CHITRAL, Pakistan — An ethnic group that claims bloodlines from the armies of Alexander the Great says it is under attack from jihadi groups, which have turned this former princely state into a rear base for attacks into neighboring Afghanistan.
The federal government in Islamabad pledged to preserve the culture of the 3,300-strong Kalasha people, who worship a pantheon of gods like those of the ancient Greeks.
But fiery messages about debauchery of the polytheists delivered in the region’s mosques and Salafist- and Wahhabi-funded religious schools render those promises of little comfort.
When Kalasha women court openly with different men as they have done for centuries, they are targeted as harlots. The ethnic group”s wine-making activities are also under fire.
The threats must be taken seriously in a region where anti-American insurgents regularly ply the remote mountain passes, transporting supplies for the fight in Afghanistan and dragooning new recruits in the valleys.
“A lot in our religion are leaving to join [Muslim religious schools] because of what they are being offered,” said Lakshan Bibi, a female commercial pilot who runs a private organization that supports the Kalash.
“The young men who attend these schools get a good brainwashing and then get sent to fight in Afghanistan. I hope the world will stand up and take notice that these institutions are a danger for all of humanity.”
Insurgent groups operating in Chitral and Dir to the immediate south are dominated by fighters loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an anti-Soviet mercenary who later turned against his American backers, say Afghan and Pakistani sources.
“They have weapons stocks that remain from the fight against the Russians, but they are also buying up new weapons and have anti-aircraft guns,” said a young supporter of the militants, speaking on the condition of anonymity near an open bazaar in Chitral.
Earlier this month, Pakistani soldiers in Chitral seized bomb-making materials from three Pakistanis and one Afghan. Authorities think they were on their way to plant mines aimed at NATO and U.S. convoys in Afghanistan’s neighboring Nuristan province.
Hekmatyar and his followers, who last year swore allegiance to al Qaeda and made dubious boasts about having helped Osama bin Laden escape into Pakistan during the battle of Tora Bora in 2001, found safe haven in Chitral with the help of radical Pakistani religious parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI.)
Hekmatyar’s group has known ties to Gulf state charities. Its “welfare” arm, Al-Khidmat, is a stepchild of an Egyptian organization set up to facilitate Arab volunteer and jihadi operations in Afghanistan against the Russians in the 1980s.
The International Crisis Group warned in a report last year that radical charities such as Al-Khidmat provide a “convenient recruiting base for militant activities.”
Some Western terrorism analysts have pointed to Chitral, with its towering peaks and remote valleys, as a potential hide-out for Osama bin Laden.
Senior Pakistani officials deny that bin Laden has ever been in Chitral and challenge U.S. claims to the contrary, calling them a smoke screen for the U.S. government’s failure to capture the Saudi-born outlaw.
One senior official said a secret U.S. team assigned to hunt bin Laden in Chitral last summer helped to “blow its own cover” by refusing to cooperate with Pakistani security officials.
Pakistani officials later escorted the group, along with sophisticated electronic equipment, out of the district.