Colin Freeman in Miranshah
For a decade, it was the world’s most impregnable terrorist stronghold, a region so remote and hostile that even Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding there.
Folded away in the mountains of Pakistan’s tribal belt, rugged North Waziristan were where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban operated with near total impunity, protected by towering peaks, fierce tribesmen and a blind eye from officialdom.
Dozens of British militants received training in its lawless capital, Miranshah, and over the years it was linked several of the most serious terror plots ever hatched against Britain and America.
Now, though, the town once nicknamed “Terrorist Pentagon” no longer echoes to the hum of US Predator drones hunting targets from the skies. Instead, there is the gentle sound of leather on willow – as cricket matches replace beheadings as Miranshah‘s main source of public entertainment.
“In places where the jihadists used to make people watch public executions, we now have cricket being played again,” said the cricket-loving Lieutenant General Nazir Ahmed Butt of the Pakistani Army’s 11th Corps, which now claims to be on the point of clearing North Waziristan of militants entirely. “They play furiously – it’s like Surrey vs South Glamorgan.”
The change in Miranshah‘s fortunes is part of a dramatic U-turn in Pakistan’s own war on terror, in which the West has long accused it of playing a double game. Such criticisms reached fever pitch in 2011, when Bin Laden was caught not hiding not in a cave in North Waziristan, but in a house in the Pakistani army town of Abbottabad.
However, in 2014, the Taliban’s habit of biting the hand that allegedly fed it backfired dramatically. Angered by two savage Taliban attacks that followed the collapse of peace talks – including one on an army-run school in which 122 children were massacred – Pakistan’s all-powerful security established launched operation Zarb-e-Azb – or “Cutting Strike”. Since, then thousands of militants have been killed or imprisoned, while terrorist strikes in Pakistan itself have dropped by around half.
Last week, the Daily Telegraph became the first Western newspaper to visit Miranshah in possibly a decade, as part of a Pakistani government effort to prove that it is now taking its war on militants seriously.
While the local commander, Maj Gen Hassan Azhar Hayat, said there had been no attacks now in Miranshah for six months, tight security surrounded our visit, with dozens of Pakistani soldiers fanning out as we toured bomb-flattened streets.
Nonetheless, the town was still more welcoming than it used to be for foreign journalists – back in the days of militant control, it was a holding centre for Western aid workers and hostages, including David Rhodes, a New York Times reporter.
“The militants made this area notorious,” said one bearded elder in Miranshah‘s main bazaar, now rebuilt in new white brick as part of an army-led reconstruction effort. “We’d see people lying in dead here in the bazaar, with pieces of paper put on them saying they were spies.”
A short walk from the bazaar, the army has also built a Test-match sized cricket stadium, which is now used almost daily for games. Previously, commanders said, the country’s favourite sport had been banned by the militants, who felt that sport of any kind “was a waste of time”.
Instead, their idea of productive activity focused mainly on things like the bomb-making factory located in a village on Miranshah‘s outskirts. Equipped with blenders and cauldrons to mix explosives in, it was used to produce explosives on an industrial scale, said Gen Hassan.
“In total, we’ve found 300 tons across North Waziristan,” he said. “That’s enough for two or three major bombings across Pakistan every day for the next 15 years. It’s mind-boggling.”
An insight into the role Miranshah played in global terror came in 2010, when two men who admitted planning a July 7-style attack on the New York Metro told how they travelled there to meet Rashid Rauf, a British-Pakistani militant raised in Birmingham. Rauf, who was accused of helping to mastermind the 2006 “liquid bomb” plot to blow up transatlantic airliners, was later killed in an airstrike. The men said they were also shown a martyrdom video recorded by Mohammed Siddique Khan, one of July 7 bombers, which their contacts in Miranshah boasted was “one of their operations”.
In a now-demolished bunker in Miranshah, Pakistani troops also found a “TV studio” where volunteers for suicide bombings would record martyrdom videos, as well as special isolation rooms painted with images of Paradise, where they lived their final days alone. According to Gen Hassan, the reality of suicide bomber recruitment was anything but glorious.
“The militants would find the poorest local families and recruit a boy from them, then feed him well while grooming him,” he said. “Then they’d isolate him, so that nobody could make him think again.”
The progress in Miranshah has come at a high price. Since the offensive in North Waziristan began, 872 Pakistani troops have been killed, and last year, there was still around 1,000 terrorist attacks nationwide. Only last month, 88 people died in an Isil-linked bombing at a Sufi shrine, which the Pakistani military blamed on Isis militants now holed up in neighbouring Afghanistan. Islamabad has accused Kabul of not doing enough to stop them – a criticism that used to be flung mainly the other way.
Meanwhile, Gen Hassan is encouraging Waziristan’s tribes to soften their ultra-traditional religious outlook, which allowed al-Qaeda and the Taliban a foothold in the first place. In an area where only 30 per cent of boys learned to read and girls often went completely uneducated, he has built brand new schools for both sexes, decked out with posters pointedly declaring that the “pen is mightier than the sword”.
“I was educated by missionaries so I know the importance of learning,” he said, standing next to a chemistry chart in a science classroom. “The next generation here will use chemistry charts for education, not bombs.”