By Saeed Shah
Nov 22 2012
The reporter who established to the world that Ajmal Qassab was a Pakistani from Faridkot in Okara district looks back on the challenge of those crucial days
Ajmal Qassab was an enigma back in November 2008. Was this superman terrorist, dressed in combat trousers and a T-shirt, wielding a machine gun like a veteran commando, really a poor Pakistani villager?
The idea that he was part of an elite squad of terrorists who had gone from Pakistan, by boat, and caused so much carnage in India, was met in Pakistan with public and official disbelief and blanket denial. Even to a journalist, the story seemed like a fantasy.
The other gunmen were dead, so all focus was on Qassab. His capture and interrogation threw out nuggets of information about his origins, which appeared in the Indian media, but these were unclear and inconsistent. The most useful bit of information was the name of his home village, Faridkot, and the names of his parents, possibly Amir and Noor, though both appeared in various mangled and vague forms. Even the gunman’s name was not certain, given variously as Mohammed Amin Qassab, Azam Amir Kasav, Mohammed Ajmal Amir, Ajmal Qassab.
There was also information that Qassab’s father may have earned a living selling food on the street from a cart.
India had immediately blamed Pakistan and Pakistanis for the attack. But where was the proof? Pinpointing where Qassab came from became crucial. If he was from Pakistan, then surely he must have a family there who would recognise him and confirm the story.
Among foreign journalists in Pakistan, the race was on to figure out where Faridkot was. Indian media reports kept giving different locations within the Pakistani province of Punjab for Faridkot, as intelligence leaked out of the Indian investigation. It later turned out that Faridkot was a popular village name in Punjab.
There was a Faridkot village outside Multan, a large historic town in the southwest of Punjab. The Indian media stories pointed there.
On the plane with me to Multan from Islamabad was a crew from the BBC; neither of us acknowledged to the other what mission we were on. I, a British journalist of Pakistani origin, had moved to Pakistan a year earlier and was working at the time for The Guardian, the British newspaper.
The BBC and I turned up separately in “Faridkot,” Multan, and excitedly asked villagers about Ajmal Qassab. I had a copy of the already iconic picture of the gun-totting young man, taken as he rampaged through Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
“No, no, never heard of him, what are you talking about?” said villager after puzzled villager. But each insisted I come in for a cup of tea and a nice chat. The village had never received such outside attention.
I then heard of a Faridkot near Khanewal, another town close to Multan. Nearby was a radical madrasa: perhaps they would admit some link. But, no. At the village, the same perplexed reaction and many cups of tea later, nothing.
Returning to Islamabad
Dejected, I returned to Islamabad. Then information started to leak out of India which placed the village on the other side of southern Punjab, near Okara, close to the Indian border. More dusty villages beckoned.
There were two Faridkots near Okara. I headed to the bigger one first. At Depalpur, just outside the village, to my amazement, there was a banner on the roadside which carried the name of Lashkar-a-Taiba. This looked promising.
It was a dirt-poor place of narrow lanes and little houses tucked behind high walls. When I started showing the picture around, I was immediately aware of hesitation, contradiction and an apparent recognition of the picture, and also a hostility to my questioning — a sharp contrast to the warm but puzzled welcome I had received elsewhere. Some told me of houses where an Ajmal or a Qassab lived. I visited some. It was getting dark and I had to leave, still unsure if I had found the right place.
Two days later I returned to the same village, and tried to visit some of the other houses where I had been directed. I pushed my way into one such house. Immediately, I saw a food cart in the tiny courtyard of the humble little house. There, I found an old man and woman, apparently Qassab’s grandparents, who at times would seem to confirm being related to Ajmal Qassab and other times, deny it. The gunman’s parents were not there — the grandparents claimed they had gone away to a wedding. The flustered and clearly scared grandparents seemed to be directed into the denials by a plain clothes official present, as well as a uniformed police officer.
Still uncertain whether I was in the right place, I visited the other Faridkot nearby. There was graffiti all around extolling the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In that tiny village, a local admitted to me that they send many young men for “jihad” but nothing specific to Qassab turned up.
I went back to the first larger Faridkot. It seemed as if intelligence agents were all around. Someone eventually took me aside and whispered that the villagers had been lying to me and that this was indeed Ajmal Qassab’s village. He was furious that young men were being recruited from there and led into the ways of jihad
I surreptitiously checked the local electoral record. There was a Mohammad Amir married to a Noor Elahi. From there I also got the numbers of their national identity cards. I had enough to run the story — a report that was picked up with glee in India but ignored totally in Pakistan.Saeed Shah is a journalist covering Pakistan and Afghanistan for The Economist and McClatchy Newspapers.