How Afghan Insurgents Recruit High-School Students

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The young Afghan hates his new school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. "My classmates only talk about girls and movies," he complains. A tall, thin 17-year-old with the straggly beginnings of a beard, he yearns for the high school he used to attend, a few miles away in the Afghan refugee camp known as Shamshatoo. His father yanked him out of there last fall, having discovered too late that the school was effectively an insurgent recruiting center. Asking to be called Wahid Khan, the boy fondly recalls the early-morning assemblies where teachers praised the glories of jihad and recounted Afghanistan's long history of resistance to foreign occupiers. And he remembers the messages scrawled on the blackboards of the upper-grade classrooms: "To Join the Jihad, the Order of Almighty Allah, Call This Number" and "Those Who Want to Repay Their Debt to God, Take This Number."

When school let out last June, the boy jumped at the invitation and spent much of the summer at an insurgent training camp in Afghanistan. He had just finished 10th grade. His father, a former schoolteacher from Kabul, struggles to feed the family on no more than $100 a month, doing backbreaking work at a brick kiln near Peshawar. He's determined to give his son a better life. But the boy has other ideas. As soon as this school year ends, he's planning to head back to Afghanistan to complete his training for the war against the Americans. "My parents only live to survive," the boy says. "My aim is to live honorably in the eyes of God—and that means jihad."

Hundreds of boys like Khan have joined the insurgency from Shamshatoo in the past few years, and with spring's return, fresh reinforcements are once again beginning to stream across the border out of Pakistan. "The reason God brought our family to Shamshatoo was that he wanted me to become a jihadi," says another camp resident, a broad-shouldered, wild-haired 20-year-old who calls himself Waliullah. He used to write passionate love poems, and his dream was to earn a master's degree in Pashto literature. But his family moved to Shamshatoo five years ago, when he was 15, and now he's preparing to leave for his third summer fighting the Americans in Afghanistan.

Roughly 80 Afghan refugee camps are scattered along Pakistan's western border, but Shamshatoo is different from any other. It's administered and policed by the refugees who live there rather than by the Pakistani government—and it operates under the aegis of the notorious insurgent warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The camp has been his undisputed domain ever since the early 1980s, when he was a leader in the war against the Soviet occupation and a special favorite of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. From a mountain redoubt somewhere along the border, he now commands his own anti-U.S. guerrilla army, separate from but fitfully allied with the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

But Hekmatyar's ISI friends have stood by him, and his word remains law in Shamshatoo. Over the past three decades the camp has become a small city of more than 64,000 inhabitants, with mosques, madrassas, high schools, a university, a hospital, and even two local newspapers—both trumpeting Hekmatyar's Islamist line. Unlike many of his Taliban partners in jihad, he supports education for girls. But he nevertheless requires women in the camp to wear burqas, and they're forbidden to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. Playing music in public—even the ringtone on a mobile phone—is banned, as are satellite dishes. And no one is safe from the camp's informers and enforcers. "You can't say anything against Hekmatyar or this destructive game in Afghanistan," says one former resident. "His men are everywhere." The man moved his family to Peshawar two years ago, fearing that if they stayed in Shamshatoo his two sons would be recruited. "I was worried they'd be brainwashed and disappear," he says.

That's a constant risk in Shamshatoo. Refugee families are attracted to its schools, medical facilities, and crime-free security, but their impressionable sons are subjected to a daily barrage of jihadist messages in their schools, at the mosques, on video, in the local media, and on the streets. Even though new recruits are sworn to secrecy, each one who returns home seems to become an unofficial recruiter, merely by the war stories he tells. (Those who spoke to NEWSWEEK asked that we not use their real names; we learned about others by talking to their relatives, who requested anonymity for safety's sake.) This year Waliullah is going back to Afghanistan with three or four other poets, hoping their battlefield writings will inspire more young Afghans to join the war against the Americans.

Some recruits need no such encouragement: for them it's an escape route from Shamshatoo. Abdullah, 20, wouldn't talk to NEWSWEEK, but his family shares a house there with the family of his 35-year-old cousin. In 2009, Abdullah applied to Kabul University's engineering program—and was rejected. Last summer he suddenly vanished with no word to anyone. He came home four months later shockingly thin, with uncut hair and a full beard. Now he sits up until all hours, telling of his experiences with Hekmatyar's fighters in Afghanistan. The cousin worries that his own 18-year-old son might run off to war, but there's little he can do about it. "If our two families were not so dependent on each other, we would leave Shamshatoo," the cousin says. "There are so many boys missing."

Hekmatyar's actual recruiters can be frighteningly persuasive. An Afghan engineer with a USAID project in Kabul recently had to save his 15-year-old nephew from Shamshatoo. The boy had enrolled at a madrassa in the camp, and his behavior had changed radically. He ranted to his parents about Afghan women being molested by infidels. He trashed the family's television set, saying it was haram—forbidden—and castigated his mother and sisters for having the nerve to laugh while people in Afghanistan were suffering. "He was completely brainwashed," the engineer says. "The mullahs were looking for the opportunity to take him to Afghanistan to fight."

In desperation the family finally sent him to live with his uncle in Kabul. The boy still refuses to talk about his time in the madrassa, the engineer says, but lately he has become a new kid, learning quickly, watching Afghan television (mainly soap operas), and even laughing aloud at times. "He's very young, so it's easier for him to change," the engineer says. "I think he's happier here than in Shamshatoo."

One of Hekmatyar's own sons deplores the hard-sell recruitment of Shamshatoo's schoolboys. "There is a clash going on between extremists who want youth to go and fight, and those [like me] who want youth to study, be open-minded, and make their own choices," says the European-educated Jamaluddin Hekmatyar. He supports his father's war; he just doesn't think children belong in combat. His father evidently disagrees. One of the old man's nephews was among a group of four gunmen who were killed in fighting last week in Wardak province, just southwest of Kabul. The boy was an eighth grader from Shamshatoo. And the fact remains that boys in Shamshatoo enjoy more freedom than those in Haqqani-controlled areas of Waziristan. Young men there have no choice but to sign up or be ostracized—or worse.

But Hekmatyar's recruiters work in plain sight, only a few miles from Peshawar, and no one stops them. Three years ago Khan's family moved to a village just outside Shamshatoo. The father didn't want them living inside Hekmatyar's little police state, but he heard the schools were the best in the area and tuition was practically free. He never imagined how aggressive the recruiters were, or how susceptible his son would be. By the end of Khan's sophomore year in 2009, the 15-year-old was chafing to join the jihad. He and his friends planned to enlist, but the others chickened out, and Khan was too shy to go alone. Next time would be different, he promised himself.

When school let out last June, he was ready. He called a recruiter, and two days later he was heading through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. It was the first time he had ever seen his parents' homeland. He texted his father to say he had joined the jihad and would return in a month. "Pray for me," he told his father. Deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Khan finally came to a sprawling encampment of cave complexes, mud huts, and tents. He spent more than a month there, undergoing indoctrination and learning to use various weapons and to plant IEDs. At graduation, the recruits were urged to stay for advanced instruction, but Khan had promised his father he'd finish high school. He went home to Shamshatoo, planning to complete his training this coming summer.

Khan's father had searched frantically for the boy. As soon as his son got home, the family moved away from Shamshatoo, to Peshawar. The boy's new school charges $12 a month—at least half a week's pay for the father, not to mention school uniforms, books, and fees for his three other children. "I send my kid to get an Islamic education, and Hekmatyar gives me someone who wants to be a jihadi or a suicide bomber," he says. "The Shamshatoo camp should be demolished." That's not about to happen—and the flood of Hekmatyar's recruits into Afghanistan is not about to stop.