Though I watched 9/11 from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I was then a physician in
the King Fahd National Hospital, I wouldn’t comprehend the true gravity of the
Islamist threat until I witnessed them as they portrayed themselves, until I
listened to them in their own words. Accepting the strangest of invitations,
late one Sunday afternoon in New York City, I found myself at the offices of
attorney and former IDF officer Richard Horowitz, viewing films he suggested I
Concealing my fears, I said little. We watched in silence as the
grainy videotapes revealed a small Muslim boy, no more than 10 or 11, clumsily
wielding a kitchen knife and decapitating a Muslim man – to the rousing approval
of his handlers in front of an audience of several thousands. The surroundings
evoked the Af-Pak, or Afghanistan and Pakistan region. The language of Islam
permeated the gruesome narrative.
That afternoon, Richard had opened the
door into a new world for me, one that as a Muslim woman, I found compelled to
Three years later, I found myself in Pakistan’s Northwest
Frontier Region, meeting child jihadists myself.
Returning to the country
of my parents’ heritage (where I have traveled for over forty years), I joined
neuropsychologist Dr. Feriha Peracha for the long drive north to Malakand. With
her devoted driver in an appropriately innocuous sedan, we left my family home
in Lahore and raced the 320 miles north. Crossing the Punjab boundary into the
North West Frontier Province, a security detail of Pakistani Army Rangers
escorted us at high speed in convoy to Malakand Fort where we would stay during
our visit. Dr. Peracha was taking me to see a school, “Sabaoon,” a joint
civilianmilitary initiative to de-radicalize child jihadists.
enrolled 191 militants since its inception in 2009, though Dr. Peracha believes
more than 5,000 boys remain at risk in the surrounding Swat valley.
freezing March afternoon, I listened to one boy’s account of his transformation
from schoolboy to jihadist. Dressed in a cricket shirt in Pakistan’s national
colors, he reminded me of my own brothers at his age. At 18, his Urdu was
equally halting, our common language rendered the story all the more terrifying
in our shared intimacy.
He was 15 when it began, the eldest of five, the
son of a father who barely supported the family with his minor government job.
The family lived in a mudwalled house. On his long walks to school far from his
home, an older Pakistani boy beguiled him with tales of a purer, “more noble”
Islam. There were no videos, no internet forums, no cellphones involved in his
radicalization, only the compulsion of a dazzling narrative in which the school
boy saw grander vistas, and the chance to see himself a heroic protagonist in
new adventures. Within weeks, he relented to the seductive narrator, running
away to join the Taliban. Theirs were dreams of divine mission, purpose and
Immediately he was relocated from concealed site to concealed
site, sometimes spending nights in the open air in Pakistan’s harsh but
beautiful Swat valley, which is icily cold after sundown. Hidden in grubby
hostels and other “markaz“ (centers) as he referred to them, the boy never
stayed more than one night in each locale. Disconnection was imperative in his
Because of the constant movement, not only was it impossible
for his family – who continued to search for him for weeks – to find him, but it
also guaranteed he was isolated from new friends who might dissuade him from the
brotherhood of the Taliban.
His first missions were minor. Later, they
would be far more significant. Even so, he remained a boy at heart. It wasn’t
until he missed his mother on Eid, the closing feast of Ramadan, and asked to
see her on a short visit, that his handlers redirected the young boy with so
much potential to become a disposable suicide operative. He was shackled
immediately. This lethal decision averted his risk of breaking away and becoming
That’s when he began telling me of his “tarbiyyat”
(religious training). As he spoke, I imagined my own – painstakingly learning my
Arabic letters and then, studying slowly and with difficulty, the Koran, verse
by verse, always at the side of my parents, always in our home.
his tarbiyyat was the mastery of a handgun, the proper unpinning of a
hand-grenade and the correct detonation of a suicide jacket. He even had
training in rocket launchers, AK-47s and LMGs (light machine guns) the acronyms
tripping off his tongue despite his illiteracy in English.
naiveté in combat operations, the boy helpfully explained. Miming gestures, I
began to understand. Approaching his final target, expecting to be apprehended,
the boy would shoot a police officer with his pistol, at which moment he knew to
throw the grenade (kept in his “shalwar” [trouser] pocket) into a packed crowd.
He would then run into the panicked masses fleeing from the explosion and,
inserting himself within them, detonate his jacket. In these three easy steps,
he would achieve both maximum carnage and, through it, jihadist
But fate held other plans for the boy. Arriving at the target
for his suicide operation, his last act as a Taliban foot soldier, he entered a
local Shi’ite mosque (all Shi’ite being “kaffir,” [infidels] as he had been
Studying the surroundings as he entered the mosque, he
watched Muslim men at prayer with a growing sense of recognition. He suddenly
saw with clarity these targets, like him, “were Muslim too.”
fearing for his own salvation, he hesitated – enough time for the lone police
officer nearby to apprehend him.
It wasn’t until I was back in the United
States that I opened his de-identified clinical file. Remembering the engaging,
vulnerable boy who reminded me so much of my younger brother, I was stunned to
read of his killing capabilities.
Seduced by the Islamist narrative at
the age of 15, he had first collaborated in an attack that killed five Pakistani
Frontier corpsmen. Later, he had kidnapped eleven soldiers in a raid on a
military camp, delivering the hostages into the hands of the Taliban. Prior to
the Shi’ite mosque where he was apprehended, he had been part of a separate raid
killing more than 100 people assembled at the local Jirga (tribal court). The
boy had become as deadly and compelling as the narrative that seduced
These boy jihadists, whether in the videos I first saw with Richard
Horowitz at his office, or the ones I met in Malakand, Pakistan, compel my
involvement to understand the war that wages within Islam, between us as
Muslims. As the counter terrorism community gathers in Israel to attend the
Institute of Counter Terrorism’s 13th International World Summit convening in
Herzliya during the first week in September, these boys will be in my thoughts.
In this globally recognized conference, leading minds will gather to formulate
new approaches as the Islamist threat escalates in multiple directions. While
Israel has long lead the world in knowledge of Islamist jihadist ideology and
its many complexities, it is taking Muslims everywhere, far longer to come to
terms with what is a lethal, consuming threat emerging from among us.
our first step to understanding them is understanding their narrative, as best
told: in their own, deadly words.
The writer is the author of In the Land
of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom.
She was a keynote speaker at the ICT summit at the IDC in Herziliyah from September 8 to 11. Her twitter feed is @MissDiagnosis.