- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

This interview with Maulvi Umar, spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was conducted in Urdu on Aug. 24 in the Bajaur tribal zone in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province by Muzamal Suherwardy, a senior correspondent and talk-show host for the Khabrain media group and an occasional contributor to The Washington Times. Umar typically calls news organizations to claim responsibility for suicide attacks, including one on Saturday in which at least 35 people died.

Question: A military operation is under way in Bajaur that has brought wide unrest throughout the country. About 200,000 to 300,000 residents of the tribal areas have been evacuated from their homes and are leading a miserable life in the refugee camps. TTP is being blamed for this situation.

A: No, it’s wrong. The government of Pakistan should be held responsible. Whenever the government wants, it starts a war, and the situation is the result of that war. There was nothing for a military operation in the area. The Taliban were living peacefully here. Then, the government launched a war, destroyed our homes and killed our brothers, which made the situation critical.

Q: The Pakistani government says foreign militants have taken refuge in the tribal areas and the operation is against these militants. Why does TTP provide shelter to these foreigners?

A:All these statements are nothing but a pack of lies. The government always makes lame excuses for a military operation in the tribal areas. It first said that Osama bin Laden was there. We have always contradicted such statements. The security forces have not even martyred or arrested a single foreigner in our area, the tribal areas. What kind of foreigners are they?

Secondly, we call American and NATO foreigners, and we are fighting against them.

Q: So, you are saying that TTP has not given refuge to any Uzbek, Tajik and Arab fighters?

A: Yes, we dont have any. All TTP activists from Waziristan to Swat are Pakistanis and patriots, and time will tell who is more loyal to Pakistan the Taliban or the United States. We know that America has not come in this region for Afghanistan. They actually want to interfere in the internal affairs of Pakistan. Whom you call terrorists will actually help Pakistan some day.

Q: If your fight is against America and NATO forces, why will you kill innocent Pakistanis in suicide attacks?

A: The Taliban is going through a tough time, so it has resorted to these attacks. The suicide bombers always target security forces or government officials, but sometimes innocent people also fall victim to it. We always regret that and seek pardon, but it happens in war. It sometimes becomes difficult to differentiate between the enemy and innocent people in the crowd.

Recently, we have targeted the Pakistan Ordnance Factory in Wah Cantt because all the weapons being used in Bajaur against the Taliban and residents of the tribal areas are invented and assembled in this factory. So, we had to take action in the revenge. (An August suicide attack on the munitions factory about 30 miles north of Islamabad in August killed 60 people, according to Pakistani press reports.)

Q: Will you attack this factory again?

A: Yes, we can. We can hit anywhere in Pakistan. Actually, it was a warning to the government. If it does not end the military operation in the tribal areas, we will make more suicide attacks on the military installations and government officials.

Our suicide bombers are in every nook and cranny of the country. They are just waiting for a green signal from their leadership to sacrifice their lives for Allah Almighty.

Q: Islam abhors suicide. Its a sin.

A: Yes, you are right. Islam forbids suicide. But [Islamic theologians] have given a verdict that when you sacrifice your life to cause damage to the enemy, then its not a sin; rather it brings the blessings of Allah.

Q: What is the relationship between TTP and al Qaeda?

A: Al Qaeda is not just an organization. It has become an ideology. Whoever is against America is Taliban.

Q: Is Osama bin Laden alive? It is said that he remained in Bajaur for quite some time.

A: He must be alive. We pray to God for his long life. He is an enemy of the United States because he knows that they wanted hegemony all over the world. Osama has set an example of all mujahedeen, and well follow in his footprints.

Q: How do you get money to run your movement?

A: Tribal people and Muslims from all over Pakistan and all over the world give donations for the cause.

Q: So, TTP has no financial constraints?

A: No, not at all.

Q: How do you get weapons?

A: There are wave after wave of mass reservoirs of weapons in Pakistans tribal areas and Afghanistan. We have enough weapons to continue jihad against the Americans till doomsday.

The weapons we have here in Bajaur are from the Pakistani army. We have huge stocks of G3s and mortar shells. We have arrested 300 army men in Waziristan and seized a mass amount of weapons from their custody, and with that, we can fight against the Pakistani security forces for 10 years. We also have armored jeeps and other military vehicles.

Q: How is Baitullah Mehsud (the militia leader accused in the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto)?

A: He is fine. I talked to him yesterday. Sometimes he [falls] unconscious because of uncontrolled diabetes, but apparently hes fine. He is a young, brave man and has extraordinary willpower.

Q: TTP has developed an organized army. Can you give some idea of its strength?

A: In the tribal belt, we have more than 100,000 fighting soldiers.

Q: Do you pay them?

A: No, they voluntarily fight against the non-Muslims.

Q: If you dont pay them, how will they feed their families?

A: They do labor and business besides their jihad activities to feed their families. TTP has told them that the war will continue for years so they could continue with domestic matters. However, these days, we are in a warlike condition in the tribal areas, so they have abandoned their other business and are fully concentrating on jihad.

Q: Does TTP provide training to its soldiers?

A:Obviously, we train our soldiers. We teach them to use all kinds of weapons besides physical training.

Q: How much time does training take?

A: There are different courses, ranging from two months to five years.

Q: Do you only use teenagers for suicide attacks because they have immature minds that are easy to manipulate?

A: No, its not so. We dont force anybody to do suicide attacks. They automatically come to us and request a chance to sacrifice their lives for Allah. We teach our children. They study the Koran, understand it and memorize it, and when they become totally ready, then they are recruited for jihad. You will find not even a single child among us. However, we have a lot of energetic young people.

Q: It is said that their minds have been prepared for suicide attacks since childhood.

A: No, no, its not right. We neither prepare people for suicide attacks nor preach the action. People automatically come and request a chance to sacrifice their lives for Allah, and then we train them.

Q: How do you recruit suicide bombers? Its quite impossible for a common man to [get] access to you.

A: Its not so. People who have a desire easily access us. Recently, an Urdu-speaking man from Karachi came to me for suicide attack training. I thought he had some financial constraints or a scuffle with his family. But he told me that he was quite wealthy and he just wanted to sacrifice his life for Allah. So, we trained him, and he did a very successful suicide attack.

Q: Why are only young people from 18 to 20 years old suicide bombers? Why not people in their 40s and 50s?

A: War is in the blood of young people. You can learn it from history.

Q: Why do you target schools and commercial areas where civilians work?

A: As I have already told you, we never target civilians, but they sometimes come in the way of our targets, but we try our best only to hit armed forces because we do consider it a major sin to kill an innocent man.

Q: Is former President Pervez Musharraf still your target?

A: Inshallah, if we get a chance.

Q: How does TTP select its target for suicide attacks?

A: TTP body has a program for suicide attacks. I cant give you any more information about it.

Q: Do you have a separate unit for suicide bombing?

A: Yes. Its very secret and confidential. They dont communicate their plans to other leaders of the movement. They always keep their plans highly confidential. Very [few] people know about these plans.

Q: Then how do you claim the responsibility within few minutes of the attack?

A: A coordinator informs us about the blast, and then we accept responsibility.

Q: Why do you claim the responsibility?

A: Its part of our war strategy. If the government of Pakistan creates hype of its operations in the tribal areas, why should we not tell the world that we have taken revenge?

Q: What is the relationship between TTP and the Taliban in Afghanistan?

A: They both are jihadi organizations. However, Afghan Taliban are only active in Afghanistan, but we are active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here, we have adopted a defensive strategy. However, in Afghanistan, we have resorted to aggression against the NATO forces.

Q: Is Mullah Muhammad Omar alive? (The Taliban leader of Afghanistan was ousted by U.S.-led forces after the 2001 attacks on the United States.)

A: Yes, he is alive. Taliban are united against America under his leadership.

Q: Have you ever met him?

A: No, never. However, we have talked on a wireless phone.

Q: Have you ever met Osama [bin Laden]?

A: No, I have never seen him.

Q: Are there any Uzbeks, Tajiks or Arabs fighting in Afghanistan?

A: Maybe, but I dont know them. During the Taliban regime, they were there. But now, I dont know.

Q: What can be done to stop more suicide attacks?

A: Its very simple and clear. The government should show some flexibility and end the [military] operation in the tribal areas. You saw a peaceful time during the Feb. 18 general elections because at that time, the army and government showed flexibility.

Q: Tell me about the situation in Bajaur.

A: Thanks to God, we have total control over the area. The army retreated thrice from here. Now the government is just doing bombardment and shelling through fighter jets, killing innocent people. If they want to fight with Taliban, they should come and face us on the land. Shelling from war planes is not a brave act.

Q: How do you see the post-Musharraf scenario?

A: The Taliban and people of Pakistan both pinned hopes on the new Pakistan Peoples Party government, but it has dashed all our hopes and continued with the Musharraf policies. PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardaris election as president will bring no change in the country. No prime minister or president can do anything until there is peace in the tribal areas.

Q: Now you have advised people to stay away from North West Frontier Province ministers, saying youll target them?

A: Now all their ministers are on our hit list. We will hit them as soon as we get a chance.

Q: What do you think about [former Prime Minister and leader of the main faction of the Pakistan Muslim League] Nawaz Sharif?

A: I think Nawaz Sharif is the only leader who is loyal to Pakistan. He may not be a perfect Muslim, but he is a patriot. However, all other political leaders are not loyal to Pakistan and its people.

Q: People are afraid of you. They think you will make Pakistan the Afghanistan of Mullah Omar, that you will kill non-bearded people, punish those who do not offer prayers and stop girls from going to schools; that you will cut us off from the rest of the world.

A: There is a difference between the aims of Taliban of Pakistan and Taliban of Afghanistan. We dont want to rule Pakistan. We hit security because [it has] become a hurdle to jihad. Secondly, we are in favor of education. Our women also study. My daughters are studying. I am also educated. I have studied up to grade 8.

Q: Did you kill PPP Chairperson Benazir Bhutto?

A: Its just an allegation against the Taliban by those who actually killed her. Why should we have killed her? We were not her political rivals, nor did we get any benefit from her death.

Q: But [Benazir Bhutto] had made several statements against Taliban. She had said that she would allow Americans to launch operations against Taliban in tribal areas of Pakistan.

A: Yes, you are right. She had said that. And Baitullah Mehsud also had told her that he would host a special treatment for her if she returned from Pakistan. But the conflict ended peacefully.

Later, after the Karachi blast, Benazir Bhutto had talked to Baitullah Mehsud on the phone.

Q: Benazir Bhutto talked to Baitullah Mehsud?

A: Yes, Baitullah Mehsud told me that he had talked to the late PPP chairperson and assured her that there was no conflict between them and he would not take any action against her. The conflict was resolved with mutual understanding.

(Editor’s note: The TTP had vowed to kill Mrs. Bhutto if she returned from exile to Pakistan. When she returned in October, she survived a massive suicide attack while traveling from the Karachi airport to address a rally of supporters. Mrs. Bhutto was unhurt, but at least 150 of her supporters died. It was not clear from the interview whether TTP was responsible for the Karachi attack because the telephone conversation between Mrs. Bhutto and Mr. Mehsud would have taken place after the Karachi blast. However, Mr. Umar definitely denied any involvement by his organization in the Dec. 27 attack in Rawalpindi in which Mrs. Bhutto died.)

Q: Can you imagine a new beginning with a general amnesty so that people could live in a peaceful Pakistan?

A:If the government ends its operation and stops killing Taliban, we can also review our decisions.

Q: Your war is against America, but you are killing innocent Pakistani people. You havent killed any Americans. You are fighting against the people of your own country.

A: Yes, its unfortunate, but we are fighting against them because they have become allies of the United States and killing their own people for dollars. If they side with us, we will secure Pakistan from these non-Muslims.

Q: Do you feel bad for these poor, innocent children who are leading a miserable life in refugee camps because of this war?

A: Yes, thats why we have stopped our actions in Bajaur and adopted a defensive strategy. Now, only the government is bombing the area through fighter jets.

Q: Are you still ready for dialogue?

A: Yes. All conflicts can be resolved through mutual understanding, but the Pakistani government does not understand it.

Q: Are you also ready to disarm?

A: These weapons are the culture of tribal areas. We keep them just for our defense and the defense of Pakistan. We will not disarm ourselves.

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