By Chris Brummit and Asif Shahzad for The Associated Press
Abdul Baseer sent the grenades and explosive vest ahead, then boarded a bus that would take him to his target, accompanied by the 14-year-old boy he had groomed as his suicide bomber.
But before they could blow up their target, a luxury hotel in Lahore where they believed Americans would be staying, the two were arrested and are now in jail — Baseer unrepentant about having plotted to send a boy to his death, and the boy saying he never knew what was in store for him.
The story that unfolded in an interview with The Associated Press offers a rare insight into the world of a Pakistani militant, from his education at hard-line Islamic schools, through his professed participation in an attack on a U.S. patrol in Afghanistan, up to his arrest by Pakistani police along with the the boy, Mohi-ud-Din. His tale shares much with that of the thousands of other foot soldiers who make up the Taliban-led insurgency that is ravaging Pakistan, experts say. It also shows how the wars here and in neighboring Afghanistan bleed into each other.
The Associated Press, after several requests, was allowed to interview the two detainees, with police present for most of the meeting at a police interrogation center in Lahore, a political and military power center in eastern Pakistan. Baseer was born in 1985 close to the Swat Valley, which last year was overrun by Taliban and recaptured by the Pakistanis. The eldest of seven children, his father was a wheat farmer and earned barely enough to feed the family. Meat was reserved for guests, he recalled.
Like many who cannot afford a regular education, Baseer attended three Islamic boarding schools where children learn the Quran by heart and spend little time on secular subjects. The religious schools provide free board and lodging, but are widely criticized for indoctrinating students with an extreme version of Islam. At least one of the schools Baseer attended, Jamia Faridia in the capital, Islamabad, has been linked to terror.
“Through my studies, I became aware that this is the time for jihad and fighting the infidels, and I saw that a jihad was going on in Afghanistan,” said Basser, a rail-thin man speaking just louder than whisper. “I looked for a way to get there.” “A trip to Afghanistan is considered part of the profession for a militant,” said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. “It is almost like you need to do it for graduation. “The American troops are there, and it’s a cause of resentment.”
Baseer said he spent three summer vacation periods in Kunar, an Afghan province just across the border from northwest Pakistan, which he reached through a network of sympathetic clerics. On his first trip, in his mid-teens, he cooked for around 30 or 40 other militants, most of them Afghans, who were living in a large cave complex. On his second stay he had military training and learned to make suicide jackets. On the final trip he took part in the ambush of a U.S. patrol after he and other fighters had lain in wait in the snow for two days.”I was happy to be in place where I could kill unbelievers,” he said. “I thank God that we all returned safely and had a successful mission.”
He said he was in the rear of the attack, in which automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades were fired. He said the vehicles were left smoldering and that later the assailants were told two U.S. soldiers were killed, but there was no way of confirming that.
Back in Pakistan, Baseer worked as a mosque preacher in the Khyber region, not far from the northwestern capital, Peshawar. He said it was there that he hooked up with a man named Nazir, a commander in the Pakistani Taliban, who was plotting the attack in Lahore. Baseer said he made 10 suicide vests for Nazir.
Lahore, a city of around 9 million, has suffered scores of attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers over the last 1 1/2 years. Last month, two suicide bombers killed 43 people in near-simultaneous blasts. Baseer boarded a passenger bus along with the boy, Mohi-ud-Din, heading down the smooth highway to Lahore, where they were supposed to pick up the bomb and grenades.
Police officer Waris Bharawan, as well as Baseer, said the plan was to hook up with other militants and storm the PC International, one of Lahore’s grandest hotels. They said the suicide vest for the attack was sent to the city before the strike. Baseeer gave only a rough outline of the plan: He and others were to hurl the grenades around the lobby or entrance gate of the hotel, and then Mohid-ud-Din was to run in and detonate his explosive belt. Did he feel any guilt about what lay in store for his traveling companion? No, he said. “I was feeling good because he was going to be used against Americans.”
As he sat in Bharawan’s office, handcuffed and dressed in robe and baggy pants, an officer brought in the vest, dropping it on the floor with a thud. The explosive pads studded with ballbearings looked like slices of honeycomb. Also in the evidence bag were 26 grenades. Baseer obliged with a demonstration, miming the yanking of a white cable that would detonate the vest. “My instructors used to say this was the most important weapon in the fight against the enemy,” he said. In the same lockup, a crumbling building built when Britain ruled the Indian subcontinent, police also briefly presented Mohi-ud-Din to the AP. He seemed nervous and tongue-tied, claiming only that he knew nothing about the alleged attack.
The pair were arrested as they arrived at the house of another suspect, just days before the attack was due to have taken place, said Bharawan, who led the arresting officers. He said they acted on surveillance work in Lahore, but declined to give details. Torture and beatings are common inside Pakistani jails, according to rights groups. During a short time when no police were present, Baseer was asked how he was treated. He said he was beaten, but by members of Pakistan’s shadowy and powerful intelligence agencies soon after his arrest, not by the police. Police said Baseer and the boy would be tried for terrorist offenses behind closed doors and without a jury, as is customary in Pakistan