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Pakistan a hotbed for terror recruits

Whether the suspected terrorists' trail starts in London or Lodi, investigators tracking Islamic radicals say it often leads to the same place: Pakistan, America's ally in the war on terror - and a recruiting hub for the global jihad.

That dual identity reflects Pakistan's complex history as well as its perilous geography, perched on the Arabian Sea and sharing tense borders with Iran, Afghanistan, China and India.

Although Pakistani officials insist they've cleaned out al-Qaida training camps in their country, a young Lodi man told FBI agents in June he spent six months in such a camp near Rawalpindi in 2003-04, according to federal court documents.

Hamid Hayat said he "observed hundreds of attendees from various parts of the world at this camp," his FBI interrogator wrote in the documents.

Reacting to this claim, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters flatly on June 11: "There are no such camps."

But Hayat, 22, and his father, Lodi ice cream vendor Umer Hayat, told the FBI of a half-dozen other young Lodi men who received jihadi training in Pakistan, the documents state. Umer Hayat, 47, also said he toured several other training camps and observed training in weaponry and urban warfare, says an affidavit filed in the case.

Both Hayats, who are in custody in Sacramento County jail on charges they lied to the FBI, now deny any connection with terrorists, and their attorneys say their statements were made under duress. Their trial is set for Aug. 23 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.

In Britain, investigators into the murderous July 7 attacks in London found that three of the four suicide bombers recently made extended trips to Pakistan, where they may have trained with extremists, according to news reports.

The Pakistani connection in these far-flung cases does not surprise James Phillips, an expert on international terrorism at the Heritage Foundation, a research institute in Washington, D.C.

"Pakistan is a hotbed for this kind of activity because the Pakistani government has turned a blind eye to Islamic radicalism in its midst," Phillips said.

"There is a network of al-Qaida sympathizers in the provinces along the Afghan frontier; the Pakistani federal government has never really controlled those tribal areas. There is terrorist training going on there."

Phillips and other experts on the region say that after the Taliban was deposed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, many of the regime's supporters fled to Pakistan's rugged borderlands and teeming cities to hide out and regroup.

They appear to have been joined by some disaffected young Muslims from America and Britain, drawn to Pakistan by the jihad, the holy war against enemies of Islam. In one such case, four young Virginians were convicted last year of providing "material support" to terrorism by attending a jihadi camp near Muzafrabad, Pakistan, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.

These alienated youths are attracted by more than religious conviction, Phillips said: "It is intoxicating for them. It gives them a sense of belonging to a greater movement, it promises salvation, it fills psychological needs. Many are single men who feel ... like strangers in a strange land. They're often drawn to radicalism for social reasons as much as religious ones."

Phillips contends Pakistan's loose system of conservative religious schools, known as madrassahs, contributes to the country's culture of militancy.

Umer Hayat told FBI agents his son learned about jihadi training camps while at a Pakistani madrassah, according to court documents. One of the London bombers, Shehzad Tanweer, reportedly attended a militant madrassah near Lahore for more than two months.

"Some of these madrassahs are set up to be jihad factories," Phillips said. "They hijack Islam and brainwash their converts. True Islam condemns suicide bombing and condemns the killing of innocent women and children."

A few radical madrassahs do groom recruits for the jihad, agreed Husain Haqqani, author of a book published this month: "Pakistan - Between Mosque and Military." But most of the seminaries are benign, said Haqqani, himself a product of a madrassah in Karachi.

"We don't want to panic Americans about every Muslim who goes to a madrassah," he said. "Most of these schools are very conservative, very orthodox, but not necessarily violent. There are 13,000 madrassahs in Pakistan today - if they were all radical we would have a million terrorists in Pakistan.

"However, there is a small number that have been used as a front by radical groups and for radical training."

As for young Pakistani Americans who head to the old country for training at a madrassah - they are the tiny minority, said Irfan Haq, spokesman for the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations.

Haq, a Sacramento businessman, grew up in Karachi. Even in Pakistan, he said, madrassahs primarily are attended by the lower classes.

"The madrassahs are medie-val - they create misfits who don't have worldly skills and cannot find jobs," Haq said. "You typically don't find mainstream Muslims in madrassahs. The first time I heard of someone from this area going to one, it was during this Lodi incident."

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf vowed in 2001 to reform the madrassah system by creating a registry for the schools and monitoring them more closely. In the wake of the London bombings, Musharraf said last week that he will step up that process and require all madrassahs to register with the government by December.

Politically, Haqqani said, Musharraf is playing a tricky hand. He must satisfy his Western allies that he is ridding his country of terrorists. At the same time, he must dare not inflame Pakistan's powerful conservative Muslim element.

Complicating the situation, the scholar said, is Pakistan's long history of supporting Islam's violent fringe.

Pakistan enlisted Islamic militants to bolster its struggle with India over Kashmir and to battle Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan. Those alliances created an international cadre of "holy warriors" who now are intent on carrying the jihad to Europe and the United States.

"Pakistan has yet to acknowledge the results of its state policy of tolerating these extremists for four decades," Haqqani said. "These radical groups were given a free hand previously. Those relationships are not going to disappear overnight."

Last week, Musharraf took a step in that direction, asking his people to declare another kind of jihad.

"I urge you, my nation, to stand up and wage jihad against extremism and to stand up against those who spread hatred and chaos in the society," he said in an hourlong speech televised in Pakistan.

The Times of London reported Thursday that Pakistani authorities said "they have arrested 228 suspected militants and extremist clerics in a series of raids on religious schools and private homes over the last week."

That is a move in the right direction, said Haqqani, who is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

"But serious questions remain," Haqqani said. "What were they all doing in Pakistan in the first place? And why does every major al-Qaida figure come through Pakistan? There has to be tolerance of them there - and the ability for them to hide."

About the writer:

  • The Bee's Dorothy Korber can be reached at (916) 321-1061 or dkorber@sacbee.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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