Pakistan’s Taliban faction, the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), have made their home in the mountains of Waziristan. This area, on the Afghan border, has remained out of the Pakistani government’s grasp for decades — arguably since the foundation of the country in 1947. The TTP have planned deadly attacks from here since their inception in 2007. Before then, the thousands of militants that sought refuge in the tribal areas were loosely aligned with the Afghan Taliban across the border.
Yet Waziristan’s untouched peaks have come to represent a haven not just for the Taliban, but also for international fighters from around the world. They see fighting alongside the TTP as an ideal training ground to learn the group’s tactics, with the ultimate goal of bringing jihad to their home countries.
The Chinese jihadis looked distinctly out of place and most of them were uneasy around me because of my clean-shaven face.
I grew up in the hills of South Waziristan. I was born and raised in the Pashtun tribal traditions. I grew up with the understanding that guns and protecting tribal honor were secondary only to belief in God and Islam. In my hometown, a village of about 300 people outside of Ladha, I grew up next to men who would become members of the TTP, fighters who regularly engaged in battle with the Pakistani army and government. As my friends grew into fierce Talibs hunted by American drones, I became a journalist, reporting on their activities from the jihadi camps they set up in the area.
It was on one of my regular trips back to Miranshah that I asked one of my childhood friends, a current Talib, if I could come up to visit a Taliban camp. Despite our decades of friendship, I was blindfolded and then taken on a 40-minute drive. I didn’t mind the added security — knowing the route to their camp would be a bigger threat to me than to them. Pakistan is a hellscape for working journalists, and tribal reporters like me are often caught in between the take-no-prisoner attitudes of both the Pakistani intelligence services and the insurgents.
I reoriented myself once I climbed out of the tiny sedan and prepared for the two-hour hike to the camp itself. Most people fear the men I was travelling with. They’re the subject of 24-hour news coverage for their bombings, beheadings, and shoot-outs with the military. But when I’m with them, it’s easy to forget why the Talibs are so feared. They’re some of the funniest people I’ve ever met, cracking jokes, and playing pranks on the entire hike up the mountain. That’s probably because most of them are young men, boys really. They’re in their own little paradise, camping in the scenic ridges of the border region and carrying out what they believe to be their life calling, all while slinging around AK-47s and anti-aircraft guns.
At the camp, I did my usual round of greetings but was surprised to meet a handful of Chinese, ethnically Uyghur, jihadis. They too grew out their beards and donned the local garb, complete with wool shawls and their own machine guns. But they looked distinctly out of place and most of them were uneasy around me because of my clean-shaven face, a rarity in the Taliban-controlled tribal areas.
One of the Chinese fighters named Abdullah indulged me. “We’re not used to seeing people like you,” he smiled. “I’m from Xinjiang province.” I asked him how he liked Waziristan. “It’s not bad. I like the people here; they’re very nice, generous and cooperative. But let me make one thing very clear — everyone loves their motherland. I really miss my land, my people, relatives, and friends. I don’t get too close to the locals because we have big differences in language and customs. We don’t really understand their lifestyle.”
'I’d fight for a pan-Islamic state, in Pakistan or in Xinjiang. But I wish to fight in China more than here.'
Abdullah and his band of militants, a ragtag group of five, had come from Xinjiang to Pakistan to learn how the TTP wage jihad. (According to some sources there are between 50 to 100 Chinese fighters in the area). Muslim Uyghurs have been persecuted on religious and ethnic grounds by China's government and Uyghur separatists have recently carried out a spate of violent attacks. This includes a massacre at Kunming railway station on March 1 that left 29 civilians dead and more than 140 others injured.
Abdullah came to Waziristan to learn the ins and outs of planning jihad. “Once I left everything — my motherland, my friends and my family — I vowed that I would fight until my death,” Abdullah said. “I’d fight for a pan-Islamic state, in Pakistan or in Xinjiang. But I wish to fight in China more than here. Whenever I get a chance, I’ll go back to my country with the slogan of jihad and I will free my people of the Communist occupation of China.”
Alongside the Uyghur fighters was a Turkish man in his late 20s. Everyone called him by his nickname, Mujaheed. He told me he was from Istanbul, a far cry from the rural plains of Xinjiang and a far more advanced locale than the tents we were sleeping in that night. “I was a student when I quit and went to Afghanistan to fight jihad. We used to fight alongside the Taliban and, back then, we fought against the NATO forces almost every other day.” He wouldn’t specify exactly when he came across the border — almost all of the foreign jihadis were hesitant to give me details of exactly how they ended up in the remote region where we found ourselves eating dinner together.
'We can’t go back. We face too many problems, even on the way back into Uzbekistan.'
“I’m happy here with the Mehsud Taliban,” Mujaheed continued, placing his allegiance with the Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan. “These people are good Muslims and that’s why we’re here. We want to learn and make ourselves into good Mujahid and then we’ll go back to our own countries and fight the secular, non-Islamic system.” Back in Istanbul, the Muslim populist AK Party rules supreme, a shock for the strongly secular Turkey of yore. But the AK Party is a far cry from the Islamic state Mujaheed envisions.
Turkish and Uyghur fighters are a rarity in Waziristan. Yet a surge of Uzbek fighters joined the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. They’re now easily the highest population of foreign jihadis in Pakistan. An Uzbek militant named Muhammad Usman, a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, told me on the phone that Waziristan has been a hospitable place for him, as a foreigner.
But now that the Pakistani government is in negotiations with the TTP to end their battle, the status of the foreign militants that came to learn jihad in what they thought was the mujahideen promised land is in jeopardy. “We can’t go back. We face too many problems, even on the way back into Uzbekistan,” Usman said. “Our government will not give us a safe passage, and on top of that, we didn’t leave Uzbekistan for a cushy life. We left for jihad. We went where we had the opportunity to fight for Allah, and we will fight in Pakistan, in the Middle East, any part of the world.”
Video uploaded by the Pakistani Taliban was widely circulated on Jihadi forums.
The tribal community has built an entire economy out of providing Uzbeks with food and accommodation, though it’s hardly any consolation when compared to the ramifications of hosting militants. An elder from a Waziri tribe, who asked to remain anonymous, said the foreign jihadis were making the already tumultuous situation in Waziristan even worse.
“The religious Mullahs misguided us. They said it’s our religious duty to support these people. In the beginning, especially with Arab jihadis, they were giving us lots of money, for housing, for food, and for our farm animals,” he said. “But now, local tribes don’t like them much. We feel that these people are the main reason for the destruction of our homes and our land. The militants have taken some of our houses and they’re not giving them back to the locals.”
The Pakistani government, meanwhile, has remained silent on the matter, focusing instead on the negotiations. Whether the government achieves an unlikely peace with the Taliban or not, one thing is certain — foreign jihadis will continue to be a problem in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond these borders.
VICE's Meher Ahmad contributed to this report.
Follow Gohar Mehsud on Twitter: @GoharMehsud