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Pakistan: In the Land of Conspiracy Theories

Chanting children at rally.

Students from a local Islamic religious school in Karachi take part in a rally against President Pervez Musharraf.

As the Pakistani army continues to hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban extremists along the Afghanistan border, the militants are on an offensive of their own -- flooding the local markets with propaganda. In the alleys of the Kisa Kwani market in Peshawar, the main city in the mountainous northwestern region of Pakistan, shopkeepers sell cleverly packaged DVDs that show the militants are winning the war here. Dead bodies of women and children are intercut with images of President Pervez Musharraf shaking hands with President George W. Bush. A commentator talks of the horrors taking place in Waziristan and asks people to get behind the militant cause.

These extremists are out to convince the public that the Pakistani army is killing innocent Muslims and that the U.S. and Pakistani governments have given their consent. But a closer look at the DVDs reveals that the images aren't from Waziristan. They are cleverly edited images from battles that took place in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir.

"Many Pakistanis believe the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is just an excuse for the United States to intervene throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and that he will not be found until the Americans have conquered the entire Muslim world."

If you spend any time in Pakistan, you realize that it's a land full of conspiracy theories: 9/11 was a Jewish Mossad plot; the Pakistan army is killing innocent Muslims in Waziristan at the behest of the Americans; Musharraf is only pretending to wage war against the terrorists in Waziristan so as to appease Washington. And there are endless Osama bin Laden intrigues -- many Pakistanis believe that the hunt for the al Qaeda leader is just an excuse for the United States to intervene throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and that bin Laden will not be found until the Americans have conquered the entire Muslim world.

These anti-U.S. theories are given a boost on the streets with the circulation of Abu Gharaib torture images and when former inmates at Guantanamo give lurid accounts of American guards desecrating the Koran. And these theories are the last thing in the world Musharraf and his quasi-democratic government need.

I was in Pakistan a few weeks ago when a new -- and, in my view, ludicrous -- theory emerged: The London bombings were orchestrated by the United States, perhaps the CIA, to sway British public opinion into supporting the war against terror. On the streets of the metropolitan cities of Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, newspaper hawkers were selling Urdu-language newspapers containing reports that legitimized these theories. What surprised me most, however, was not the theory itself, but that educated Pakistanis were subscribing to it.

Lost in all of this speculation is the reality that a war is indeed going on in Pakistan. Since 9/11, Pakistan has rounded up hundreds of al Qaeda operatives and handed them over to the United States. And in the face of major opposition, the Pakistani army launched an offensive last year in Waziristan to flush out the militants. It was the first time in Pakistan's history that the army had been sent to the region; now, more than 70,000 troops are stationed there. Thus far, at least 250 soldiers have perished.

Pakistan army patrol in Waziristan.

Pakistani soldiers patrol the tribal belt of Waziristan near the Afghanistan border.

This mostly lawless region along the Afghan border has been an independent tribal territory since 1893, remaining outside Afghanistan and British-ruled India. The local tribes follow their own code of conduct -- called pushtunwalli -- and Pakistani law is not recognized. Since the United States' invasion of Afghanistan, large numbers of Arab militants as well as remnants of the Taliban have been living and hiding out in Waziristan. Local warlords have refused to hand over the militants because they consider these people to be their guests. To further complicate matters, a number of tribal elders have married their daughters off to some of the militants, who as a result become fully integrated into tribal society.

Major General Shaukat Sultan, an army spokesperson, told me that the militants are using sophisticated weapons, that they are well funded, and that they come from countries as far away as Kazakhstan and Chechnya. On a recent raid in South Waziristan, Pakistani troops recovered weapons they had never seen before. "These guns are not manufactured in Pakistan; we had to research to see what these guns were capable of," said Sultan.

Pakistani army general.

Major General Shaukat Sultan displays the passports of militants from Kazakhstan who were killed in fierce fighting in Waziristan.

A senior member of the Pakistan army told me in confidence how delicate this operation is for the Pakistani government: "The West puts pressure on us to curb extremism, but we cannot eradicate it over night. It will take time, and we have to do it in a way that does not alienate the local population."

If you talk to private citizens, many of them will tell you that the Pakistani army is not addressing the real causes of terrorism in the country. "We are in the business of quick fixes," said Bilal Zaki, a stockbroker in Lahore. "There is a reason why militancy is on the rise in Pakistan: lack of education, unemployment -- these are factors that the government chooses to ignore. Not too many people will want to blow themselves up on a full stomach."

Others mistrust the Pakistani military. Kamal Jabbar, a Pakistani lawyer from Karachi, feels that the army lacks a cohesive strategy. "Prior to the 11th of September, 2001, for example," said Jabbar, "the government and the army, through their murky intelligence agencies, were funding, training and supporting many of the 'terrorists' they now claim to be arresting or killing."

I went to the Karachi Central Jail, in which more than 5,000 prisoners are incarcerated, including some of the most notorious terrorists. As I passed through to the inside, it struck me how primitive life has remained here. For example, there are no X-ray machines to monitor what guards or visitors might try to smuggle inside. The prison can't afford these machines.

When I met with the jail's superintendent, Amanullah Khan Niazi, he showed me his badly scarred arm. Last year, while Niazi was on a routine walk through the cellblocks, a militant threw boiling water mixed with sulphuric acid on him. Niazi was lucky to escape with only a burned arm. "These people are not scared at all," said Niazi. "They are capable of building bombs with sugar, fertilizer and some chemicals, and they are convinced that their ideology will lead them to heaven."

Reporter Sharmeen Obaid in front of prison gates.

Reporter Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy visits Karachi Central Jail where some of Pakistan's most notorious terrorists are held.

Jail is meant to help reform people, but the militants in the Karachi Central Jail vow to return to their past activities as soon as they are free. "We have tried our best to convince them to change their ways," said Niazi, "but they tell us that they will fight until they die and that they will get new recruits in the process. These are very dangerous people."

President Musharraf has already survived several attacks on his life, and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has been targeted, along with several top army generals. The militants show no signs of relenting, perhaps because they have the support of some members of the intelligence force, the powerful -- and corrupt -- Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Another political -- as well as practical -- concern is how stretched the Pakistan army is in pursuing foreign militants while there are homegrown terrorists who continue to openly operate guerrilla camps in the North-West Frontier province.

Everywhere you look in Pakistan, tensions are rising. Pakistan's current detente with India has infuriated militants in Kashmir, who feel betrayed by the president's offer of friendship to India. There's fear that these jihadis are now joining forces with the militants from Waziristan to further destabilize the government. In the past year and a half, several bomb blasts have rocked cities of Pakistan, killing more than 70 people. Churches, mosques, embassies and foreign fast food chains have been hit.

Tribal leaders.

Tribal leaders from Pakistan's mostly lawless North-West Frontier Province.

On the day of the London bombings, I met with three people from the banned Sunni Islamic group Laskhar-e-Taiba, in downtown Lahore. This group has a long association with the Kashmiri struggle and, more recently, has also been linked with sectarian (Shia versus Sunni) bomb attacks in the cities. One member of the group told me -- in fluent English -- that even though their activities were banned and some of their members detained, they would reemerge after each new government crackdown with a different name in a different location.

"We have a battle on our hands," said Shoaib Ahmed (I don't know if that was his real name). "The Pakistan army has lost all credibility in the eyes of the public. They are killing innocent Muslims because America and Britain want them to do so. This is just the beginning. The real war will come in time."

The three members of the group described their activities to me, including training they received to fight against the Indian army in Kashmir. Before I left, one of them pulled me aside: "We are fighting for the entire Muslim world," he said. "If we don't fight, the West will take over -- and we can't let that happen. So we need everyone's help, including yours."

The next day, I could sense a real change in the air. As soon as the connection between the London bombings and Pakistan had been established, President Musharraf gathered his top police chiefs from across the country and issued an ultimatum: Find and arrest all members of the banned Islamic groups; close down all shops that carry hate literature and propaganda; carry out raids on Islamic religious schools; and ban the use of loudspeakers in mosques.

"President Musharraf gathered his top police chiefs and issued an ultimatum: Find and arrest all members of the banned Islamic groups; close down all shops that carry hate literature and propaganda; carry out raids on Islamic religious schools; and ban the use of loudspeakers in mosques."

Pakistanis had heard all this before. A local politician in Islamabad told me that when the West pressures the government, it reacts by carrying out small-scale raids. "It's a way to appease the Western world, just a show of force -- but that is all there is to it. It will die down in a day or so."

But things seemed different this time. In the first week, more than 600 people were arrested, Islamic schools were raided, and the police were out in force.

After the crackdown, the religious parties hit back. Impromptu rallies took place across the country calling on the nation to join hands against the government after Friday prayers. People braced themselves for the worst. Police and paramilitary forces flooded the streets. Then the night before the day of action, the president delivered a strong message on television, and most people opted to stay away. The religious parties barely managed to rally a few hundred people.

"Pakistan cannot afford to lose this war to the terrorists, and neither can the West," Major General Sultan explained, acknowledging that the government and the army have a monumental task ahead. The spokesperson for Jamat-i-Islami, the largest Islamic political party in Pakistan, told me at a rally in Karachi that the religious parties would continue to fight back. He believed that they would join with other groups to topple the government of Pakistan and that President Musharraf's working against the interests of Islam would not be tolerated for long.

Those in Pakistan who want a moderate government stress that President Musharraf's current crackdown on terrorism needs to be authentic. They want to believe that this time around, things will be different -- that those arrested and convicted will be kept behind bars, not released after a few days' detention. Pakistan can opt to move forward with the rest of the world, or it can stay mired in a shadowy and troubled past.

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is an award-winning television producer and reporter. She has covered her native Pakistan for FRONTLINE/World on television and on the Web.


U Y - New York, NY
Dear Ms Obaid: First I would like to say, that it was indeed a well-written report that you wrote on the topic. However, there is perhaps much that you do not know about the country of Pakistan. I do however appreciate the fact that you are trying to get answers. But I'm sorry to inform you, that you are taking the wrong side. The country you call Pakistan, was created solely to always create issues in that region. This would give the West, a reason to come in and take control. I would love to discuss these "facts" with you some time. And as for the 9-11 Conspiracy, if you truly feel still, that it was Muslims who did this, then perhaps it's worthless for me to share more knowledge with you.

Abdul wali - Peshawar, NWFP
Very well done Ms. Obaid, you have done a great job. After studying all these topics I would say a few things. The first thing is that we all Muslims support jihad and jihadis, but if you see the peope fighting in Waziristan, they are not 100% mujahidins, they are from other countries and they just don't want to see Pakistan develop...Afghanistan and India are [working] together to put pressure through the international community on Pakistan and they don't want unity between the people of Pakistan and the Pakistan army. I know it because I personally belong to North Waziristan. But listen, a few mistakes are also made by the Pakistani forces/government.

M. A. Ilahi - Baytown, Texas
A good article. However, the problem of religious fanaticism is one of the main problems that must be understood and tackled before making Pakistan and the world safe from these highly depressed and easily misguided terrorists, including State sponsored ones. Islamic thinking and values have been contaminated either purposely or due to confused thinking or both, over centuries. The perfect religion of Islam has been changed almost 180 degrees. The kindest, most forgiving and most peacefull religion has been made into something else by Sharia Laws, false Ahadis and misquotations alleged to have been made by the prophet. Now these poor children of Pakistan are being taught in Madrassas to be cruel and vengeful as part of their religion. I have read some of the books being taught in those Madrassas, and I can only pity the young mind that would believe and act on any part of those books. So, the enemy has attacked Islam and Pakistan by FUNDING these Madrassas. That is why it is so difficult to identify the real criminals who have encouraged terrorism... Musharraf has done a great job and all of us must support him. We must EDUCATE the children of the world properly or we will have terrorism for a long long time.

Ali Omair Khan - New York, NY
Very well done Ms. Obaid. Your work is always throughly researched and a pleasure to read. It's heartening to see a young Pakistani woman making her mark in the field of journalism here in the west. However, I'd like to give you one piece of advice, you seem to keep very dangerous company, please dont underestimate the reach of some of these so- called jihadis.
Best of luck.

Shaheen Junaid - Pointe-Claire, Quebec
Very well written and a very objective piece. Personally I have observed that it has been a habit of us Pakistanis - I could go as far as saying, "It is a fashion" to criticize our government - does not matter who is governing. After a very long time, a President like Mr. Musharraf, has made us Pakistanis living abroad, feel proud of belonging to it. Now some evil forces are destroying all that, they are Hell bent on creating a bad image of Pakistan. It is about time that the EDUCATED citizens, took the helm of the country in their hands and helped the government deal with ignorance. Yes ignorance is a big factor. Good education for the masses will help change that. It is up to us to make it available for the children of Pakistan. It will have to start en masse.

Hassan Abbas - Cambridge, MA
It's an excellent piece - objective and based on facts. However, Musharraf's measures against religious extremism are increasingly less effective not because extremists are gaining ground but because of Musharraf's losing credibility - the liberal and mainstream political parties remain on the sidelines and good governance is still a dream. Moreover, Musharraf routinely backs out after taking strong policy decisions.