The Zealot: Getting Ready for the Jihad

The New York Times Magazine
September 30, 2001

If you happen to need ball bearings in Peshawar, Abdul Sattar Shah is your man. He runs a shop in the Khyber Bazaar that, as his business card states, “deals in all kind of Ball Bearings, Roller Bearings, Needle Roller Bearings, Bearing Blocks”–and the list goes on. Sattar Shah is particularly busy these days because he is also finishing his studies at Peshawar University, where he majors in accounting and organizes protest marches that warn that American attacks against Afghanistan will provoke a jihad.

Sattar Shah sits before me, sipping sweet tea and speaking in a soft voice that cannot compete, at moments, with the street cacophony a few feet away–horns honking, peddlers shouting, horses whinnying, beggars pleading, merchants arguing, hammers smashing. He is the general secretary of Peshawar’s branch of the Islami Jamaat Tulba, a nationwide student group that wishes to see Islamic law imposed in Pakistan and finds much to admire in the example of Afghanistan.

His position is clear: the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were acts of terrorism, but before the United States can claim the right to retaliate against Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, it must prove they were responsible. Without such proof, Sattar Shah says that his group, which is the student wing of a leading religious party, will have little choice but to embark on a holy war. “We will do it, as we did it against the Russians,” he says.

Satter Shah is joined in his cluttered shop by several friends, all of them speaking Pashtu, which is the language of the Pashtun ethnic group that lives on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border. When I ask whether they are beginning military training for the jihad that might be in their futures, they roll their eyes like New Yorkers asked for directions to Carnegie Hall.

“Everyone is prepared,” Sattar Shah says. “We all have weapons, and we know how to use them.”

He possesses a pistol and an AK-47. I ask whether they are at home or at his shop. I have misunderstood.

“At home and in my shop,” he says.

After American retaliation, especially one in which American soldiers are based in Pakistan, it might be difficult to persuade Satter Shah to leave his weapons where they are, because he is not inclined to believe bin Laden is the guilty party. He wonders how one man, dashing from one hideout to another in the mountains of Afghanistan, could engineer such a sophisticated attack. A government must be responsible, Satter Shah says, and he knows which one.

“Israel did the attack,” he confides. “The Jews just want to create a split between the United States and Palestinians, and they want to defame the reputation of all Muslims.” His view is commonplace in impoverished Pakistan, where fundamentalism is on the rise; a widespread reluctance to regard bin Laden as a terrorist dovetails with a longstanding enmity toward Israel.

Tea is followed by Pepsi. The shop is suffused with almost as much bewilderment as dust, of which there is an ample layer on the stacks of ball bearings that entomb us. There is little sense of fear among my hosts; Afghanistan is not just a graveyard but a graveyard of imperial dreams, and they are surprised that America would start a war there. As one of them notes, “What’s left to ruin?”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.