Illustration by Sana Nasir
Illustration by Sana Nasir

Bushra Cheema studied at a convent school and went on to get an MPhil degree in Islamic Studies from Punjab University. In the 1990s, she married Khalid Cheema who at the time was working as a marketing executive in Lahore. He was a well connected man and had friends and relatives among the city’s elite, people close to him say.

Soon after their marriage, Khalid Cheema took what his friends call a “U-turn” and became a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a militant group active in the Indian-administered Kashmir. In those years, the group was not a banned organisation in Pakistan (it was finally banned in 2002) and was closely affiliated with Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), which was then called Markaz Dawat-wal-Irshad. He also changed his profession and became a builder around the same time.

His residence is in Lahore’s Johar Town area but people who know him well say he has been active in the construction of a mosque – Masjid al-Aqsa – in Township, another neighbourhood in the southwest of the city. He is also said to have inspired his wife and their five children into following his religious and militant ideas.

Bushra Cheema started a madrasa named Noorul Huda, a couple of years ago, on the premises of Masjid al-Asqa even though construction had just started on the mosque itself. The madrasa aimed at providing free religious education to girls and women in the neighbourhood. “We called her Halima Apa even though she was younger than many of us,” says an elderly housewife, living near the mosque, who has attended many religious lectures delivered by Bushra Cheema at Noorul Huda.

Charismatic, highly expressive and articulate, Bushra Cheema soon became a household name in Township for her religious scholarship. Women invited her to their homes to deliver lectures on religious subjects. She sometimes visited places outside Lahore for the same purpose and enjoyed a rapidly growing following of thousands of women.

Bushra Cheema also organised online lectures by internationally renowned Islamic preachers such as Dr Zakir Naik and Dr Bilal Philips. A housewife in Township says she never missed online conversations between Bushra Cheema and foreign preachers.

By Sana Nasir
By Sana Nasir

Tariq Kiani, a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) working on counterterrorism in Lahore, explains how female preachers have become a growing phenomenon in recent years in many middle-class neighbourhoods in Lahore and elsewhere in urban and rural Punjab. “Their followers are mostly women from the lower middle class who are either uneducated or semi-literate and who approach these preachers to learn about Islam,” he says.

In September 2015, Bushra Cheema disappeared from her home along with her 15-year-old son, Abdullah, and three younger daughters, Zainab, Aisha and Nabiah. The youngest of them was only nine years old at the time. Her husband went around searching for them in hospitals and morgues before filing a police report over their disappearance.

On January 20 this year, Newsweek Pakistan, a Lahore-based weekly magazine, published transcripts of a WhatsApp voice message, released by the Punjab government, reported to be in Bushra Cheema’s voice. The message was addressed to Khalid Cheema. She tells him that she has made it to Syria along with her children. “I love Allah’s religion and I want to die a shaheed (martyr),” is how she explains the reason for her migration. “Abdullah kept crying on the border of Syria and I fainted but you never paid heed,” she says, suggesting that she could have been in regular contact with Khalid Cheema during her travel to Syria. “We are well and good ... I would send you pictures and videos but please give me some time as I do not have [access to the] Internet ... as for now, I do not have a house. It is after my children complete their training that we will be allotted a house ... If you want to ... join us please get your visa stamped on the passport,” she adds.

Bushra Cheema’s disciples in Township are in a state of shock over her departure to Syria; some of them, though, say her lectures were taking a militant turn of late. “Initially, she never talked about jihad and focussed her conversations on how to be good to our husbands and children,” says a woman who has been a regular at her lectures but does not want to be named over concerns for her security. “A couple of years ago, however, Halima Apa started saying that it should be the duty of every Muslim to migrate to the Islamic State if and when it is created somewhere in the world,” she recalls.

Also read: Who's afraid of the Islamic State?

Some women who know Bushra Cheema well say her personal life was in a shambles before she left for Syria. Her husband was having financial troubles and was abusive towards her, they say, though they never imagined that she would take the extreme decision to leave the country in order to get rid of her problems. In the WhatsApp voice message attributed to her, she drops a few hints about tensions within the family. “You did everything without telling me,” she says purportedly addressing her husband.

Khalid Cheema has been taken into custody since the media release of the WhatsApp message. On February 13, 2016, law enforcement agencies also arrested Qari Muhammad Yusuf, the imam of Masjid al-Aqsa, and Muhammad Yunus, the main administrator of the mosque and the madrasa Noorul Huda which has been shut down by the government. The two are being investigated over allegations that they encouraged students of the madrasa to migrate to Syria.

Khalid Cheema has reportedly told his investigators that his wife and son have never sent him any photos to prove their presence in Syria, says Ahmad Faraz, a Lahore-based journalist who has reported on the case for Urdu daily Jang. “There is, therefore, a lot of speculation about Bushra Cheema and her children still being in Pakistan,” he adds.

Bushra Cheema left Lahore accompanied by seven more people besides her own children. These were a middle-aged woman Farhana Hamid, her five children and a 12-year-old girl called Khansa. “According to my sources, Farhana and Khansa are underground and I have no idea where they could be. We are not in touch with them,” is the last we hear about them in the WhatsApp message mentioned earlier.

Khansa was once growing up like any other little girl of her age — under the caring eye of her parents. Her father, Ibrar Hassan, was working as a lineman with the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) and was known to be a friendly person. Her mother, Kiran Ibrar, was a soft-spoken housewife and had little time for anything other than taking care of her five children. They all lived in their own small house in Habib Park, a densely populated neighborhood on Lahore’s Multan Road near Jamaat-e-Islami’s headquarters, Mansoora.

Five years ago, Ibrar Hassan died after suffering an electric shock while performing his duty. That changed everything for his family.

Kiran Ibrar’s father, Mehr Fayyaz, a 60-something property dealer who lives in Manawan village on the eastern outskirts of Lahore, says her daughter’s marriage, arranged through some women known to his family, was an unlikely match from the very beginning. “We are Sunni [Barelvi] but Ibrar’s family is Ahle Hadith.” But, he says, his son-in-law kept his daughter happy as long as he lived. “After Ibrar passed away, Kiran’s life became difficult,” says Fayyaz.

“I feel very sick. There are no words to explain the anger I feel,” she says when asked about reports that her daughter might have gone to Syria.

Kiran Ibrar says her relationship with her mother-in-law, Fatima Bibi, started to deteriorate soon after her husband’s death. The old woman would pick fights over petty issues, she says. “We never trusted Fatima Bibi. She was abusive,” Fayyaz adds.

Kiran Ibrar’s situation became worse when her husband’s middle-aged divorced sister, Irshad Bibi, and her three children also moved into her house. Failing to cope with unceasing tensions, Kiran Ibrar took her children and shifted to her father’s home a few years ago.

In August 2015, Fatima Bibi, along with Farhana Hamid, visited Kiran Ibrar in Manawan and insisted that she wanted to take Khansa with her to Habib Park. She said Irshad Bibi had gone somewhere with her children and there was no one to take care of her. Fayyaz says he and his wife were adamant that Khansa stay with them but Kiran Ibrar allowed the girl to go with her grandmother. She says she felt sorry for her mother-in-law. Fatima Bibi additionally promised that the girl would stay with her for only a couple of days.

Three days later, Fatima Bibi called Kiran Ibrar and gave her the shock of her life: Khansa had gone missing. “How can you misplace someone like that?” asks Kiran Ibrar. She breaks down every time she mentions Khansa.

She went to a nearby police station and filed a First Information Report (FIR) about her daughter’s disappearance, nominating Fatima Bibi as the main culprit. “The disappearance was pre-planned and Fatima Bibi knew about it,” she says.

“I feel very sick. There are no words to explain the anger I feel,” she says when asked about reports that her daughter might have gone to Syria. “They brainwashed her,” she says referring to Fatima Bibi and Farhana Hamid. “My daughter was studying in grade eight” — too young to understand anything.

A couple of years ago, however, Halima Apa started saying that it should be the duty of every Muslim to migrate to the Islamic State if and when it is created somewhere in the world.

Fatima Bibi seems to know quite a few things though she does not reveal much. The elderly woman now lives in Pattoki, a small town about 100 kilometres to the south of Lahore, with her daughter and son-in-law. She, however, does not meet media persons at their house but at another place owned by a local member of Ahle Hadith Youth Force — an affiliate of Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith headed by Professor Sajid Mir, who is a member of the Senate and is closely associated with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) and its top leadership.

Illustration by Samya Arif
Illustration by Samya Arif

Fatima Bibi’s husband passed away when her son Ibrar Hassan was only five and she raised her children working as domestic help in Lahore. She can barely walk and is on medication for various ailments but she talks incessantly and vociferously claims that she does not know where Khansa has gone.

Her daughter, Irshad Bibi, had received religious education from various madrasas while she was still married to one Mohsin Nazir who also worked at Wapda. At the time she was living in a government provided residence in Lahore’s Wahdat Colony neighbourhood. After her divorce, she raised her children on her own by becoming a teacher at a madrasa in Lahore’s Scheme Mor area.

While living in Wahdat Colony, Irshad Bibi developed family ties with Farhana Hamid, the wife of another government employee, who found in Irshad Bibi a friend in whom she could confide about the privations of her family life. By a fortuitous coincidence, Irshad Bibi was also friends with Bushra Cheema, says DSP Kiani.

Irshad Bibi’s son, Bilal Nazir, was around 20 years of age when, in January 2015, he told his family that he was leaving for Dubai to find a job there. A graduate of an Ahle Hadith madrasa, Tanveerul Quran, in Habib Park, he was teaching the Quran to children in his neighbourhood to earn some money, says Fatima Bibi.

A few weeks later, he called his mother and told her that he had reached Syria, the police say. He then invited Irshad Bibi to join him there. In April last year, Irshad Bibi also left for Syria and has been reportedly living there with her son since then.

Fatima Bibi denies being aware of Irshad Bibi’s plans. “I came to know that she was leaving for Syria only after she asked my other daughter to also leave her family and go with her,” she says.

Irshad Bibi’s own daughter, Ammara, is married to a well-off businessman and lives in the posh Defence Housing Authority area in Lahore. She accuses Bushra Cheema of convincing her mother and Farhana Hamid to leave for Syria. Ammara has broken all ties with her mother and brother now settled in Syria.

Illustration by Samya Arif
Illustration by Samya Arif

Mehr Hamid Ali is an English literature graduate from Punjab University. He was a good student and fancied himself as a car aficionado, according to his relatives. He began his career as a government employee in the Punjab Board of Revenue in the 1990s and married Farhana Khan in 1996, who then became Farhana Hamid. Seen as an honest and upright man who abhorred corruption and hated the corrupt, Hamid is also known to be a reserved person who does not talk much about his family life, sources in his family say.

They also say that he underwent a personal transformation in the late 1990s. Slowly but surely, he shed off the image of a fashionable young man who once drove around on a heavy bike. His love for fine dining was soon replaced by a penchant for religious preaching. All of his five children have memorised the Quran and have received extensive religious education from various madrasas in Lahore.

The man credited for changing his life is Hafiz Saeed, the head of JuD. Hamid Ali is said to have attended a 45-day religious training camp arranged by JuD around 2001 and became a fundraiser for the organisation. Only a few years later, his family sources say, he distanced himself from JuD because he became disenchanted with the lavish lifestyle Saeed and other prominent members of the organisation allegedly lead.

Hamid Ali, however, would actively engage everyone around him in religious arguments. He would also preach publicly on social and political issues wherever he could. It was not long before he hit the radar of the intelligence and security agencies. In 2008, he was picked up for investigation but was released soon afterwards without being charged of any crime.

In December 2014, the counterterrorism police arrested Hamid Ali again as one of the suspects involved in an attack on a military-run school in Peshawar that had led to the killing of about 150 people, mostly children. But he was again released and faced no charges or trial.

In January 2015, he suddenly disappeared from home. For months, his family had no knowledge about his whereabouts. In October 2015, the police eventually presented him at an antiterrorism court in Lahore but his relatives were still not sure why he had been kept in custody for so long.

Also read: In plain sight

Officials suggest his prolonged detention was meant for investigating whether he was involved in any anti-state activities. “He was found to be neither linked to al-Qaeda or Daesh,” says DSP Kiani who is one of the main investigators working on the cases of those who have left for Syria or who have been arrested while trying to go there. “[Hamid Ali] is very vocal and says lawyers are bad, journalists are bad and the army is bad. That is basically the issue — that he is against the army.”

The court record shows otherwise. The charges being pressed against him include possessing and distributing hate material and raising funds for banned organisations. The Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) officials in Lahore claim they found 75,000 rupees in his possession when they took him into custody. More importantly, he had with him 13 pamphlets – titled Dawat-e-Haq – which carry jihadi and sectarian propaganda.

In early December 2015, Hamid Ali was released from Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore on bail, says Shehzad Sultan, his lawyer and also a relative. After his release, he went straight to his sister-in-law’s house in Township area only to find out that his wife and his children had all left for some unknown place. “He thought his family had been picked up by the law enforcement agencies,” says Sultan.

On December 21, security and intelligence agencies took him into custody once again. The reason: he was alleged to have played some role in the disappearance of his family.

Farhana Hamid moved in with her sister in Township after her husband was taken into custody in January 2015. She was already facing serious financial problems since Hamid Ali had been dismissed from his government job after being detained.

One of her close relatives says she could not sustain herself and her family on her own. “She was heavily dependent on her brothers and sisters for financial and social support,” says the relative on condition of anonymity.

People close to her say she was going through serious psychological and emotional pressure at the time and thought her husband had died. “She suffered bouts of depression and was convinced that Hamid Ali had died in the state’s custody,” says one of her relatives.

The stress and the dependence on her siblings made her increasingly distant from everyone around her. In March 2015, she decided to move out of her sister’s house, telling her siblings that she would now learn to live independently.

While living in Township, Farhana Hamid had become a regular at Bushra Cheema’s religious sermons, introduced to her by Irshad Bibi. Bushra Cheema took advantage of her emotional and financial vulnerability, says a close relative of Farhana Hamid, and convinced her to travel to Syria as their mutual friend Irshad Bibi had already done.

The reason why women like Bushra Cheema, Irshad Bibi and Farhana Hamid want to migrate to Syria seems straightforward to those fueled by religious motivations, though to others it may appear incomprehensible. “Girls as young as 14 or 15 are travelling to Syria to marry jihadis, bear their children and join communities of fighters, with a small number taking up arms,” is how the September 29, 2014 edition of the British newspaper The Guardian reports on the phenomenon of women migrating to territories under control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) which prefers to call itself by its Arabic name, ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fil-Iraq wa-ash-Sham (Daesh for short).

Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah, an Arab woman who migrated to Syria along with a group of non-Arab women a couple of years ago, explains it further while writing in an early 2015 post in the English language online journal, Dabiq, published by Isis. She states that the process of female migration is a part of their emancipation.

Many of these women have given up a life of luxury and wealth to become a part of the Islamic State, she writes. “The first obstacle the [female migrant] faces is the family. And what can make you know what the family is? In most of the cases, the families [consist of] the laymen Muslims and ... merely thinking about [discussing] the subject of hijrah (migration) with them is like butting a rock with your head. Yes, the sister is their honour and it is their right to fear for her, but why do they not fear for their honour when the sister wants to travel to Paris or London to specialise in some worldly field of knowledge?”

Illustration by Samya Arif
Illustration by Samya Arif

Ranjhai is a quiet village near Daska town, almost midway on the highway connecting Sialkot and Gujranwala. On a Sunday it seems even quieter, perhaps weighed down by the whispers that have been going on about its fragile social and religious situation for close to two years. A small mosque stands across a popular private school next to a pharmacy. It bears a plaque which carries a number – 1532 – and some Arabic text mentioning the emirate of Kuwait. This is perhaps a reference to the number of mosques financed by that wealthy Arab state in Pakistan.

Said to be built in 1998, the mosque is part of a large network of religious establishments run by Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith across Punjab. Most of the local residents see both the mosque and the Ahle Hadith sect as an outside intervention.

The mosque now opens only during prayer timings and remains deserted through most of the day. Few, if any, in the village want to have anything to do with the place. Adherents of the Ahle Hadith sect, in any case, are only one per cent of the local population.

In March 2014, this mosque assumed centre stage when a group of young men from Ranjhai appeared in a video posted on a social media website, pledging allegiance to Isis. Hamza Imtiaz, then only 15 years old, was one of them.

His father, Imtiaz Butt, who has spent over 25 years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, working as a labourer, says Hamza and seven of his class-fellows regularly attended evening prayers at the mosque. One evening, a local homeopath, Fahad Mustafa, aged about 35 years, contacted the boys and invited them for dinner. He told them that some jihadis visiting from other towns and cities would also join them.

The teenagers were excited at the prospect of meeting some real-life jihadis. Some locals claim Hamza tried to get a gun from his uncle’s house so that he could take a photograph of himself, with a gun in hand, seated next to the mujahideen. His uncle is said to have shooed him away.

Mustafa, his cousin Sadaqat Ali – who comes from Hafizabad, a district town some 70 kilometres to the west of Ranjhai – and Moazzam Ali – a young man from Ranjhai who had prepared food for the evening – joined the boys inside the mosque at the appointed hour. There were two more people there. They had come from Lahore and spoke in fluent Arabic.

After the dinner, Mustafa and Sadaqat Ali unfurled a banner and told the teenagers to pose for a picture. The two men from Lahore had brought some filming equipment with them which they gave to Sadaqat Ali for making a video. Everyone covered their faces with black scarves, Moazzam Ali took a gun in his hand and Mustafa picked up a knife as everyone lined up in the mosque. The two outsiders started speaking in Arabic as soon as the camera started rolling. They were announcing the entire group’s oath of allegiance to Isis and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Many local residents claim the boys were ignorant and thought the Quran was being recited. “We also assumed that the two men were reciting the Quran,” says Imtiaz Butt of his reaction after first watching the video before it was uploaded online. “Only later did we find out that this was, in fact, an oath taking ceremony.”

The video, tagged as “Sympathizers of the Islamic State”, was released on the Internet soon after it was filmed. Still, nobody really bothered about it for months. However, it went viral on both social media and television channels after it was aired on Aaj News and Geo News on October 31, 2014.

Even then it took government officials more than a month to trace who had uploaded it. On December 2, 2014, law enforcement agencies arrested all the seven teenagers as well as Mustafa and Sadaqat Ali. Moazzam Ali had disappeared from the village before that.

Malik Jamil Akhtar, a lawyer in Daska, later moved the Lahore High Court against the detention of the boys. All seven of them were released in February 2015 but Mustafa and Sadaqat Ali still remain in custody.

“The men who came from outside knew Sadaqat and Sadaqat’s link to the local community was through Fahad,” says Imtiaz Butt. Muhammad Pervez, Mustafa’s father who retired from the Pakistan Ordnance Factories in Wah Cantt many years ago, is now taking care of his son’s young wife and two small daughters.

Mustafa and Sadaqat Ali are known to be the protégés of Abdul Jabbar Shakir, a firebrand preacher who at one point was associated with JuD, which he then left to join Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith. One of the main themes in his speeches – as gleaned from online videos – is that Islam in Pakistan is under attack because of a society and a state which both have become increasingly un-Islamic. He states that people are distracted by their worldly endeavours even while Muslim children are being slaughtered by Western troops in different countries.

At least in style, his speeches resemble the loud and deep-voiced rhetoric of Ehsan Elahi Zaheer, a Gujranwala-born religious scholar who had founded Jamiat Ahle Hadith back in 1986. He was very close to the Saudi monarchy and this proximity ultimately led to a split in his party with one of the seceding groups eventually forming Markaz Dawat-wal-Irshad under Saeed’s leadership in the early 1990s. The new organisation set up its headquarters near Muridke town, about 20 kilometres to the north of Lahore, and soon became known for sending fighters to the Indian-administered Kashmir under the banner of LeT.

But the substance of Shakir’s speeches is different from those of Zaheer who was an active participant in the political process in the country. Shakir, on the other hand, evokes emotions rooted in religious guilt and alienation from the political system.

Shakir visited Ranjhai a couple of years ago and delivered a fiery sermon at the Ahle Hadith mosque. “I remember my son was thoroughly impressed by Shakir. I told him to stay away [from Shakir] and not waste his time with these things,” says Mustafa’s father, Muhammad Pervez. Sadaqat Ali later recruited Mustafa into Shakir’s group through persistent preaching.

The security agencies have arrested Shakir more than once in the past only to release him later. His anti-state and anti-democracy rhetoric, however, becomes even stronger after each release. Under fire from the state, he and his supporters seem to believe that joining Isis could provide them the cover they need, some police officials say.

Also read: What is the most potent existential threat to Pakistan?

An official source close to the case suggests that the Ranjhai video, in fact, was an extension of a long-standing turf battle between Shakir’s group and JuD. Members of the former group wanted to use the video to build up their position in the area, the official says. It was also an attempt by them to gain support and protection from Isis in their tussle with JuD, he adds.

A senior JuD official says his organisation does not have anything to do with Shakir and his group. He also states that JuD does not support the Isis ideology and methodology. “We see the rise of Isis as a movement against Islam,” he says.

The ideology and practices of Isis, he adds, resemble those of the seventh century Khawarij movement which rejected the authority of the caliphs and declared all Muslims, including many senior companions of the Prophet of Islam, as heretics and regarded only its own members as true believers.

JuD has also published two books and a pamphlet recently to rebut the Isis ideology as antithetical to Islam. Saeed himself has appeared in online lectures to condemn Isis and support the Pakistani state against it.

On November 26, 2014, female students of the Jamia Hafsa madrasa, affiliated with Islamabad’s famed Lal Masjid, pledged their support for Isis in a video released on the Internet. The girls called themselves “Sympathisers of the Islamic State” and invited Isis to start its operations in Pakistan.

Lal Masjid’s chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, did not distance himself from the video and, instead, said a caliphate was something that he and Isis were both fighting for. He, however, stated that he had no direct links with Isis but claimed to understand why people would want to join it as a means to implement shariah. In a television interview with journalist Saleem Safi in December 2014, Aziz said a committee should be formed to understand why the students of Jamia Hafsa had made the video and why madrasa students were looking towards Mullah Omar and al-Baghdadi rather than towards Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Around the same time, in November 2014 to be exact, pro-Isis wall chalking appeared on the boundary wall of Idarae Minhajul Hussain, a large Shia madrasa in Lahore’s Township area — the same neighbourhood where Bushra Cheema was running Noorul Huda. The police have still not found the culprits.

A few weeks later – on December 7, 2014 – CTD officials conducted a raid in the same area on the information secretly gleaned about a group that had named itself Sautul Ummah (the Voice of the Islamic Ummah). This group was said to be conducting public lectures on the need for a global caliphate. The police officials say that members of Sautul Ummah were preaching and promoting the same point of view that Isis has on the issue of caliphate. They are also alleged to be involved in attacks on media houses in Lahore and were seen by the law enforcement authorities as a local franchise of Isis, having pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Sources knowledgeable about the working of the group say its members had no money because almost all of them were unemployed – though well-educated – young men but their meetings were always lavish and featured expensive food. Sautul Ummah’s amir, Dr Javed Abdullah, is said to be a university professor and can be seen in many web based videos delivering lectures advocating a global caliphate.

In a statement he issued after members of his group were arrested, Abdullah, however, distanced himself from the ideology espoused by Isis. He also stated that his organisation’s ideology was closer to that of the 19th century conservative Arab cleric Sheikh Muhammed bin Abdul Wahab, the founder of Salafi Islam whose followers in Pakistan call themselves Ahle Hadith while their sectarian opponents call them Wahabis.

But a pamphlet published by Sautul Ummah in October 2014 suggests that the organisation studied Isis or Daesh as a possible source of inspiration for at least some time. “For a year, we researched and followed the movement of Daesh, and we do not see any proof to the notion that Daesh is the result of an American and Jewish agenda, but its takfiri and extremist ideology has made it unacceptable to those organisations that have been struggling for the Muslim Ummah and its rejuvenation,” reads the pamphlet.

Born in Saudia Arabia in 1989, Zain Shahid came to Pakistan with his family in 2000 and started living in Karachi’s sprawling, middle-class neighbourhood of Nazimabad. He joined a private business school for his undergraduate studies in 2008 but dropped out and joined Pakistan International Airline’s aircraft maintenance training centre. Within a year, he quit the centre too and started working at his family’s grocery store.

In late 2014 and early 2015, he started reading about the war in Syria and developed a keen interest in finding out about Isis and its ideology. Using Twitter, he interacted with one Abu Khalid who claimed to be an Isis member based in Syria. Through him, Zain Shahid found out about another young man in Karachi, Bilal Rind, seeking to join Isis.

Illustration by Sana Nasir
Illustration by Sana Nasir

Rind, three years older than Zain Shahid, belongs to an affluent Baloch family settled in Dubai. He was also born there and first moved to Pakistan in 2001. He returned to Dubai in 2004 to join the American University there. Like Zain Shahid, he did not finish his studies. Instead, he joined his brother, in a hotel business. When the war in Syria started in 2011, it affected him deeply.

Rind says in a confessional statement he gave to the CTD in Karachi: “I started worrying about Syria after watching news channels in Dubai. I thought about the people living happily and freely in Dubai. But the situation in Syria was so different.”

In 2013, he moved back to Karachi again to live with his brother in an apartment in the Boat Basin area. By then he had started scouring the Internet for jihadi literature. “I read that Isis was recruiting people via Twitter so I made an account and tried contacting different accounts who could help me out,” he writes in his statement.

In late 2014, he interacted with a Syria-based Isis recruiter who called himself Abu Uqba. This recruiter informed Rind about the Isis ideology, shared jihadi literature with him and sent him propaganda videos. The recruiter also persuaded him to travel to Syria along with another young man in Karachi — Zain Shahid.

The two met for the first time in March 2015 in Masjid Umar Farooq near Rind’s apartment in Boat Basin and reached out to human traffickers to get to Iran. They then started saving money to collect the 260,000 rupees the smugglers had asked for, to help them go to Syria in the summer.

On his 26th birthday on July 30, 2015, Zain Shahid wrote a note for his family. “I am going back to where I came from as that is where I belong,” it reads. He left his home the same day and met Rind at a predetermined spot near Sohrab Goth in Karachi where they got into a bus to travel to Gwadar in Balochistan. They threw away their mobile phone sim cards before embarking on a journey that was supposed to start the most blessed part of their lives.

A senior CTD official says his department’s intelligence network heard about a missing young man from Nazimabad even though his family had not approached any law enforcement agency. The law enforcement personnel soon traced Zain Shahid’s residence and got hold of his parting note as well as his cell phone number.

By that time the two men had reached Gwadar from where they then travelled to Jiwani, a small coastal town at the southernmost tip of Pakistan and just a few kilometres from the Iranian coast. The human traffickers bundled them into a ferry which took them to Iran, along with close to 300 other illegal migrants.

Also read: In unsafe custody

Once in Iran, they were put in a small station wagon with 25 others. This is when they started to realise their folly, according to their confessional statements. “While Isis recruiters painted a picture of prosperity and sense of fulfilment in Syria, the road to Syria was hell. We were given only a bottle of water and three or four dates per day [to eat],” the statements read. “[Those] who couldn’t cope with [the lack of food] or fainted, or died, would be thrown out of the vehicle.”

Travelling through the border areas of Iran, they stopped only to sleep for a few hours. After nearly two weeks of being on the move, they made a stopover at Bandar Abbas, the port city near the Strait of Hormuz. It was there that their luck ran out. Iranian border guards arrested them, along with 227 other Pakistanis, and deported them all to Balochistan where the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) took them into custody.

Rind and Zain Shaid, as per their confessional statements, had by then rid themselves of whatever aspirations they had of participating in Isis-led jihad. The FIA imposed a meagre fine of 3,000 rupees on each of them for illegally crossing the border and released them.

After their release, the two men came back home on August 19, 2015, nearly three weeks after their self-inflicted ordeal had started. On the night of August 20, CTD officials swooped in and picked them up for interrogation.

Illustration by Samya Arif
Illustration by Samya Arif

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former al-Qaeda commander in Iraq, formally announced the formation of Isis in July 2014. He declared himself the first caliph of the Islamic State during a Friday sermon in the grand mosque of the Iraqi city of Mosul. Since then it has been a matter of when, not if, Isis will extend itself into Pakistan, already a hotbed of Islamic militancy with over 200 different terrorist groups operating in different parts of the country – al-Baghdadi’s announcement of a five-year global expansion plan, of which a key component was to establish the wilayat (province) of Khurasan – consisting of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – gave a fillip to such speculation.

In August 2014, Isis called for the release of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani jailed in America on terrorism charges, as part of the ransom it demanded for an American journalist, James Foley, abducted by al-Baghdadi’s men in Syria. America refused the demand and Isis executed Foley.

A small splinter group of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jamaatul Ahrar, praised Isis for demanding Siddiqui’s release. Jamaatul Ahrar then became the first Pakistani militant group to pledge its allegiance to Isis. Little else is known about its members and leadership.

Around the same time, a booklet titled Fatah, published in Pashto and Dari languages, was distributed among the Afghans living in refugee camps on the outskirts of Peshawar. The booklet made a strong appeal to the refugees to support the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate. It did not mention the names of its authors and publishers but the ideas it propagated closely matched those of Isis.

In October 2014, a number of senior commanders defected from the TTP and pledged their allegiance to Isis and al-Baghdadi. These included Hafiz Saeed Khan (TTP chief for Orakzai Agency), Shahidullah Shahid (former TTP spokesman), Daulat Khan (TTP chief for Kurram Agency), Gul Zaman al-Fateh (TTP chief for Khyber Agency), Shiekh Mufti Hasan (TTP chief for Peshawar) and Khalid Mansoor (TTP chief for Hangu). A previously unknown outlet calling itself Khurasan Media released a professionally made video in January 2015, in which Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, an Isis spokesperson, endorsed the formation of his organisation’s chapter in Pakistan and Afghanistan and declared Hafiz Saeed Khan as its supreme leader.

Since then Shahidullah Shahid has reportedly died in a drone strike in Afghanistan where other members of the group are said to be based now. There have been at least two reports about the death of Hafiz Saeed Khan. In the first one, he was reported to have died in a blast in Tor Darra area of Khyber Agency in April 2015. The second claimed three months later that he had been killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan. He, however, continues to live.

Isis did not just attract the breakaway Taliban. Towards the end of October 2014, the Balochistan government sent a confidential memo to the federal government, warning that some Pakistani militant groups have been in talks with Isis for mutual cooperation. “It has been reliably learnt that Daesh has offered some elements of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) to join hands in Pakistan,” daily Dawn quoted the memo as saying.

Even in Karachi, small cells started carrying out acts of terrorism in order to attract Isis attention. They were expecting that their actions would get them monetary support and/or an invitation to join jihad in Syria and Iraq, security and intelligence officials reveal.

Zoha Waseem, a researcher on urban security and policing in Pakistan, has found at least one clue to the existence of such cells — a 60-page jihadi advisory. Titled Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen and Small Cells, it is known to have been doing the rounds among militants in Karachi for months. In the words of its undisclosed author, it is meant for “brothers who want to bring victory to this religion.”

Jessica Stern has written several acclaimed books on terrorism. These include Denial: A Memoir of Terror, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill and The Ultimate Terrorists.

In 1994–1995, she worked as part of the then American President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent American think tank and publisher. 

But most important to this report is the fact that she is the co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror, one of the few books that explain the nature of the ideological appeal and the organisational infrastructure of Isis. “Isis is simultaneously a criminal organisation, a proto-state, and an apocalyptic cult with global terrorist ambitions,” Stern tells the Herald in an email interview.

Isis offers potential jihadis a “five-star jihad,” that includes free housing, free healthcare, schooling for the fighters’ children, orphanages and the opportunity for individuals who cannot afford a wife to acquire sex slaves or concubines.

Isis, she says, has set forth two principal but contradictory goals, which it labels ‘options’. The first is to spread a totalitarian caliphate throughout the world. The second is to polarise Muslims against one another, to incite internal divisions within the West, to turn the West against Islam and to “goad the West into launching an all-out ground attack, thereby setting the scene for the final battle between Muslims and the Crusaders prophesied to be held at Dabiq in Syria.” This millennial ideology is attracting many Muslims from all over the world who are expecting an early end to the world in a victory for Islam.

At an operational level, according to Stern, Isis offers potential jihadis a “five-star jihad” that includes free housing, free healthcare, schooling for the fighters’ children, orphanages and the opportunity for individuals who cannot afford a wife to acquire sex slaves or concubines. “Two German recruits who escaped from Isis and were then tried upon their return to Germany said they had been recruited by a “false preacher” who promised that they “would drive the most expensive sports cars and have many wives” and that they could leave whenever they wished. “Neither of these claims was true, the German recruits would find,” Stern says.

Further explaining the reasons for Isis’ appeal, she says “a group that is fired up with righteous indignation” may have the ability to exert an “undeniable” pull on potential recruits. Some individuals, she says, “see jihad as a cool way of expressing dissatisfaction with a power elite, whether that elite is real or imagined.”  

As far as an Isis presence in Pakistan is concerned, Stern believes Isis “has designs on Pakistan, where it would presumably try to exploit sectarian tensions.” She also points out that “individuals and small groups [in Pakistan] have been claiming they are killing in the name of Isis” which, in turn, “appears to be happy to claim credit” for these attacks.

Illustration by Samya Arif
Illustration by Samya Arif

The nerve centre of Sindh Police’s operations against terrorist groups, their sympathisers, facilitators and financiers in Karachi is a small distance away from the Chief Minister House in the city’s highly secure red zone. This is the CTD headquarters and the militants are well aware of its significance. Six years ago, Taliban militants drove an explosives-laden vehicle into its premises, killing 18 people.

One of the top CTD officials, Raja Umer Khattab, has spent the last 26 years of his life as a policeman, specialising in investigating and dismantling transnational terrorist groups. A heavyset man in his early fifties, he is on the hit list of many militant organisations and has survived three assassination attempts in the last eight years. It was his network of informers which last year found out about Rind and Zain Shahid’s (failed) attempt to go to Syria. And yet he insists that all the panic in the media about Isis presence in Karachi has no real basis. Khattab has a simple explanation for that: “Before it takes on the state, Isis will have to fight against the TTP and al-Qaeda which are resisting Isis incursion into their territory.”

Aftab Sultan, the chief of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), does not agree with this assessment. He told a senate standing committee early last month that Isis is emerging as an internal security threat mainly because almost all the militant groups operating in Pakistan have a soft corner for it. “Even TTP in Pakistan coordinates with Daesh, though both are dead rivals in Afghanistan,” he is reported to have said.

Intelligence sources in Islamabad also endorse Sultan’s statement. They cite intelligence reports that say Isis enjoys some support among almost all religious-political parties and militant groups in Pakistan. “We, however, have been unable to gauge how deep Isis has penetrated,” one of them says without wanting to be named.

Officials in Islamabad admit the government lacks a clear strategy to deal with Isis though renewed efforts are being made to monitor social media which has often worked as the main conduit between Pakistani militants and their Isis handlers.

He says the question confronting the intelligence community is this: does Isis only have individual sympathisers in Pakistan or has it attracted organised groups “waiting for the right moment to strike?”

According to Ehsan Ghani, head of the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), “fringe elements” among the militant groups are finding the Isis appeal hard to resist. He says a number of developments have alienated these elements from the organisations they have been working with. Al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s assassination in 2011 and the Taliban after Mullah Omar’s death last year no longer have leadership that can offer charisma, courage and conviction all in one person, he notes.

Coupled with the fact that the Afghan Taliban are negotiating peace with the government in Kabul, these incidents have created an ideological and organisational vacuum among major militant organisations in this part of the world, he says. With its extremely exclusivist ideology and very brutal tactics, Isis “has started to fill this vacuum,” Ghani tells the Herald in an interview. Disgruntled militants are joining it though they are yet to coalesce into an organisational hierarchy, he adds.

Officials in Islamabad admit the government lacks a clear strategy to deal with Isis though renewed efforts are being made to monitor social media which has often worked as the main conduit between Pakistani militants and their Isis handlers. It was this social media monitoring that led to the arrest of those who had appeared in the pro-Isis video made in a Daska village, officials in Islamabad say proudly.

Also read: Triangle of terrorism

The fact is that they took seven months to find out about the video after it was uploaded online — and that too after mainstream television news channels had already aired it.

Ghani says part of the reason why there is no concrete government strategy to counter the Isis threat is that the organisation “poses a low-level threat” compared to the threats posed by other militant groups such as the Taliban and LeJ. But he insists the Pakistan state will be able to control the spread of Isis because “the army, the intelligence agencies and the government are not looking the other way this time round.”

His confidence could be a little misplaced when judged from the slow official movement in ascertaining the nature of the threat Isis poses. The federal interior ministry, for instance, sent a directive to three premier intelligence agencies – the Inter-Services Intelligence, Military Intelligence and IB – in January 2015, to provide the government with a detailed assessment about Isis activities in Pakistan. “So far, we have not received any response,” says a senior interior ministry official.

Some government officials tell the Herald the current situation resembles that in the mid-1990s when the Taliban had captured Kabul, setting up their own state. “At the time, many activists of religious-political parties in Pakistan crossed the border into Afghanistan and joined the Taliban,” says a senior official who has worked both in the police and intelligence agencies. Isis, too, has set up a state of its own in many parts of Syria and Iraq and, therefore, is exerting a similar pull on jihadi elements worldwide as the Taliban did a couple of decades ago.

There is one difference, though. Those intending to go to Syria or Iraq to join Isis do not find it as easy to travel as their counterparts travelling to Afghanistan did. The Isis state is thousands of kilometres away from Pakistan and those willing to join it need to cross many international borders before they can enter Isis territory. The Taliban’s Afghanistan was right next door.

That explains why the number of Pakistanis taking the land route to Iraq and Syria remains small. “It has not yet become an avalanche,” an official in Islamabad says.

In May 2014, four Indian Muslim men in their twenties belonging to educated, upper middle-class families quietly left their homes in Kalyan — a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Mumbai. All of them had left notes for their parents with messages that emphasised their will and determination to fight for the glory of Islam. A few days later, they contacted their families to inform them that they had reached Baghdad from where they were to head to Syria. Their long road to join Isis had started with a simple step — Twitter messages exchanged with some Isis recruiters who then arranged logistics for their travel.

Zain Shahid and Rind left their homes in eerily similar circumstances, except that they could not maintain their determination to reach Syria when faced by the ardours of their journey. In their confessional statements, both express profuse regret over their decision to leave for Syria and repeatedly admit that they are themselves to be blamed for their reckless actions.

The CTD kept them in custody for less than three months and provided them with psychological counselling to get them out of the ideological influence of Isis. After a psychiatric assessment conducted by the police, officials gave them a clean chit, the two were released in October 2015.

Khattab says the two will remain under police surveillance for at least three years but he is confident that they will not repeat their mistake again. “There were suggestions to send them to jail but that would have been a terrible idea. In jail, they would spend time with hard-core militants willing to blow themselves up in an instant and that would have ripened whatever uncertain and imperfect notions they had about jihad,” Khattab tells the Herald. “We have to give them a chance to reintegrate into society. It is important for them.”

Will those captured from Daska and Lahore get a similar chance? Only the security and intelligence agencies have the answer.

This was originally published in the Herald's March 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.