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Jihadist Training Ground By: Willis Witter
Washington Times | Thursday, November 08, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan — A recitation of the Koran's first chapter by 15-year-old student Muhammad Asher carries a melodic, almost hypnotic rhythm, as his voice rises and falls in the cadence of classical Arabic.

Muhammad is a star student at the Arabia Taeem-ul-Quran madrassa in Lahore because in three years, he managed to memorize the entire Koran, hundreds of pages in an ancient language that is rarely spoken and that neither he nor nearly 100 fellow students can understand.

Audio Slide Show: Madrassas of Pakistan

Asked whether he could imagine himself attending a jihadist training camp one day, he replied: "It is my wish to do that, to defend Islam by the grace of God."

Arabia Taeem-ul-Quran adheres to the Deobandi branch of Islam, widely considered the more militant of two main types of madrassas in Pakistan.

Deobandi madrassas trained the entire leadership of the Taliban in a draconian form of Islam that they imposed on Afghanistan prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Deobandi madrassa graduates are thought to provide a pool of potential recruits for Taliban fighters, who have taken control of parts of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, from which they also raid Afghanistan.

The Arabia Taeem-ul-Quran madrassa consists of a modest, horseshoe-shaped building surrounding a giant excavation crater awaiting concrete for the foundation of a $700,000, three-story building. It will replace the cramped quarters where students spend much of the day sitting on threadbare carpets memorizing the Koran.

Manzour Ahmed Makhdoom, the headmaster, said the project is being funded entirely with donations from local Muslims.

A slight man with a high forehead and untrimmed black beard, he gently fingered a string of prayer beads while explaining that Western views of Islam as a violent religion are not correct.

"Islam does not permit a Muslim to kill another human being," he said during a recent visit.

The words took on a dissonant ring during a second visit to the madrassa less than two weeks later, when one man approached a Western reporter just as students were ending the evening prayer.

In halting English, he whispered, "Arabs ... kill you."

Was it a threat? Without a verb, the context was not completely clear. But the exchange took place amid a chaotic scene nearby, with young students entertaining a female photographer going about her work, her head tightly wrapped in a scarf. Women are usually forbidden from entering boys' madrassas.

Both incidents took place weeks before Saturday's declaration of emergency rule, in which Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suspended the constitution, fired most justices on the Supreme Court and vowed to crack down on militants based in the nation's remote northwest.

Arabia Taeem-ul-Quran has resisted reforms ordered by Gen. Musharraf nearly six years ago. It refuses to register with authorities and its curriculum remains unchanged, despite government requirements that basic subjects such as math, science and English be included.

Students spend their time between three meals and five daily prayers memorizing the Koran. Nothing else is taught, not even basic reading skills. Few, if any, students are from Lahore itself. Most come from the impoverished countryside, where the lure of free room and board offers a way out for poor families who cannot feed their children.

Future threat

To critics in the U.S., which provides more than $100 million in aid to Pakistan each month, the government has failed to follow through on reforms promised by Gen. Musharraf.

Rep. John F. Tierney, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security, worries that Pakistan's madrassas pose a long-term threat to the U.S.

"Will we be safe over the next five, 10 or 20 years as thousands — perhaps millions — more kids learn jihad at extremist madrassas instead of learning real-world skills to become productive citizens in their communities?" Mr. Tierney asked.

The venue was a May hearing, in which he displayed a picture of Pakistan's Red Mosque and students of an attached madrassa burning books, CDs and DVDs.

The future of the mosque is uncertain given Gen. Musharraf's emergency rule, but it was ordered reopened by the Supreme Court last month. The court also had ordered rebuilding of the adjacent girls' madrassa, which was torn down after a July raid by police commandos.

The Red Mosque's school represented the clearest example of the potential threat from unregulated madrassas. For six months, its students terrorized the capital, Islamabad.

Black-robed girls with sticks and ninjalike veils waged a campaign to impose strict Islamic law in the capital, kidnapping suspected prostitutes, smashing video and CD shops and taking over a library. Its leaders — one killed in the raid and the other jailed — had threatened to attack the capital and other targets with waves of suicide bombers.

After the raid, militants primarily based in the northwest retaliated with suicide bombings and attacks on the army, which government officials say have claimed more than 800 lives.

The black-clad girls are gone. Some say hundreds were killed when police stormed the compound on July 10 and remain buried in a field of dirt and rocks that had covered a two-story basement that housed its dormitory.

Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group, who visited the site just days before Gen. Musharraf declared emergency rule, said construction appeared to have started on the site.

No concrete had been poured, but Mr. Schneider described a shallow excavation for a slablike foundation that would sit on top of the buried basement.

Radical recruitment

During visits to the Arabia Taeem-ul-Quran madrassa in late September and early October, the school seemed a world apart from the violent turmoil that continues to plague Pakistan.

Muhammad, the student who memorized the Koran, spoke in a soft voice while explaining his experience from a life of constant prayer and memorization.

"When I pray and study, I feel a direct connection with God. It takes away all my fears. I'm only afraid of God," he said.

He also spoke abstractly of benefits for himself and others in the afterlife. There was no mention of 72 virgins promised for martyrs in paradise nor was the question asked.

But the headmaster cited one saying of the prophet Muhammad that is recorded in a Hadith, a body of Muslim scripture separate from the Koran: "If a boy memorizes the Holy Koran, he can take 10 other persons with him to heaven and his parents will be crowned in heaven and given special status," he said.

Militants recruiting fighters from each year's pool of madrassa graduates are said to promise much more extravagant otherworldly benefits for those who die as martyrs — the ability to let generations of family members into paradise.

Estimates of the student population in Pakistan's madrassas range from 600,000 to nearly 2 million, while estimates of the number of madrassas range from 12,000 to nearly 30,000. Some analysts put the number of more moderate Ahle Sunnat and Deobandi madrassas at about 10,000 each.

Fighting history

Retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Maqbool, a close ally of Gen. Musharraf and the governor of Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, spoke at length about madrassa reform during a recent interview at the governor's mansion in Lahore.

"Since the very time Islam was revealed, madrassas were the basis of education. They were never in isolation or limited only to religious education. They produced our leaders and scholars."

In Pakistan, that system went through dramatic changes after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he said.

"Pakistani and international forces were seeking ideological approval for the struggle against Russia. It was at that time that the Wahhabi school was promoted in this area by the world, by Islamic countries and by Pakistan."

He was referring to the Wahhabi sect of Islam, the state religion of Saudi Arabia and the theological foundation of Osama bin Laden's militant doctrine, which calls for cleansing Muslim lands of Western "infidels" and Western influence.

"It was suited to everyone's goals at that moment, and when the Afghan war folded, these people didn't go away.

"Then we hit 9/11 and realized that many of the people who were involved in terrorism had traveled to or were educated in the madrassas."

When asked about the lack of progress in de-radicalizing the system, he said:

"I must admit that the progress that we have achieved so far has not been at the level that we wanted. But we have not given up."

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