The boys of Malakand: Pakistan’s child jihadists

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.

Students attend class in south Waziristan 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Students attend class in south Waziristan 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 see.
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 walk through.
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.
Sabaoon has 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.
On a 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 glory.
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 induction.
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 an informer.
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.
Instead, 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.
Recognizing my 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 nirvana.
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 indoctrinated).
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.”
Acutely 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 him.
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.
But 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.