A few weeks after my return from a research trip to Pakistan in 2008, a suicide attack occurred on the exact spot in the city of Islamabad where I had been standing with my notebook. I had been writing down the slogans shouted out at a large demonstration against the government of Pakistan and what the demonstrators saw as its submission to the American government. A 30-year-old suicide bomber affiliated to the Taliban blew himself up near the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid), killing 19 people and wounding approximately twice as many. The attack was seemingly aimed at the members of the Pakistani police force, and occurred exactly one year after Pakistani security forces stormed the mosque––it was accused of being a terrorist factory. The suicide attack showed that the government's crackdown on the Red Mosque in 2007 remained a symbol of the confrontation between the Pakistani government and army on the one hand and the Pakistani Taliban on the other.
In 2008, another suicide attack destroyed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, creating headlines that described the tragedy as the 9/11 of Pakistan. According to Reuters, 53 people were killed and another 266 wounded. Shortly before the attack, the Marriott was suggested as a meeting place by an activist from the militant movement Lashkare Tayba (LeT) with whom I had set up an appointment. I declined to meet there because I remembered the advice of veteran colleagues who had the experience of interviewing militants in South Asia: to avoid positioning myself as a foreigner by meeting at a hotel that was a symbol of American dominance. However, had I taken the wrong decision, I might have been there when the attack took place.
When I first travelled to Pakistan with the ambition of interviewing militants affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban movement, I did not know what to expect or what kind of challenges I would face in the process of setting up meetings. I was, however, very conscious about how I presented my research and myself in order to avoid creating psychological barriers. I wanted honest answers. I wanted to break down barriers. And I was seeking to create an atmosphere of mutual trust. However, I found myself engaging in evasions: I preferred to present myself as affiliated with a university in Scandinavia rather than in Denmark, due to the tarnished reputation of Denmark after the Cartoon Crisis (the controversy in 2005 over a Danish newspaper's publication of 12 satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad). When accounting for my research stay in the United States (US), I felt more comfortable describing myself as being affiliated with a university in California rather than in the US, hoping my interlocutors' sense of geography was as weak as my own.
What I did during my quest to interview affiliates to the Pakistani Taliban seems more daunting in retrospect than it felt while I was in the midst of it. My images of Pakistan at that point were formed from childhood memories of the summer vacations we used to spend there—attending huge wedding parties, eating loads of chatpattey dishes, visiting family, and seeing many friendly faces. I had never before experienced the side of Pakistan that I came to explore as an academic researcher. Through my research travels, my image of Pakistan has become rather more complex (perhaps unsurprising for a densely populated country housing more than 180 million people), and my travels have added new perspectives to the impressions contained in my narrow childhood memories.
I was surprised to find that I could meet with, and interview, a considerable number of the militants who are depicted in news reports as secretive and unapproachable. I initially did not have a clear idea about how to establish contact with them. I assumed that I couldn't simply call a Taliban militant engaged in illegal and violent acts and agree on a time for an interview. I found out, however, that I could do exactly that, provided someone gave me a phone number.
In many situations I had to make quick and intuitive decisions that might have proved wrong. Among these decisions were choices about the meeting places. Often my interview subjects chose the place, sometimes taking me to their private, guarded houses. In some situations my driver accompanied me and introduced me. By pure coincidence, he was from Dera Ismail Khan, a city in northwestern Pakistan, spoke Pashto, and knew the Pashtun cultural codes. His introductions made some of the interviewees more comfortable speaking with me.
I assumed that I couldn't simply call a Taliban militant engaged in illegal and violent acts and agree on a time for an interview. I found out, however, that I could do exactly that, provided someone gave me a phone number.
One of the aspects of my research for which I was least prepared was my surveillance by the intelligence services. I have no idea whether they kept track of every meeting I had in Pakistan. I only know that an agent of the military intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), shadowed me during my stay in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPP) and that somewhere in an ISI drawer there is a fi le with my name and the picture he took of me. My meeting with the agent, whom I found sitting in the lobby of my hotel in Peshawar one morning, was one of the experiences I was not prepared for. Since I was continuously warned against 'the agencies', the sudden appearance of the agent at my hotel was intensely nerve-racking. It happened the morning after one of my journalist acquaintances had invited a leading figure of the governing secular Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP) of the KPP to the hotel where I was staying. The journalist had insisted that I should listen not only to the Taliban activists but also to someone with a completely different view in order to avoid bias in my writing. The situation caused me a lot of unease, since on the arrival of the ANP member, with very visibly armed bodyguards, I was told that activists affiliated with the Taliban had killed some of his family members and had recently launched a couple of attacks against him.
While I was somewhat nervously preparing to leave the hotel the next morning, the intelligence agent introduced himself, letting me know that he had received orders to keep an eye on me. He asked me about the purpose of my visit, whom I had been meeting with, what sort of questions I was asking, and so on. When I asked for his identification, he turned his back to me to lift up his kameez (without pockets) and reach into his elastic belt. It so much resembled a move I had often seen in American action movies that I leapt and hid behind the nearest pillar in the hotel lobby. Peeking from behind the pillar, I realized, to my great relief and embarrassment, that he had been reaching for his ID and not his gun.
However, my unease never disappeared completely during my research visits to Pakistan. I had heard many stories about the unpleasant actions of intelligence services—Pakistani, American, and Indian. Indeed, this was one reason I was careful not to ask the militant activists any questions to which I did not want to know the answers. I was not interested in knowing any concrete details that could be of intelligence interest, which in any case were beyond the scope of my research. On one occasion, while having lunch at an open-air restaurant in Islamabad, one of the journalists I was meeting with pointed at a food stand and told me a story about a young bearded boy who used to stand there every day. One day the boy disappeared, he said, and according to the journalist's sources, he had been 'taken' by one of the intelligence agencies. While he was in their custody a terrorist attack took place, and the boy was charged with perpetrating it.
Another story about questionable intelligence behaviour created big headlines in Pakistan in 2008 when the local Daily Times published a story about the terrorism suspect Aafia Siddiqui, who had reportedly lost her mind after being mistreated for five years in the US custody. The story was debated fiercely and emotionally in every newspaper and every big Pakistani news channel. It caused public outrage because interviews with Siddiqui's family revealed that they had had no contact with her since her mysterious disappearance from the streets of Karachi some five years earlier. The family also claimed that they did not know the whereabouts of her three young children, who were supposedly with her when she was arrested.
In retrospect, I believe that I could not have fully prepared myself for many of the situations I faced, since conflict arenas are inherently unpredictable and chaotic places to conduct research.
Excerpted with permission from Guardians of God: Inside the Religious Mind of the Pakistani Taliban by Mona Kanwal Sheikh published by Oxford University Press, 224 pages, hardcover, Rs 795.
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