Holy War 101

Abdul Bari's school day begins at 4 a.m. The freckle-faced, outgoing 9-year-old, an Afghan poppy farmer's son, wakes up on the tile floor he shares with four dozen other students at the Jamia Uloom Islamia religious academy, in the untamed mountains of Pakistan's tribal areas. After morning prayer services, he fixes tea for the older boys and himself, eating a bit of bread before classes start at daybreak. Students spend most of the day reciting the Qur'an; memorizing every one of its 6,666 verses is the main requirement for graduation. Still, this madrassa is the only formal schooling most of these boys will ever have. So they learn civics from a white-bearded scholar named Amanullah, 65, who teaches them about the Taliban. "There was a real Islamic regime," the old man says. "They fixed 25 years of problems in no time, using Islamic laws."

Another faculty member, Mullah Taj Mohammad, 40, gives a current-events lesson, warning of the evils that lurk in non-Islamic lands: "I've heard that many Muslim girls have infidel boyfriends--and clink glasses of alcohol with Jews." That's not the worst of it, he says: "Americans are killing Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they are busy trying to poison Muslim minds everywhere with films, music and television." Abdul is an eager learner. He dreams of enlisting in the jihad against Afghanistan's U.S.-backed president, Hamid Karzai. "Karzai is a killer of Muslims," the boy says. "When I grow up I'll fight him, and then we'll see who's a man and who's a woman."

The Afghan war, code-named Operation Enduring Freedom, is getting nastier. In the last six months--the bloodiest period since the Taliban's fall in late 2001--hundreds of people have been killed, many of them civilians, including two foreign relief officials and nearly a dozen Afghans working for international agencies. Last week the United Nations announced that it was suspending its refugee-repatriation program and pulling all foreign workers out of southeastern Afghanistan. "We're going to have to refight Enduring Freedom because we didn't finish the job," predicts retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former head of U.S. Central Command.

Even among senior Bush aides, concern is rising over the mess that festered in Afghanistan while the White House fixated on Iraq. The war's No. 1 target, Osama bin Laden, is still in business. His Taliban friends have regrouped and are doing their best to sabotage the reconstruction. Two weeks ago, in the old Taliban stronghold of Spin Buldak, a new audiotape was released, purportedly of the group's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, rallying his followers. "If you claim to be among the faithful, why can't you be ready for sacrifice?" the voice on the tape demands.

Abdul hears such calls to arms incessantly. Hardscrabble madrassas like his, in the north Waziristan town of Mirali, are where many Taliban leaders got their start two decades ago during the CIA's war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Today, those jihad academies continue to indoctrinate new generations of holy warriors, passionately loyal to the banner of radical Islam and inured to lives of hardship. Such schools pose a grave challenge to the Bush administration's plans for the region. "How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools?" asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a recently leaked memo. "Is our current situation such that 'the harder we work, the behinder we get?' " More than a year ago Pakistan's leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, promised to defang the madrassas. Instead, he formed a political alliance with the schools' radical Islamist supporters against the mainstream secular opposition. "Musharraf talks a lot, but nothing happens," says Maulana Abdul Qadr, principal of the Darul Uloom Zuberia madrassa, near Peshawar.

That may be changing. Last week Musharraf's security forces went after six previously banned militant groups, closing down dozens of their affiliated madrassas and promising to deal harshly with any that tried to defy the order. Musharraf's Interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, announced that new regulations on religious schools will be issued this week, at the end of Ramadan. "There will be no compromise," Hayat told NEWSWEEK before the announcement. "We are totally committed to madrassa reforms and will not be deterred by political expediency." Nevertheless, Musharraf's Islamist partners of convenience are threatening to organize street protests against him, and the country's leading hard-line schools, such as the Darul Uloom Islamia in Karachi, swore to resist any moves to control them.

Musharraf's job often seems hopeless. Not even the mullahs know how many madrassas Pakistan has. The government's latest guess is 27,000 or more. Many are peaceable institutions wishing only to train devout Muslims, not warriors or terrorists. But others steep their students in the doctrine of holy war and function openly as jihad enlistment centers. Many youngsters take inspiration from older schoolmates. Zahidullah, 31, a grad student in Islamic law at the Bahrul Uloom madrassa in Pakistan's northern mountains, boasts of how many recruits he has gained for the outlawed Kashmiri guerrilla force Harkatul Mujahedin: "Many youths here are anxious to join the jihad when I tell them stories of our heroic Islamic resistance against Indian aggression."

Some schools provide far more than recruitment services, providing safe havens, supply depots and clandestine meeting sites. Last summer, according to Pakistani intelligence sources, a group of senior Taliban leaders secretly gathered to discuss strategy at a madrassa some 20 miles south of Peshawar. The Afghans told their local contacts that Mullah Omar was calling for new recruits to intensify the war against America. In September Pakistani security forces raided another madrassa in Karachi, hauling in more than a dozen Indonesian and Malaysian students, including Rusman Gunawan, younger brother of the notorious Qaeda lieutenant Hambali. Gunawan remains in custody without charges under Pakistan's antiterror laws.

In recent months, thousands of young Afghan men have swarmed to madrassas just inside Pakistan. In Baluchistan's Chaman district, directly across the border from the Taliban's home province of Kandahar, at least 300 madrassas are filled to bursting. Pakistan's Army has lined the desolate frontier with high earthen berms, concertina-wire fences and watchtowers, but nothing stops the traffic of fighting-age Afghans--in either direction. "There is a constant stream of them," says Hafiz Hameedullah, head of a seminary in the town of Chaman, right on the border. "It's hard to find accommodations for all the newcomers." On the Afghan side, meanwhile, the influx of madrassa students and graduates has helped to produce Taliban battle units as large as 100 fighters, where a year ago the guerrillas were mustering squads of barely a half-dozen men.

Musharraf's latest moves aren't likely to inconvenience the holy warriors much. His aides have said the new law will ban the teaching of sectarian hatred and violence. But mostly it lays out a program for the voluntary registration of madrassas, offering financial aid to schools if they submit to financial audits and accept a government-recommended curriculum that includes secular courses like English and computer science. Even many militant schools have begun offering those subjects already, to help their students find jobs after graduation. They still draw the line at letting their pupils use the Internet. "Weak students could look at pornography," Qadr explains.

Any effort to combat radical teachings is complicated by the fact that Pakistan desperately needs its madrassas. Without them, an estimated 1.5 million young Pakistanis would get no formal education at all. According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Pakistan spends only 2.2 percent of its GDP on public education, the tiniest share for any country in South or Southeast Asia. And Pakistan's jihadis are more than ready for a fight. "If Musharraf tries to crack down on madrassas, there will be a flood of blood in the streets," says Maulana Anwar Ali Shah, principal of one of Pakistan's biggest schools, the Jamia Islamia Taalemulqiran madrassa in Peshawar.

A far greater worry, at least in the West, is the blood that will be spilled if the madrassas keep on teaching violence and hate. Sitting below a poster of himself holding the Qur'an in his right hand and a Kalashnikov in his left, Samiul Haq says he fully supports what he calls "the real freedom fights" in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kashmir. He's the principal of the Darul Uloom Haqqania mad-rassa, 20 miles east of Pesha-war, one of the biggest religious schools in Pakistan. He and his 3,000 students proudly call it "the University of Jihad." Its alumni include at least eight senior Taliban leaders, and Mullah Omar sent a personal message to every graduating class until his regime's collapse two years ago. Without a trace of irony, Haq denies that his school teaches extremism. "I challenge Musharraf to find any extremism here," he says. "This madrassa is not a military base. It has no guns or tanks." He adds: "We teach jihad because the holy Qur'an teaches jihad, which is the defense of Islam."

A NEWSWEEK reporter attended the school's commencement ceremony a few weeks ago. About 1,000 white-turbaned graduates and thousands of relatives jammed the madrassa's courtyard under banners depicting AK-47s and antiaircraft guns. The crowd seemed uncontrollable until Haq's eldest son, Rashidul Haq, took the microphone and announced: "If you are a friend of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, please sit down. But if you are a friend of Bush, keep standing." Everyone immediately sat, and a mullah delivered the invocation. "I request that almighty Allah protect the Taliban and our popular leaders Mullah Omar and Osama," he prayed. "They are living in caves and suffering. We pray for their assistance and health."

Ten miles closer to Peshawar, in the tiny village of Qumber Khen, tribesmen recently greeted a homecoming student with jubilant bursts of AK-47 fire in the air. Talawat Shah, 28, was arriving from his graduation at the Darul Uloom Sapia madrassa, not far from the Khyber Pass. Shah told the crowd that he was dedicating the day to Mullah Omar. "If we forget the jihad, God will forget us," Shah said. "But if we return to jihad, God will lift us up." His first priority is to start a madrassa in Qumber Khen. He's eager to spread the message of jihad to his students.