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I am here, I am visible. America should give that reward money to me. I will be in Lahore tomorrow. America can contact me there anytime –

Lashkar-e-Taiba chief, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, April 2012, mocking the US’s announcement of a bounty of $10 million on him, dead or alive.

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Muridke

Punjab,

Islamic Republic of Pakistan

October 2000

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“Even one day spent in jihad is better than a hundred years spent in worship.”

The words, spoken in chaste Urdu, were delivered in a flat monotone, devoid of emotion, the voice soft but slightly high-pitched, almost effeminate. The man who spoke them sat cross-legged by the window, on a red and black striped rug that covered the floor, wall to wall. To support his back, ailing from the after-effects of six high velocity APS rounds he received while planting an IED years back near Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, he leaned against some large cushions. From time to time, he grimaced as he twisted his torso to his right to pick up the cup of heavily scented cardamom tea that he drank in gallons throughout the day.

Yes, he had known and fearlessly courted pain. He had exulted in suffering as no one in the Afghan War ever had. To his faithful, he was known as Emir.

Well into his 60s now, the man was short, overweight and entirely humorless, his reptilian eyes barely open in slits, eyelids flickering constantly many times a second, the way that the eyes of someone trying on contact lenses for the first time, would do. True to the stereotype of an Islamic fanatic, he had a beard, though it was moderate in length and his hair was long and unkempt, most of it hidden under the pakol, a round-topped Pashtun cap that is made of wool and looks like a round bottomed bag when not worn. The wearer usually rolls up the sides nearly to the top, forming a thick band, which then rests on the head like a beret.

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The Emir, wearing a pakol

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A heavyset and heavily bearded dude sat on the floor in the background, by the door. Heck, everyone here is bearded. If you’re clean shaven, you stand a good chance of receiving a 7.62mm projectile, exiting the barrel of a Kalashnikov at 715 meters per second, right between your eyes, before you can even begin to explain yourself.

The hulk’s eyes were half closed, appearing to be in the midst of grabbing a shut-eye. He was actually wide awake and extremely alert, the fingers of his right hand only inches away from a 9mm Mauser automatic which lay flat on the rug next to him, it’s safety off.

Known as just Suleman, the mountain of a man was the Luca Brasi of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Like Luca he didn’t say a word, didn’t even nod, but unlike the Godfather heavy, Suleman accompanied the Emir wherever he went, like a shadow, staying with the Emir every day until he went to bed at night. Suleman’s loyalty to the Emir was total. It is easy to be ready to give your life for a man to whom you owe it.

Two decades prior, a Soviet fragmentation grenade shrapnel had removed a part of his brain that powered long-term memory but still, there was one day that Suleman would never forget…..

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It was late 1986 and the writing for the Soviet forces was on the proverbial wall. Morale was astonishingly low and frequently Soviet infantrymen had to be threatened with execution if they didn’t stand and fight the fanatically committed Mujahedeen. How could you fight a culture that was willing and ready to die? The Soviet economy in shambles, the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, had already made up his mind to withdraw from an unwinnable war.

Late one night in November, outside Kunduz in Northern Afghanistan, Suleman was sitting at the wheel of the Toyota Tundra pick-up truck, waiting for the Emir (he was known only as Abu Hafiz then) and six of his Pakistani jihadis, who were putting the finishing touches to the camouflage over an IED on the dirt road that Soviet replenishment convoys frequently took, when entering through Tajikistan. Abu Hafiz was one of the few Pakistanis who were fighting alongside the Ahmed Shah Masood-led Northern Alliance. The Tajik-born Lion of Panjshir had taken to the young Pakistani Mujahid who would one day be known as the Lion of Lahore.

Maybe they were upwind, because they didn’t hear it coming. Suddenly they came under withering fire from a Spetsnaz platoon that had materialized out of nowhere over a knoll just yards away, dropped off by an Mi-24 Hind and the next thing he knew, a fragmentation grenade came crashing through the windshield and skittered around next to his foot.

Suleman dove but unfortunately not far enough. When he came to, he found himself moving, slung over someone’s shoulders. It was Abu Hafiz and he was staggering under Suleman’s 220lb weight and trying not to lose his footing as he slipped and slid over the rocky terrain. All the others died that night, but not before wiping out the entire Spetsnaz platoon. The Mi-24 had back-tracked in but that was a mistake it would regret – it got blown out of the sky by a CIA-provided infra-red homing Stinger that one of the Mujahid had had ready.

“Leave me here, Abu Hafiz, go while you can. Inshallah, I’ll make my own way back if I can,” said Suleman, his words hoarse with pain, jerky with the bobbing that the Emir’s shoulders did as he ran.

“If I left you here, how would I be any different from those infidel animals, Bhaijan?” panted the Emir.

It was only after they had reached the tiny hamlet of Kamshar, that Abu Hafiz collapsed and let the tribesmen take over and nurse them back to health. No one really can tell how he was able to cover that distance with a 220lb load and six round in his back. It was taken as a miracle and he was elevated to someone just short of a Prophet.

Since that day, Suleman has made protecting the Emir his mission in life. If you wanted to take the Emir down, there was no question that you would have to kill Suleman first.

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After  9/11 and the consequent paradigm shift in the security environment of the world, Pakistan’s security establishment could no longer openly patronize terrorist organizations.

But in October 2000, they could and they did. It was the time when the Lashkar-e-Taiba could still operate openly with impunity. It’s minders, the Pakistani Intelligence, ISI, restrained it from carrying out only those operations that might precipitate a full-scale war with India.

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It had all begun 13 years prior, in 1987. The ISI was flush with all the cash that the Americans were throwing at them, no questions asked, in the name of the Afghans’ war against the Soviet Union, a fight for which, the LeT had supplied 1400 trained Mujahedeens. It was a fight that the US had no business being involved in. Communism was crumbling anyway, it’s own self-destruct button already pressed and being held down.

But that’s another story. Right then, in 1987, with American and Saudi dollars the ISI had set the Emir and his followers up in a sprawling 1200-acre compound on a picture-perfect countryside just outside Pakistan’s cultural capital, Lahore. (It was exactly similar to another ISI-maintained compound – the one at Abottabad where Osama Bin Laden enjoyed ISI’s hospitality until one late night in May 2011, when the protection was suddenly yanked away).

The Lashkar-e-Taiba had a different name then – Markaz Daawat Wal Irshad (Center for preaching and guidance). The then Pakistani President, Zia-ul-Haque’s Islamization of Pakistan had laid the groundwork for the channelization of millions of aid dollars to this compound which boasted a state-of-the art security system operated by the ISI. It had schools, farms, factories and all sorts of facilities within it.

The Emir’s aim had been to create a Medinat-al-Tayyiba, a pure city that would reflect life inside Prophet Muhammad’s 7th century Medina – an environment where there would be no music, no pictures, no TV, no movies, nothing – just prayer. The only ‘entertainment’ would be Islamic warrior songs played over loudspeakers and available in music cassettes. Women would be subservient, human but not entirely human. There would be no divorces and no such thing as a sexual abuse complaint. I suppose one could call this an accurate image of what hell really looks like.

Inside this utopia, the Markaz would enforce the Ahl-e-Hadith school of thought, a particularly virulent strain of the Saudi Wahhabism, which believes that there was no such thing as love, peace, democracy, multi-culturism and universal brotherhood. The only form of existence was in armed struggle, until the following were achieved – (1) Mass conversions to Islam and a gradual ‘purification’, until the whole world was Muslim, with the formation of one nation – the Islamic State (2) The world had only one recognized religion – Islam and one system of justice and governance – the Sharia, (4) During the interim period, when the process of the said purification was ongoing, non-Muslims would have to pay a jizya, a ‘protection tax’ (5) Again, in the interim period, there would be threats and challenges to the establishment of the new world order and therefore every able-bodied Muslim man and woman would have to undergo compulsory military training.

There was a tiny paradox here, that the Emir might have failed to notice – since only non-Muslims were required to pay the jizya tax, I should think that it would be in the Muslim rulers’ interests to let their non-Muslim subjects remain non-Muslim, since they would no longer have to pay the tax once they were converted, no? But heck, to expect militants to make sense is insanity in itself.

The Muridke compound still exists and nothing has changed. It is still a nation on its own right. Like Waziristan, the north-western border regions of Pakistan, the normal laws of the land do not apply at the Muridke compound. Unlike Waziristan, it is situated in the heart of Pakistan and wholly sponsored by the state. It is an ace that Pakistan likes to play while retaining plausible deniability.

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That evening, the Emir had a visitor, an American, who sat a few yards away and it was to him that he had directed those words about a day in jihad being better than a hundred years in worship.

When the visitor sat down, he did attempt but failed to cross his legs, not being used to sitting on the floor. He sat instead, on his butt, his arms folded over his knees and he listened to the old man, rapt.

Yes, even though he was soft-spoken, the old man commanded total attention when he spoke. Swaying ordinary Pakistanis into putting their faith and their lives into armed struggle and martyrdom, propelling them into a pattern of blind hatred that is incomprehensible to any westerner, required charisma and the Emir had oodles of it. He had demonstrated it in fact, when the American had walked in. He seemed to know everything about him – his marriages, his kids in the US, his drug smuggling escapades, his arrest with the 2kgs of pure heroin at Peshawar, the brief incarceration, the sudden born-again-Muslim awakening and finally, the release by the ISI into the custody and care of the Emir. The American felt like a child, being told after he has been naughty that it’s all right, everything would be fine.

“Islam,” the Emir spoke,” means submission, to the will of Tawhid, the one God and to his sole messenger, Hazrat Muhammad, our Prophet.” His beady, blinking eyes settled on the American. Then, noting the American’s wildly charged up eagerness, he launched into another diatribe….

“Look at it this way – Even though there are five oceans and as many seas and all have their own currents, there is technically actually one ocean in the world, one body of water. The Pacific may not know that it’s waters might wash up at the shores of the Atlantic. Similarly there is only one religion in the world – Islam. It is just a matter of time before Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jews and all those others, realize this. They may not know that they were all actually born Muslims. We all belong to one faith and one God and we follow one Prophet – Hazrat Muhammad. Our job, yours and mine, is to accelerate that process of Islamization of the world. We have to work toward the day when there will no longer be any infidels, because every human being will then be a brother of the faith.

With that, the beady eyes opened a bit wider and rested upon the American, the gaze reptilian, devoid of emotion. He was expecting some sign of comprehension.

“Tell me, Emir,” stuttered the American, his Urdu not as fine as the Emir’s,” Point me in the direction you want. I am ready.”

“Stay here tonight. Suleman Bhai will show you to your lodgings. Tomorrow, there will be a man, a fauji (military officer), who will explain what needs to be done. Upto now, we have never attempted anything spectacular, like multi-target, multi-operative, large-scale strikes that stretch over days. Having you with the brothers could change that. Inshallah, you will be one of our greatest jihadis, one whose name will be spoken in awe, for years from now. Allah Hafeez, Bhaijaan.”

The American saw the man called Suleman rise and approach the Emir. As he passed by the American, he paused for an instant, to give him a look that said – I am going to watch you every millisecond, asshole.

Suleman paused by the Emir, stooped and with a gentleness that would come as a shock to anyone who knew what he was capable of, helped the old man rise and followed him through the door, out of sight. The American too made to rise but the man named Sajid placed a hand on his shoulder and said,” Please, remain seated for a while – a normal security precaution.”

David Coleman Headley had finally reached the head of the snake….and found his niche.

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Ps: The Muridke compound still stands untouched till this day, though thankfully the Emir’s vision that one day the whole of Pakistan would emulate the Muridke ‘commune’, hasn’t happened yet. One hopes and prays that there will be an MQ-9 fired Hellfire missile with his haloed name on it, before that.

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