In Pakistan's lawless tribal areas along its border with Afghanistan, some places are less wild than others. The Mohmand Agency, just a half-hour drive from the city of Peshawar, had long been known as the calmest and most moderate in the region and over the past few years managed to avoid the Talibanization and violence of its neighbors. It was rare to see people in public carrying guns. Women don't wear veils when they do their daily chores outside their homes or visit neighbors. There were only a handful of seminaries. And it was difficult to find anti-American graffiti or the slogans of Jihad on houses and buildings along its narrow roads that zigzag into the hills.
But now it seems that peace in this mountainous region is at risk. At midnight one day in late July, more than 200 heavily armed young men identifying themselves as Taliban stormed the shrine of a famous freedom fighter in the tranquil village of Ghaziabad and took over the adjacent mosque. The heavily armed militants, their faces covered with camouflaged balaclavas, kicked out the shrine and mosque caretakers and put up sandbag bunkers atop the mosque roof and nearby vantage points.
They renamed the mosque Lal Masjid that is, the Red Mosque after the seminary in Islamabad where dozens of radical young students died last month in a military raid ordered by President Pervez Musharraf. "We took over the mosque [to protest] against Islamabad's action against the religious seminaries," declared Usman, a young man wearing a balaclava, when I visited last week. I could feel the anger in his brown eyes.
The group is headed by a hitherto unknown commander named Umer Khalid. It refuses to disclose the backgrounds of the militants who have occupied the mosque though one Pakistani newspaper reported that the men were from "banned jihadi organizations operating in Kashmir." Whatever the case, the group is media-friendly: the militants were happy to be photographed, and Usman says his men would be happy to escort foreign journalists from Peshawar to Mohmand Agency with full security.
The impressive stone mosque and shrine were built in the 1990s to pay homage to Fazal Wahid, who fought 27 tribal wars with the British and died while in hiding in Mohmand Agency in 1937 at the age of 81. Today, Fazal Wahid, who remains an important social and religious figure in the region, is much better known as Haji Saheb Turangzai, after the place of his birth. Commander Usman says he and his other brothers selected the shrine and mosque because it was a symbol of mujahideen struggle against foreign occupation. "We would begin our campaign from here. Our first objective is to set up a seminary. And if anyone tries to stop us, he will answer it with full force," says Usman.
Locals are less enthusiastic about the symbolic occupation. "Mohmand Agency has always been peaceful," says Khushal Bacha, 77, one of the grandsons of Haji Saheb Turangzai. "We started noticing Talibans about two to three months back. The government did not take any action. And now they have taken over the mosque." On August 1 more than 600 local tribesmen met in a "jirga" and asked the militants to leave. The tribesmen agreed to help them build a seminary but the militants continue to hold the premises at gunpoint. "There are over 250 armed people inside. They came from everywhere. Some of them have come from even Waziristan. They have their own roadblocks and they interrogate strangers," says Ali Gohar, a tribal police official.
The intruders are on the lookout for music cassettes, according to locals. Before he entered Mahmand, my bulky taxi driver Ilyas Khan abruptly stopped his car at a gas station to make sure all his cassettes were tucked away in a secret compartment beneath the dashboard. "They search the cars for un-Islamic things," he explains. "They would suddenly appear on the road. They are young angry boys. They also enjoy the support of some locals."
Grandson Khushal Bacha accuses the government of not doing enough to stop the Talibanization of Mohmand. "These militants are inviting America to attack our region," the old man tells me. "It seems like a conspiracy against the people."