The True Face of Jehadis

27 Sep

There is a terribly sad portion in the cover story of last month’s National Geographic in which the writer recounts his meeting with one of the militant young women who took over a children’s library in Islamabad, Pakistan, earlier this year.

Dressed in a burkha, talking in English, she expressed her hopes and dreams for her country: a return to that ideal of an Islamic state. When the author of the article objected, telling her that the founders of Pakistan, especially Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had dreamt quite a different dream for this hard won land of theirs, she was shocked.

“That is a lie,” [22-year-old Umme] Ayman says, her voice shaking with fury. “Everyone knows that Pakistan was created as an Islamic state, according to the will of Allah. Where did you read this thing?”

I don’t know what this says about me, but at the end of the article, I came away feeling worse for young Umme than for 16-year-old Najma, who had been raped by a police constable in order to convince her family to sell a parcel of their land that he wanted. Najma and her family “did all the right things” as the local human rights campaigner puts it, including medical tests and attempting to file a police report. Her reward?

Finally, the police inspector, a Mr. Khan, arrives and pulls up a battered chair….Najma is lying, he announces, to protect her father from a previous charge of having assaulted the police constable. (Her father is a small, defeated man pushing 70, who can barely walk.) The medical evidence, Khan continues, reveals Najma to be a “habitual fornicator,” based on certain measurements he is not at liberty to divulge. To conduct his investigation, he says, he personally traveled to the village and interviewed “60 or 90 people in the village mosque.” All declared the police constable incapable of committing such a crime. The case, he says, is closed. It is dark by the time Rehman pulls away from the police station, musing on what will happen to Najma’s family. “If they don’t leave immediately, they will be in danger,” he says. “The constable could send men to rape the other sister, or to rape Najma again. Or he might kill them all, to make an example of them or to punish them for going to the police.”

We never do find out what happened to Najma, but at least she knew she’d been done wrong even if she had no access to justice; Umme doesn’t even know what she has lost. One’s body has been violated; another’s mind. Perhaps Najma can go beyond the vileness of what she has experienced. Umme cannot even begin to address her loss.


Amir Mir’s is a name that is not only well known in Pakistan but has made its way across the border to India via his articles printed in Indian publications such as Outlook. His book, The True Face of Jehadis – Inside Pakistan’s Network of Terror is one of the most remarkable ones I have ever read. Not too many of us have the opportunity to not only witness a turning point in the history of the world, but to stand at it’s very epicenter, looking down into the yawning abyss.

I find I do not envy Mr. Mir in the least. His is a valuable, if mostly thankless, task: an attempt to chronicle the slow but steady conversion of Pakistan from the “refuge of Muslims” as envisioned by Mr. Jinnah sixty years ago to the “Islamic state” cherished by people such as Umme Ayman. The remarkable foreword, penned by Khaled Ahmed, is a fair indication of the kind of storm Mr. Mir must face on a daily basis: this is “not a book of analysis or opinion,” says Mr. Ahmed, “it simply puts together the mosaic of reportage in such a way that it creates a narrative that might yield grounds for analysis. This should offend no one.”

Even more remarkable is the fact that he is absolutely right – Mr. Mir has indeed refrained from commentary and allowed his exhaustively well researched facts to form a narrative on their own. And what a narrative they make.

The story arcs from the Cold War to the post-9/11 world; Independence from British India in 1947 to the fledgling efforts at liberation from a military dictatorship; it encompasses the foreign policies of the United States of America, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and pretty much every single country that you can think of that’s had a hand in shaping the post-Cold War era of global politics; and an invaluable indepth history of the main players in the Jehadi market. Eventually, the context fades to the background and the flesh and blood characters emerge.

On the one hand it is a completely terrifying book: it is full of the kind of people and stuff that all our nightmares are made of. But it is also fascinating to read of men running terror networks with all the elan of well-to-do shopkeepers. Consider the suicide bomber who rammed General Musharaff’s cavalcade in one of the earlier attempts at his life: the man spent his last few minutes on earth burning up the phone lines, allegedly receiving updates on the General’s movements from an army officer in the know. In popular imagination he would have sat in his car, sweating bullets, thinking once, twice, a million times about what he was about to do, unable to concentrate on anything other than the enormous step he was about to take. But the phone records reflect a person who might just as well be a stockbroker, figuring out the best time to buy or sell.

The true value of this book actually lies in its narrative, even if it can read like a cold catalogue of men and deeds at times, especially if you read it at one sitting. It allows the reader to focus on the characters introduced to us to the exclusion of all else. There are no human interest stories here, no Najma who was raped or Umme who has never had an opportunity to appreciate the complexities of her history to pull at your attention.

Mr. Mir is an author who, having determined the scope of his book, sticks to it with determination. He promises us the true face of jehadis and so he delivers. These are men of different beliefs and different goals, working in tandem or on their own in a murky world where loyalties shift with dizzying speed and end objectives dilute themselves into survival tactics. He presents us with the Pakistani Army, the ISI, various terror outfits that frequently change their names to keep one step ahead of alerts that go out from international agencies, and the main players in these circles such as Dawood Ibrahim (a man he pegs as someone possibly more or as dangerous as Osama bin Laden without the kind of worldwide notoriety the latter has achieved).

He breaks down the acronyms so many of us see on a daily basis – such as the HuM, LeT and JeM, etc – into portraits of real people rather than the one massive block of terror organizations they sometimes appear to be. It’s a world full of rivalry and warfare, death and betrayal.

And that’s not just the state of affairs in the jehadi world. The Army, post Zia ul Haq, seems to be very little better off. Excerpt:

Unfortunately, however, some religious-minded (pro-jehad) officers already inhabit the top echelons of the Pakistan army. The military top brass aside, the alleged release of an unsigned letter on the GHQ letterhead in October 2003 had hinted at the prevalent resentment among the second-ranking leadership of the Pakistan Army. The letter, written in Urdu in the form of a petition, had been circulating among army officers for quite some time before being made public on October 20, 2003 when the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy president, Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, addressed a press conference in Islamabad to release the same. But Hashmi’s decision to make it public was construed as sedition and he was subsequently sentenced to 23 years in prison for inciting mutiny in the army.


“Pervez Musharraf has turned Pakistan—the fort of Islam—into a slaughterhouse of the Muslims”. The letter applauds the parliament, claiming that had it not been constituted, the Pakistani army would have been dispatched to Iraq to kill ‘our brothers’. The letter asked the parliament to discuss a range of issues: “What were the objectives behind the Kargil venture? Why did Pakistan suffer massive losses, even higher than what it sustained in the 1965 and 1971 wars? Why has not Pakistan, like India, instituted an inquiry commission into Kargil?” The letter then revealed information quite sensational—and incredible—in its sweep. It alleged that the commander of the Kargil war, Major General Javed-ul-Hasan, had been a military attaché in the US for four years, and had worked there under the CIA’s supervision. “The Kargil war was waged at the behest of the US. He (Major General Javed) was even attacked by the officers and jawans for his poor planning of the (Kargil) war. But his mentors got him promoted as Lieutenant General, though he should have been sacked”.


Inter Services Public Relations Director General, Major General Shaukat Sultan thought the letter Hashmi had released was forged and meant to harm the unity of the armed forces. He had further said: “A high-level probe has been initiated into the communication and delivery of the letter, allegedly dispatched from the GHQ, though it seemed nothing more than a pack of lies”. Federal Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed dismissed the letter as a ploy by India’s Research and Analysis Wing to damage Pakistan’s armed forces.

However, there are those in the military circles who believe that the letter Javed Hashmi had released was not fabricated and that other members of parliament too had received copies of it. It is through anonymous missives that disgruntled officers now seem to be waging their battle. For instance, in the recent past, one such letter had divulged information about the arrest of Pakistan Army’s officers (Lt. Col. Khalid Abbasi etc), which was being kept secret by the military authorities. Though its contents were dismissed outright, the Inter Services Public Relations subsequently announced the arrest of army officers for their links with the al-Qaeda and other militant outfits.

Eventually there comes a point in the book, sifting through all the tangled layers, where one stops and remembers that Guru Dutt song from Pyaasa: Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai? If God came down on Earth tomorrow and granted their every wish – then what? What does the world have to offer people who think that death is a gateway to a better world? What sort of a world would people like that build?

I can only hope that some day peace will prevail.


Posted by on September 27, 2007 in Books, Entertainment, Life, Newsmakers, Politics, Review


7 responses to “The True Face of Jehadis

  1. anangbhai

    September 27, 2007 at 11:06 pm

    Wasn’t there a story about that somewhere. Jesus came down from heaven and the catholic church had him jailed because if it were known he was here then they would have to stop asking for money.
    Sorry, 2000 wasn’t the year. It’ll be another thousand years of fund-raising.
    Don’t like Musharraf a lot, but my pakistani friend is of the opinion that the country is best under the rule of the military and always has been. People like Umme Ayman and LK Advani will always be there, yelling hooting and hollering.
    I’m of the opinion that we will see Advani’s influence die down in our lifetime, as India moves towards economic liberalization and because of the internet. Can’t say the same for Pakistan though.
    Its a horrible comparison, but Jinnah admired the British, and pakistan is now fundamentalist, Gandhi and Nehru were all about the desi maal, and now we’re on our way to become the next asian tiger, for good or bad.

  2. Diya Sen

    September 28, 2007 at 12:44 am

    Dear Amrita
    The hopelessness of the situation is frustrating. After the publicity received by the Mukhtar Mai case one would hope that such incidents would wane, but one realises with a sinking feeling that That case was the exeption, and so is this one I guess, for the majority goes unreported. We like to think we are better off in India but are we? Women paraded naked, killed mercilessly for dowry, raped and violated during communal riots, pregnant women’s abdomen slit and the foetus diplayed on the point of the sword…if this is not fanaticism what is and the violation of women goes under any name or any ideology. Sometimes one wants to scream and use some choicest Hindi abusive words.
    Speaking of abusive words, I really liked your post on them. Why did you leave it so abruptly at two, I was hoping to see an explanatory note on ‘Ma ki aakh’ I heard it in several places including in Rang De Basanti and I don’t know what it means and I am damned if I will admit that and ask my husband!
    I think that you are the most well read blogger that I have encountered so far, thank you for your very informative posts on just about every subject. I am looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  3. DesiGirl

    September 28, 2007 at 6:07 am

    Beautiful article, Ams. I can feel your angst and bewilderment resonating from your words. In the short while I’ve known you, your words seem to have come such a long way. Keep writing!

    ps: Whatever happened to that manuscript of yours?

  4. Amrita

    September 30, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Anang – lol! Don’t know about that but I heard Jesus tried to get on a plane the other day and some passenger alerted the authorities that a bearded Middle Eastern man was trying to get on a plane. And then ABC fired Bill Maher 😀
    Re: Pakistan, I dont know how much of the current mess we can lay at the feet of Jinnah. If he’d lived a bit longer then I guess we could have but as it stands, the only thing we can blame him for is underestimating the forces he unleashed in the build up to Partition and then dying right afterwards.
    But yes, the economic liberalization is the genie in the Indian bottle, I agree. It’s changed pretty much every dynamic in the country and its sort of funny that the super swadeshi Sangh Parivar was part of the process thanks to Yashwant Sinha.

    Diya – that’s a lovely thing to say. thank you 🙂 I do try not to be an ignoramus so appreciation is always welcome! 😀
    Re: the Mukhtaran Mai case and India: no, we’re not extremely different in India. The only difference that I can think of is that in India, some TV channel is always waiting to put such cases on air. I would like to believe also that we haven’t yet become a society where violence against women is an accepted way of settling scores as some of those tribes on the Afghanistan border seem to believe.
    I stopped the curse thing because I was out of time! And since you’ve been so nice to me, I’ll tell you that “Ma ki Aankh” means “Your mother’s eye” except they’re not talking about the seeing eye if you know what I mean. It’s another way of calling someone a motherfucker. Yeah, it’s pretty crude 😀

    DG – awww! smoochie. thanks 🙂 the dadblasted thing is giving me loads of trouble is what it is doing. Wanna read it sometime? 😛

  5. DesiGirl

    September 30, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    yeah go on – bung it my way and we’ll see what we can do about it!! 😉

  6. the mad momma

    October 1, 2007 at 4:20 am

    excellent post Amrita.. as always. and now i feel your angst and bewilderment too…

  7. Amrita

    October 2, 2007 at 10:17 am

    DG – ok, but remember you asked for it 🙂

    MM – thanks 🙂

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