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Camp Fire

With friends like these...

ON JANUARY 29, the Sunday Times reported that British investigators had learned few details about the July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks in London that left 56 people, including four suicide bombers, dead. Although the identities of the perpetrators were quickly uncovered last summer, a government document dated October 2005 and leaked to the newspaper last month said that MI5, Great Britain’s domestic intelligence service, knew virtually nothing about “how, when and with whom the attack planning originated.... Whilst investigations are progressing, there remain significant gaps in our knowledge.”

While MI5 may be reluctant to endorse any conclusions just yet, the itineraries of two of the attackers certainly suggest some possible answers. As the MI5 report notes, Mohammed Sidique Khan attended a madrassa—or Islamic religious school—in northern Pakistan in July 2003. What’s more, Khan and Shehzad Tanweer took the same flight from London to Karachi, Pakistan, on November 19, 2004, and returned to London together on February 8, 2005. During their time in the country, The New York Times reports, Tanweer, at least, attended an orientation session at a fundamentalist madrassa in the northern town of Mansehra.

But it seems clear that Tanweer and Khan did more while in Pakistan than pray and read the Koran. As Peter Bergen, author of The Osama bin Laden I Know, explains, “What they did on July 7 just is not something you could have picked up by popping into a madrassa or something.” And there is really only one other reason to visit Mansehra: to attend the militant training camps that prepare young men to fight the Indian army in the disputed province of Kashmir. Those camps are run by Islamic fundamentalists with ties to Al Qaeda—and they’re allowed to operate by the Pakistani military. Which means the Pakistani government may well deserve some blame for the worst terrorist attack in British history.

INDIA AND PAKISTAN have fought two full-scale wars and waged decades of violence over Kashmir since the region was released from British colonial rule in 1947. India sees predominantly Muslim Kashmir as important to its identity as a multiethnic, secular country. Pakistan sees it as part of its natural constituency and thus has supported a violent insurgency against the Indian government. In 1989, the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, began helping radical Islamists in Pakistan recruit and train Pakistanis to fight the Indians in Kashmir. Hassan Abbas, author of Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism, estimates that, during the 1990s, the Pakistani military helped train up to 60,000 militants to fight in either Kashmir or Afghanistan. After September 11, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf vowed to crack down on militant groups in his country, and a number were outlawed. But, since then, some camps have reemerged. To what extent the government remains involved is murky. But experts say the camps operate under the eye of the Pakistani military. “There is no way the camps can run without the military knowing about it,” says Vali Nasr, a political scientist specializing in Islamic extremism.

One of the places would-be jihadis go is Mansehra, a small town about 40 miles north of Islamabad. That is where, in the spring of 2002, I found Hamid. He was one of about ten trainers at a militant camp run by the Harakat ul- Mujahidin, or Movement of Holy Warriors, one of many groups in Pakistan that school guerrilla hopefuls. As we sat talking outside the group’s three-story red brick guest house on a quiet hilltop in the center of town, Hamid told me how his group had drawn insurgent volunteers from recruiting offices all over Pakistan. The basic introductory course ran roughly three weeks. Each day started before dawn with prayers and recitations from the Koran by the roughly 100 trainees in each class. After that, the recruits ran and exercised for about two hours. Combat training came after breakfast, with instructors schooling jihadi cadets in small-arms and ambush tactics.

Most of the volunteers were Pakistanis, though foreigners sometimes signed up, too—including American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. Before journeying to Afghanistan, Lindh underwent three weeks of Harakat ul-Mujahidin training in Mansehra in the hopes of doing his jihad in Kashmir. But Hamid said the militant trainers who worked with Lindh decided he wasn’t good enough to fight in Kashmir, where guerrillas face the formidable Indian army on difficult terrain. Hamid said the more promising volunteers for Kashmir continue where Lindh left off, doing further intensive training either at one of the camps around Mansehra or at many others like it in the area. But, while Hamid and other members of the Harakat ul-Mujahidin liked Lindh, they felt he couldn’t hack their advanced courses; he wasn’t in very good shape. So they suggested he consider joining the Taliban in Afghanistan, where he could fulfill his jihad against the then-withering Northern Alliance resistance.

The link between the Harakat ul-Mujahidin and the Taliban is telling—one example of the many connections between Pakistani militant groups and Afghanistan-based Islamic groups, including Al Qaeda. Guerrilla fighters in Kashmir and followers of Osama bin Laden consider themselves ideological brethren—soldiers of God in the same war serving on different fronts. Scores of Pakistani militants buy into the idea of global jihad espoused by bin Laden and other radical preachers. And, of course, the Pakistani government supported the Taliban. So, for the more visionary jihadis in Pakistan, the government’s support of the insurgency in Kashmir became a resource easily co-opted for use in other bloody endeavors—and vice versa.

During the ’90s, bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan were open to Kashmiri militants. Evidence of this was perhaps most visible in 1998, when the United States fired cruise missiles into terrorist training camps in Afghanistan where bin Laden was thought to be. Bin Laden survived, but a number of Harakat ul- Mujahidin members were killed. Then, in 2002, Al Qaeda operations planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed teamed up with Jaish-e-Mohammed operative Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. And, once the Taliban was routed, Al Qaeda operatives increasingly based themselves in Pakistan, where they were welcomed as old friends and honored guests by groups like Harakat ul-Mujahidin, Jaish-e- Mohammed, and Lashkar-e Tayyiba. “It’s all one major network,“ explains Abbas. “I think, at this point, Al Qaeda and these Kashmiri militant groups are sort of morphed together to a large degree.“

IT'S NOT UNREASONABLE to suppose that Khan and Tanweer learned about explosives by attending a guerrilla training school in Northern Pakistan. At some point, someone from the camps likely put Tanweer and Khan in touch with someone from Al Qaeda, and the July 7 plot took shape. A tape of Khan later emerged in which he praised “our beloved sheik, Osama bin Laden.” Robert Ayers, an intelligence expert with the Royal Institute for International Affairs, says, “I think that it’s a very safe bet that they had linked up with Al Qaeda when they were in Pakistan.” Additionally, Ayers says of Pakistan, “That’s where they got their training. They didn’t learn how to make bombs from watching BBC on TV at night or hanging out in London mosques.” 

Pakistani officials deny supporting the Kashmiri militants and bristle at the suggestion that Islamabad has failed to do all it can to aid the United States in the war on terrorism. They point to numerous Al Qaeda arrests in Pakistan, regular military offensives against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces along the border with Afghanistan, and successive crackdowns against various militant groups. Indeed, when I visited Mansehra, the Harkat ul-Mujahidin camp was temporarily closed, and, after the July 7 London attacks, Pakistan moved to arrest known militant leaders and expel foreign students from madrassas, the third such effort by Islamabad since 2001.

Even so, some camps remain open, and militants continue to gather in places like Mansehra. At worst, the Pakistani military is actively involved in the training of men like Tanweer and Khan. At the very least, the military rulers in Islamabad allow militants to carry on terrorist training in territories they control. Last July, a Pakistani news magazine, the Herald, reported that 13 militant camps were active around Mansehra. At the same time, the head of the Indian army, General J.J. Singh, estimated that between 2,000 and 2,500 militants were training in 53 different Pakistani camps. All of which makes Pakistan far from an innocent actor—and raises the question of how much longer we will look the other way while an ally sponsors terrorism.

Mark Kukis is a reporter at National Journal and the author of My Heart Became Attached: The Strange Odyssey of John Walker Lindh. This article appeared in the February 20, 2006 issue of the magazine.