Fresh Air Interviews, Journalist David Rohde, 'How Waziristan, Pakistan Continues Helping Terror' American journalist David Rohde escaped last year from a Taliban stronghold in northern Pakistan after being held for seven months. It's the same region where the suspected Times Square bomber reportedly trained. Rohde, who is currently on leave from The New York Times, explains the conflicted history of the region.
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Times Square Bomb Attempt Puts Focus On Pakistan

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Times Square Bomb Attempt Puts Focus On Pakistan

Times Square Bomb Attempt Puts Focus On Pakistan

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This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross.

As investigators continue to probe the attempted car bombing in Times Square, there are increasing concerns that radical groups based in Pakistan may have played a role. Court documents indicate that suspect Faisal Shahzad admitted traveling to the Waziristan region of Pakistan for training and bomb-making.

Our guest, David Rohde, believes North Waziristan has become the prime sanctuary for extremists who launch attacks against American troops in the region, extremists who are increasingly capable of planning and supporting terrorist attacks in the United States.

It's a region David Rohde knows all too well. He covered Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2001 to 2008, and was held captive for seven months by the Taliban, mostly in North Waziristan. While he was there, he saw radical groups training their followers and foreign extremists in making bombs.

David Rohde is on leave from The New York Times while works on a book about his experiences. He spoke, this morning, with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, David Rohde, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

When you heard that Faisal Shahzad, the man who has been arrested in connection with the failed New York Times Square car bombing, had been trained in Pakistan, what was your reaction?

Mr. DAVID ROHDE (Author, investigative journalist, The New York Times): I was disappointed. For years myself and other reporters have been writing about North Waziristan and weve seen attacks in Kabul linked back to North Waziristan. Weve seen assassination attempts in Pakistan, linked back there. We saw the killing of Benazir Bhutto, the 2005 London subway bombings, and now, you know, an attack in Times Square. And its been eight years and the area just continues to be a Taliban mini state.

DAVIES: And this is an area that's in what people refer to as the border regions of Pakistan near Afghanistan, right?

Mr. ROHDE: Yeah. The tribal areas are sort of the result of decades of really poor British colonial policy, poor Pakistani government policy and actually, also American government policy. Theyve been this neglected backward area where people weren't allowed to vote. They are essentially cut off from the rest of Pakistan and political parties are barred from being active there. And it was used by the United States as a base to train and indoctrinate young Afghans and Pakistanis to fight soviet troops in Afghanistan in the '80s. So what we face today is really the product of 30 years of conflict, and beyond that, sort of, decades of neglect.

DAVIES: And it is, in effect, Taliban mini state, right?

Mr. ROHDE: Yeah. What really struck me when I was brought there as a captive, was that the Taliban regime that the, you know, U.S. felt it had toppled in Afghanistan in 2001, I found had simply moved a few hundred miles to the East -and it was alive and thriving in the tribal areas of Pakistan, particularly, in two agencies as they're called. They're parts of the tribal areas, North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

There were Taliban road crews repairing the roads, Taliban police patrolling the streets, the Taliban run the schools and Arab and Uzbek foreign militants stroll through the bazaars with complete confidence, and it really is a completely militant-run state.

DAVIES: Now when you were on the show before you talked about your captivity in the hands of the Taliban. You were taken in Afghanistan when you were on route to interview a Taliban leader. And you said that you were, if I recall, you were held by a group associated with a man named Sirajuddin Haqqani. Am I getting that name, right?

Mr. ROHDE: Yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us about him and who he is and what his role is in the Jihadist movement.

Mr. ROHDE: Yes, the thing about Sirajuddin Haqqani is again, he's an incredibly important figure now, and he's also a small history lesson. His father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was one of the Mujahideen fighters that the United States backed during the 1980s. And Congressman Charlie Wilson, who was the focus of the movie, "Charlie Wilson's War," actually visited the Haqqanis, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the father and stayed in Miramshah, the place where I was held prisoner and actually went into Afghanistan with Haqqani's fighters in the '80s. And he was so impressed by Haqqani's men that he called Jalaluddin, Sirajuddin's father the personification of good.

Fast forward 30 years later, the son is now kind of running the operation. And what happened is, that while Jalaluddin Haqqani was working with the United States, he was also working very closely with Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden's first camp in Afghanistan was based on territory controlled by Jalaluddin Haqqani, so when the United States attacked in 2001, it's thought that Jalaluddin Haqqani may have been one of the persons that helped Osama bin Laden sneak over the border and go into Pakistan and he, you know, Osama bin Laden today may be based in North Waziristan.

And Sirajuddin is a younger generation of Haqqanis. He's in his early 30s and he's sort of grown up in this milieu of Arab and hard line foreign militants. And he just posted a sort of question and answer session on the Internet where he was sort of reaching out to other Muslim radicals, talking about the oppression of Muslims in Chechnya and calling for them to fight - to retake Jerusalem from the crusaders and encouraging Jihadist in Somalia and many different places around the world, Iraq and the caucuses.

So it's, you know, it's again its a family that was helping the United States originally and now sort of turned into this Frankenstein.

DAVIES: So we have this father-son organization which was active in helping the United States fight the Soviets way back then, were close to Osama bin Laden, and now the next generation has this very militant base in North Waziristan, this area of Pakistan where it appears a lot of the training for some of these terrorist attacks has been occurring, right?

Mr. ROHDE: Yeah, my guards would take turns, you know, several would stay and guard us when we were prisoners and others would go and get bomb-making lessons from Uzbek militants. They were taught about how to make roadside bombs that they would, you know, then cross the border into Afghanistan and use to kill American soldiers. There was young Afghans and Pakistanis were also being sort of indoctrinated and trained to be suicide bombers.

During these bombing-making classes, large explosions would go off in the middle of Miramshah, that's the largest town in North Waziristan, and there are Pakistani military bases, but the Pakistan soldiers essentially never came off the bases. And we'd hear these explosions, there'd be no reaction and my guards were very relaxed and very excited about these classes.

I remember one day one of them came back and he had skinned his knee running away from a big explosive they had been setting off with a timer, and they were just completely confident and comfortable and at ease in North Waziristan.

DAVIES: Yeah. I want to talk a little bit more about the role of the Pakistani military in all this. But you were actually at this area where it appears that Faisal Shahzad, the man accused in the Times Square attempted car bombing, was trained. And you saw, firsthand, bombing-making training and explosives operations going on.

Mr. ROHDE: I did. I mean I heard about it. I was always kept in houses, but I just - my guards brought back their notebooks from their bomb-making classes and, you know, talked about what they were learning. And it was sort of eerie in that the notebooks they had, the diagrams they had for bombs were very similar to notebooks that myself and other journalists have found in Kabul in 2001 when the Taliban fell, and we had found these houses that were used by militants for training. And it was the, you know, exact sort of classes that had been carried out in Kabul before 2001. And again, you know, this entire training infrastructure had simply moved from Afghanistan into North Waziristan.

DAVIES: And, just to clarify to folks who might be just tuning in, you were there not really as a journalist, but as a captive, and therefore, had a look inside this camp that a journalist wouldnt readily get.

So weve been talking this organization, the Haqqani group, these militants that are in North Waziristan. And, of course, after the Times Square incident, there was a video released in which the Pakistani-Taliban claimed credit. What's the relationship between the Haqqani group and the Pakistani-Taliban?

Mr. ROHDE: One of the things that was clearest to me in my time in captivity was that the Haqqanis and the Pakistani-Taliban worked seamlessly together. There are some Pakistan military officers that differentiate between the two groups. They are believed to tacitly support the Haqqanis because they see the Haqqanis as assets that Pakistan can use to exert Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan and prevent India from gaining influence in Afghanistan. And there's been frustration among American officials because the Pakistani military will crack down on the Pakistani-Taliban, who they see as enemies of the Pakistan state yet, they won't crack down on the Haqqani network.

And one of the fears is that one of the reasons that the Pakistanis have not gone into North Waziristan yet, and why it's the only place that they have not manned an offensive, is because it is the base of the Haqqanis who they still see as proxies they can use. One of the telling moments of our captivity was, the Haqqanis were worried about drone strikes, they believe the drone strikes were actually trying to kill me and they saw me as this very valuable hostage. So they actually moved me from their territory, North Waziristan, to the territory of the Pakistani-Taliban in South Waziristan and we were actually held in a district controlled by Betulla Masood, the head of the Pakistani-Taliban.

He was killed actually, in August 2009 on a drone strike. But, you know, our fear was, you know, oh no, the Haqqani network is going to, you know, sell us to the Pakistani-Taliban or we would be kidnapped by the Pakistani-Taliban. We saw them as rival groups, but instead, our Haqqani guards brought us to the Pakistani-Taliban territory. They were welcomed there. We were given a house to stay in and the Pakistani-Taliban sort of provided area security and the Pakistani-Taliban sort of provided area security while our Haqqani guards lived with us. And then when we left and went back to North Waziristan, the sort of stronghold of the Haqqanis, the Pakistani-Taliban let us go.

Again, the two groups worked seamlessly together. And I think, more broadly speaking, they sort of support each other. The Haqqanis are very strong in North Waziristan and I think they're giving shelter, both to Arab militants and the Pakistani-Taliban, now, in North Waziristan.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Rohde. He's on leave from The New York Times working on a book. He was held captive by the Taliban in Pakistan for seven months in 2008 and 2009.

We'll talk more after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're speaking with David Rohde. He covered Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2001 to 2008. He's now on leave from The New York Times, working on a book about his experiences. You may also know his name because he was captured by the Taliban and held captive in Pakistan for seven months in 2008 and 2009.

Well, David Rohde, it sounds as if you believe that there's a serious security threat to the United States from the activities in North Waziristan. And the United States has put a lot of pressure on Pakistan to pursue military operations against the Taliban, and theyve done a lot of that over the last year. Are they doing anything in North Waziristan?

Mr. ROHDE: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in January, went to Pakistan and specifically urged an offensive in North Waziristan; because again, it seems to be the one last stronghold of all these different militant groups. And the response of the Pakistani army was that they did not have enough troops, they were overstretched, and they would only be able to launch an offensive in six to 12 months.

What surprised some observers was that the Pakistani army just recently held a military exercise on the border with India with more that 50,000 troops. And many people point to that and say the Pakistani army has, you know, definitely has enough troops to carry out an offensive. It's just that it continues to see India as its primary enemy and is not, you know, facing the militancy that's such a tremendous problem up in the border areas. So yes, there are 50,000 Pakistani troops sitting on the border with India, yet the Pakistani army says they dont have enough troops to move into North Waziristan.

DAVIES: Do you think it's more a matter of preserving resources so that it has force to be pointed at India or is it that they also see that Haqqani group and groups like that as of strategic value to Pakistan in the region?

Mr. ROHDE: I think it's both. And I one current in the years I covered Pakistan, was the deep distrust Pakistanis felt towards the United States. They felt that after being very active in the region in the '80s and frankly, helping spread some of the fundamentals and that's such a problem now, during the anti-Soviet Jihad, that the U.S. basically abandoned the region when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and they feel the United States will abandon the region again. So they want to hold their cards. They want to have forces deployed to counter any threat from India and they want to continue to have the Haqqanis as potential proxies in Afghanistan.

There's rumblings, now, that they might launch an offensive - this was actually before the Times Square case. Clearly, this increases the pressure on them to launch an offensive. And one other piece of reporting we found, was that the United States has provided more than $5 billion in reimbursements to the Pakistani military for operations in the tribal areas and a lot of that money was overcharging, we found, and Pentagon auditors found, so I think it's a difficult situation for U.S. officials. They can't publicly criticize the Pakistanis. That tends to just not be effective and frustrate them. Lecturing them doesnt really get much results. But this is clearly a critical time and there's clearly a great deal of frustration in Washington about north Waziristan.

DAVIES: Now last summer, the Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike, which I dont know if the Americans actually acknowledged credit for, but it was widely believed that that's what happened. And this was seen by a lot of analysts as an important victory in the fight against terrorism in that part of the world. What's your sense of the impact of the killing of Baitullah Mehsud?

Mr. ROHDE: I think the killing of Baitullah Mehsud did have a significant impact and, you know, I saw firsthand in north and south Waziristan that the drone strikes do have a major impact. They generally are accurate. The strikes that went on killed foreign militants or Afghan or Pakistani Taliban that went on around us. There were some civilians killed but generally the Taliban would greatly exaggerate the number of civilians killed. They inhibited their operations. Taliban leaders were very nervous about being tracked by drones. So they are effective in the short-term I would say. They do eliminate some top leaders. But as weve seen by Baitullah Mehsud, new leaders emerge and I think the only long-term solution is to have Pakistani forces in north Waziristan regain control of that area.

I dont think the answer is, you know, endless drone strikes. The answer is definitely not sending American troops into Pakistan, into the tribal areas. That would just create a tremendous nationalist backlash. It has to be the Pakistanis doing it.

And I want to be fair to the Pakistani army. They have lost 2,000 soldiers fighting the Taliban since 2001. That's twice as many Americans have died in Afghanistan since 2001 and going to north Waziristan will be a tremendously bloody fight. Again, youve got almost the most hard line fighters all hold up there. So its a very serious thing.

There are many many brave Pakistani soldiers out there. We were able to escape because we did actually make it to one of these bases and the brave Pakistani soldiers on that base let us inside. So I - you know, there's criticism of the Pakistani military and, you know, clearly something needs to be done in north Waziristan, according to analysts but, you know, I dont want to not recognize the sacrifice of many many Pakistani soldiers.

DAVIES: Sure. You know, I believe I read somewhere that there's - that some analysts believe that the killing of Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader, in some ways complicated things by leaving a vacuum of power which was filled by a lot of contending groups.

Mr. ROHDE: I would disagree with that. Baitullah Mehsud launched just a deadly wave of suicide bombings across Pakistan. More people died in terrorist-related attacks in Pakistan, roughly 8,600 people were killed or wounded in 2009, than Afghanistan or Iraq. And Baitullah Mehsud was believed to be behind the vast majority of those attacks. So, there's no question that his killing, I think, you know, limited his organization's effectiveness and it's really, you know, Pakistanis who are suffering the most from these attacks.

You know, there's lots of talk of the drone strikes creating resentment against the United States. Polls show that, but polls also show that the one part of Pakistan that actually supports the drone strikes is the tribal areas. And what I saw as a prisoner was that the Taliban run a police state in the tribal areas. They're obsessed with local people spying on them and guiding the drone attacks.

And at one point there was a drone strike carried out just outside of our house. Two cars were hit. There were foreign and Pakistani militants in them. And they - local Taliban and foreign Taliban arrested a local farmer, accused him of being a spy that guided the attack. He denied it. They then disemboweled him and chopped off his leg. At some point during that he, you know, allegedly confessed to being a spy. They then decapitated him and hung his body in a local market.

You know, day after day there were stories of local people being rounded and executed by the Taliban. So, they're incredibly oppressive and I dont think they have much popular support in the tribal areas. And I would - again, the key is getting the Pakistani military and Pakistani government into the tribal areas and finally giving the people in the tribal areas the economic and educational and political opportunities they haven't had for decades.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Rohde. He's on leave from The New York Times working on a book. He was held captive by the Taliban in Pakistan for seven months in 2008 and 2009.

Well talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, we're speaking with David Rohde. He covered Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2001 to 2008. He's now on leave from The New York Times, working on a book about his experiences. You may also know his name because he was captured by the Taliban and held captive in Pakistan for seven months in 2008 and 2009.

You know, I dont know if this is something you feel comfortable commenting on, but it struck me that if Faisal Shahzad had gone to these experienced explosives experts and bomb trainers in Pakistan, he certainly did an amateurish job of putting together a car bomb in New York. Does that make sense to you?

Mr. ROHDE: It does. I mean, this is the - it's very hard to explain the contradictions that I found in north Waziristan and the contradictions that are inside these movements. They're very sophisticated in some ways. They were constantly searching the Internet and getting lots of information and they interact with the world. They read about it. You know, they're very effective at mounting their own propaganda. But then they were amateurish in other ways, so I'm not surprised that he got this kind of training and then seemed to carry out this sort of slapdash plot.

You know, my guards were, you know, many of them were sort of poorly educated young Afghans who really hadn't seen the world beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. One little anecdote that illustrates the situation there and this dichotomy, when I was in captivity in the spring of 2009, there was a gunman opened fire in an immigration office in upstate New York and killed about a dozen people. And at that time, the Pakistani Taliban took credit for that attack. My guards were elated at that time. They were firing their guns in the air. They were so excited at the prospect of payback to the United States in a successful attack in New York.

Later, there was a radio broadcast that explained that the gunman was in fact a Vietnamese-American. And my guards, you know, were puzzled and they still assumed that this was, you know, an attack carried out by this greater Taliban movement. And they turned to me and they said, you know, are Vietnamese people Muslims? And they just dont know - they know very little about the outside world, yet they're eager to kind of carry out these international attacks. So, you know, it didnt surprise that this combination that was seen in the Times Square case of seeming international reach but then some amateur aspects to how it was carried out.

DAVIES: You know, the other puzzling things is it's been reported that Faisal Shahzad has been cooperating with authorities. And weve seen this in a number of other cases in the United States of alleged terrorists who, when captured, actually are quite forthcoming. Does that make sense to you?

Mr. ROHDE: Absolutely. I mean, one of the amazing things is the strength of the ideology that they follow. He's very proud of what he's done. He wants other militants to know what he's done. There's an entire sort of counter-narrative starting with 9/11, which they view as this sort of American-Israeli plot, that the United States secretly carried out the attacks on 9/11 to create a pretext for the United States to go occupy Muslim countries.

There's this completely different world view they have of the United States as this sort of greedy, nefarious, immoral country that's just stealing Muslim resources, forcing Muslims to convert to Christianity, just sort of dirty animalistic West. And they really see themselves as defending their culture and their faith from this unprovoked onslaught from the West. And so, I think he's very proud of what he's done.

One of the things I saw with one young suicide bomber that was being trained there was that I would talk to him and I would say that I miss my family and he would say, you know, why do you care so much about your family? The only relationship that matters is your relationship with God. And I saw that as these young men are indoctrinated, they're told to not care about their families and to focus more and more not on this life but on, you know, paradise, where theyll be going after they achieve martyrdom.

And what that does is it very practically kind of removes young men from the influences that might keep them from adopting radicalism and it sort of moves them into this orbit where they're just completely focused on the next life. They have a sense of identity, a sense of passion. They're part of a great movement that's, you know, defending, you know, a people that are being oppressed. And so I'm not surprised he's talking and that he's proud of what he's done.

DAVIES: Well, David Rohde, thanks so much for sharing some of your insights with us.

Mr. ROHDE: Thank you.

GROSS: David Rohde spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Rohde is on leave from The New York Times while he writes a book. You can find a link to David Rohde's New York Times series about being captured and held by the Taliban on our website, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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