In recent personal interviews with three would-be suicide bombers aged 15-19, who were caught in April 2010 by security forces in Pakistan, I was told a strikingly different story than one might expect of a Pakistani youth’s journey towards militancy. These young men from North Waziristan were not religious, nor motivated by supposedly Islamic ideas, and had no substantial animosity toward the United States or the Pakistan Army – in fact they knew very little about the world outside their small tribe. How, then, were they recruited to carry out something as violent and psychologically traumatic as suicide bombing?
When one of my students at Quaid-e-Azam University, where I am a professor, mentioned that his cousin had been in a militant rehabilitation facility in the Swat valley, I contacted the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) to find out if I could interview some of the young men from this rehab center. I was put in touch with three boys who had been released from custody, but were still under surveillance by the loose network of informants the Army’s intelligence division maintains in the rugged tribal regions. I interviewed each one of the teenagers separately on June 23, 2012, and had a follow-up group meeting with them on September 10, 2012. No security official was present during our meetings, and the boys seemed comfortable enough to speak freely. They did all request complete anonymity, though, because of the small communities they come from, before describing to me the way they grew up in the tiny villages of Machikhel and Dande Darpa Khel, which some may recognize as the sites of frequent U.S. drone attacks.
The common thread between the lives of these youths was their complete isolation from rest of the Pakistan and from the world at large. The lack of access to TV, Internet, and formal education meant they were almost completely oblivious to such massive events as 9/11, and as such they were unaware of where and what exactly the United States was. One of the boys mentioned that there was only one TV in their entire neighborhood, and even that one didn’t work half of the time. Their only access to information was the radio, which has for years been dominated by the jihadists who were using the name of Islam to mobilize the people. They would also listen to the views of their parents, who were concerned about a possible war in Pakistan due to the influx of militants into the local tribes bordering Afghanistan.
The absence of formal, state-run schools in the tribal areas forced the three boys to enroll at local madrassah just as the United States was in the early phases of waging war in Afghanistan. They learned about the war from their teacher, who said that America wanted to destroy Islam and Pakhtun culture. What was more dangerous than hearing such rhetoric was that children were all trained in the madrassah to submit and not question the elders – something that would have serious repercussions later when they were being recruited to be suicide bombers. Despite the propaganda against the United States, one boy recalled, "The anti-American rhetoric didn’t bother us too much, since we still hadn’t felt the war".
But that all changed when the United States stepped up its drone strikes across the borders inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. "My parents’ fears became a reality as our areas became unsafe, and we started getting frustrated with the jihadis in the nearby areas. The militants had brought the war to Pakistan, and the tribal people of Pakistan were forced to be a part of it. Those who opposed the militants were murdered, and everyone else was forced to support them by providing either their children to be militants, or by paying for the cause of jihad." After several years of being under the brutal militant rule nobody in the tribal areas, no one wanted their children to be militants fighting an unknown enemy, one of the boys said, so the militants had to find a new strategy of recruiting – by instilling fear in the youth. As one of the boys recalled, "We were taken for a short trip to a wrecked house by a kind man who had been living in our village peacefully for a few months. We were told that the wreckage was caused by a drone strike from the United States that killed women and children. We were taken to several such wreckages every time the drone strike would happen. The sight frightened all of us."
The kids I interviewed mentioned how they were told by the recruiters not to discuss these fears with their family members because they would get scared. "We were told to abandon our houses, leave our parents and siblings in silence, in order to protect them."
However, this was only the first step. What came next in the militant’s strategy to transform the youths into suicide bombers is much more disturbing. "For an entire month we were made to watch videos of men raping women, and other such videos that depicted pain, and agony of women at the hands of white men," one of the boys told me. "And we were repeatedly told that this is what the Americans are doing to women on the other side of the border, and precisely what they will do to your women if you don’t take up weapons against them. The videos would leave me sleepless at nights – they changed the person I was."
Another young man said, "I would wake up in the middle of the night, desperate to see or call my mother and sister to see if they were safe because of the fear I felt picturing my mother and sister to be in the same situation as those women in the videos. However, we were not allowed to make contact with the family because it would weaken us."
Their families told me that they repeatedly pleaded with the militants in the area to return their children, but to no avail. "We were threatened and told that the kids are working for a noble cause," one of the parents said. "We were offered money to be silent on the topic so that the people in the neighboring tribes wouldn’t become cautious of the new recruitment methods."
The stories of these three young men suggest that the upper echelon of militants in Waziristan and other tribal regions of Pakistan might be fighting a religious and ideological battle – at least this is what they present in their narrative – but their recruitment strategy has taken a shift away from the big ideas of pan-Islamism and protecting their religion from the outside world, toward much more psychologically sophisticated techniques to keep the wheel of insurgency in Afghanistan and terrorism in Pakistan turning. Could this shift be a sign of militants losing strength due to the surge in drone strikes? Or of locals’ frustration with the militants for bringing the drones to the region, and the increasing difficulty of running operations in those areas?
It appears that youths in the tribal areas who are turning to militancy are not recruited and trained in Islamist fundamentalism and ideas of Islamic jihad in the way militant organizations once did. The idea of the global Islamic cause against the Judea/Christian world doesn’t sell in this age of capitalism and self-interest, in which people are more concerned with making ends meet, or rising from their socio-economic class. The works of Syed Qutb, one of the intellectual fathers of modern militant jihadist groups, show precisely this difficulty in mobilizing masses for the cause of Islam. Qutb called on jihadists to mobilize Muslims through the use of powerful sentiments of fear, rather than ideas of Islamism and religion.
What makes it easy for militants to hypnotize these young kids is the lack of exposure the kids have of the world outside their tribe, and the close knit communal structure of the society. With little access to media and to rest of the Pakistan, and no state education, the youth and people in tribal areas live isolated lives. Their naiveté is what makes them vulnerable to militant propaganda – something the allied forces have failed to take into account in their war against terrorism. It was not out of any ideological or religious inclination, but largely due to the isolation of the tribes from rest of the world, that allowed the militants to easily penetrate into these areas, which later became their safe havens. The people on the ground showed very little understanding or knowledge of the events of 9/11 and the "war on terror" when I inquired. They are not allies of the militants, but are caught in the midst of an asymmetric battle between the United States and the militants, a battle in which innocent tribe-members are suffering the most.
The militants have also been able to successfully invoke fear amongst young children by repeatedly showing them rape videos, and telling them how their mothers and sisters will be treated by the "white men." And it was out of this fear of losing their mothers and sisters that the boys I interviewed agreed to become suicide bombers. In their minds, they were out to sacrifice themselves to protect their loved ones, but little did they know of the reality that rest of the world was viewing on TV.
People in the tribal regions have gotten weary of the militants’ behavior. As long as the militants were not bothering the locals, villagers allowed them to spread through the region. But now that the same militants are disturbing ordinary lives, the tribal regions are witnessing a wave of anti-militant sentiment. The United States and Pakistan must seize this unique opportunity to flush out militants from their safe havens. By establishing direct links with the locals and filling in the information vacuum, officials can offer the people a different narrative about the "War on Terror" and the United States.
There are hundreds of kids aged 9-21 that are being recruited in a similar way by the militants. As long as the United States and Pakistan do not come up with a counter-radicalization policy that will allow the kids to become more integrated with rest of the Pakistan, and the world at large, it will be hard to stop the wave of insurgency and suicide bombing against both, the Pakistan and the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.
Hussain Nadim is a faculty member at the Department of Government and Public Policy at National University of Science and Technology (NUST), in Islamabad. He was previously a Visiting Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org