi groups can take the form of a "loan" of militants, expertise, and supplies; a friendly exchange; an alliance; or a crossover from a defunct group into an active one.

At first LJ's hit men fired from moving motorbikes. Later they began to use timed devices, and graduated to throwing hand grenades and mowing down targets with machine guns. LJ's latest innovation is a combination of hand grenades to kill and create panic, automatic fire to strike those stampeding to safety, and suicide detonations to finish off themselves and the rest. This method killed fifty-three Shias in an attack in Quetta last July.

LJ first turned to explosives in January of 1999, in a plot to blow up the Prime Minister as he drove over a bridge to Raiwind. LJ militants approached the imam of a small mosque by the roadside; gave him greetings from Riaz Basra, one of LJ's four founders; and spent the night in the imam's one-room home. They put up a curtain in the middle of the room, and while the imam's wife and children slept on one side, they heated urea (easily available as fertilizer) in a wok to create an explosive. A cordless phone with a nine-volt battery was the "initiator" to turn on a light that was connected to a detonator.

Some minutes before the Prime Minister's convoy was to pass, two policemen on a routine patrol stopped their van under the bridge. The policemen got out to pee. Their driver pressed the button to talk on his radio. Because the van was parked only a few yards from the imam's hut, the rudimentary device switched on prematurely and detonated the explosives. The blast was so powerful that the two-span bridge went awry. (The imam and his family escaped.)

LJ has become media-savvy, timing daylight attacks to catch the evening news. Its planners watch Hollywood films for ideas. That's how they thought of disguising Riaz Basra, putting his leg in a cast, and wheeling him into the Prime Minister's home as part of a scheme to show that they could infiltrate anywhere. Another idea came from a local movie: LJ organized a fake wedding procession in Multan in 1997, with a bridegroom on a white horse accompanied by musicians, singers, and dancers. A cameraman recorded the event. As the noisy procession passed the heavily guarded Iran Cultural Center, hit men climbed over the back wall and shot dead the center's (Shia) Iranian director and six others. Fireworks set off by the "wedding guests" camouflaged the gunfire.

Since 2002 Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has provided services for large-scale suicide attacks. A suicide operation in March of 2002 in a church in Islamabad killed five Christians as proxy targets for Westerners; among them were two Americans. In May eleven Frenchmen, mistaken for Americans, were blown up in Karachi; in June twelve Pakistanis died in a suicide attack on U.S. diplomats.

By mid-2003, jihadis told me, anti-U.S. fervor over the war in Iraq had subsided, and sectarian extremists who had joined the jihad in Afghanistan now reverted to religion-based violence, with a twist. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan suspected that Shia communities were providing intelligence in the hunt for al-Qaeda. An official investigator told me that a Shia gave the tip that led to the arrest of a son of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who is serving a life sentence in the United States for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The son in turn provided the clue that led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a senior al-Qaeda figure now in U.S. custody. To avenge this "betrayal," LJ killed thirteen Shia police cadets in June of last year; the Quetta attack was another act of revenge.

An LJ cell is made up of two or three young men—and up to seven in exceptional cases. The cell disbands after an operation and regroups at another location. The cells are drawn from a pool of young men trained in Afghanistan who are scattered all over Pakistan. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, with long-standing and murky links to jihadi groups, originally planted informers in the training camps, who reported back on "consignments" dispatched from Afghanistan. But "virgin" boys without criminal records were difficult to trace once they crossed back into Pakistan. Hits made by fresh batches left the police helpless to investigate or prevent further attacks. After the fall of the Taliban regime, LJ militants preferred to take their chances with the Pakistani authorities—even risk liquidation—rather than fall into the hands of Northern Alliance commanders. ISI lost what little control it had over LJ when new "internationalist" militants took over.

LJ recruits hit men and operatives with care, looking for strong religious conviction and steady nerves. The trained martyrs, called the "armored corps" of jihad, return to their homes and jobs to live normally until summoned. While they wait, they are under strict orders to shun beards and traditional clothes; to maintain a neat, inconspicuous appearance; to have their documents (real ones issued under fake names) in order and to carry them at all times; and to do nothing illegal or out of the ordinary. They are forbidden even to run a red light. "The Prophet Muhammad once told his commanders to change their appearance for an espionage mission," an LJ member told me. "Disguise and subterfuge are legitimate because we are engaged in jihad." Militants are helped by sympathizers: a mixture of pious Muslims, jihad supporters, sectarian haters, and government officials.

The Pakistani government sometimes prosecutes captured jihadis, but it often resorts to extra-judicial killings—simpler than contending with a protracted judicial process that is frequently brought down by scanty evidence, witnesses who retract their testimony under intimidation or disappear, and sloppy police work. The militants are defiant; they do not plead for mercy after capture. Before an operation suicide attackers ask their mothers to bless them, and request that their wives fast and pray. They tell their families not to grieve, for they will be in Paradise. And death is preferable to Guantánamo Bay.

I asked a jihadi leader about operational links between al-Qaeda and the cells that organize suicide operations in Pakistan. "There is no need for links," he said. "Al-Qaeda—meaning 'the foundation,' or 'base'—was never a single structure. Its original name in Arabic, Majmuat al-Qaeda, referred to a grouping of bases. It was always a loose network of like-minded people. And even this was intentionally dissolved in 2001. Operations are carried out by centrifugal cells."

Where, I asked him, using Israeli terminology, was the "head of the snake," or the "kitchen" where decisions and commands were prepared? "The snakes scattered and the kitchens became mobile well before 9/11," he said. "To refer now to al-Qaeda as the base is inaccurate."