PESHAWAR — The death squad shows up in uniform: black masks and tunics with the name of the group, Khorasan Mujahideen, scrawled across the back in Urdu. Pulling up in caravans of Toyota Corolla hatchbacks, dozens of them seal off mud-hut villages near the Afghan border, and then scour markets and homes in search of tribesmen they suspect of helping to identify targets for the armed US drones that routinely buzz overhead.
Pakistani officials and tribal elders maintain that most of those who are abducted this way are innocent, but after being beaten, burned with irons or scalded with boiling water, almost all eventually ‘confess’. And few ever come back. One who did was a shop owner in the town of Mir Ali. A band of Khorasan gunmen strode up to the shop owner one afternoon last fall, threw him into one of their cars and drove away, said a relative who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. They took him to a safe house being used as a lockup for others the group suspected of spying for the drone programme.
For the next eight weeks, they bludgeoned him with sticks, trying to get him to confess that he was a drone spy. He wasn’t, said the relative. Unable to determine whether he was guilty, his captors released him to another militant group, which set him free 10 days later. “In the sky there are drones, and on the ground there’s Khorasan Mujahideen,” said the relative. “Villagers are extremely terrorised. Whenever there’s a drone strike, within 24 hours Khorasan Mujahideen come in and take people away.” Most of them are killed.
The group usually with scraps of paper attached to their bloodied tunics that warn others of the consequences of spying for the US. Executions are often videotaped and distributed to DVD kiosks in Peshawar to hammer home the message. In one video, an old man with a bruised and swollen face says he was paid $1,300 for information that led to a drone strike in a North Waziristan village last year. “I was misguided by the devil,” says the man, who identifies himself as Subedar. “Khorasan Mujahideen never pressured me or used force against me. They showed me respect. May God give them victory.” Near the end of the video, he is executed.
Another suspected informant standing alongside a village road with his hands tied behind his back is killed by explosives detonated at his feet. Gunmen fire wildly into the sky to celebrate. Despite such brutal treatment if they are caught, some people find it hard to resist the payoff of working as an informant for the Americans.
Interviews with tribal elders and a former Pakistani intelligence official suggest that the pay can range from $300 to $1,000 or more for information that helps pinpoint a target. “When I spoke to informants, they said they did it for the money,” said the former Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And most Pashtuns don’t like Taliban. They want the Taliban out because their whole tribal system has been destroyed. More than 90 per cent don’t want the Taliban to be ruling them.” The vast majority of those killed by Khorasan Mujahideen are innocent, the former official added. “Most of them have never been spies.”
Current and former US officials say the CIA has decided to temporarily suspend so-called signature strikes - missile attacks against fighters and others whose actions suggest support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups - in an effort to mend relations with Pakistan.
Though the Pakistani army maintains a strong presence in North Waziristan, Khorasan Mujahideen operate virtually unhindered. The Pakistani intelligence official said the military doesn’t act against Khorasan because of a peace pact that the government maintains with Commander Bahadur, the North Waziristan Taliban leader. In September, militants loyal to Bahadur disseminated a pamphlet announcing their disassociation with Khorasan after receiving complaints from tribesmen that Khorasan was kidnapping and executing innocent people. “We tried time and again to reform (Khorasan Mujahideen) but could not succeed,” read the pamphlet, which was signed by Bahadur and other North Waziristan Taliban leaders. Despite Bahadur’s stance, Pakistani security forces have given no indication they plan to act against Khorasan members. Pakistani intelligence officials say Khorasan has an estimated 250 fighters and has been in existence since late 2009 or early 2010. The group operates like a commando team, swooping in to a village in squads of 40 to 60 and surrounding the area to prevent anyone from escaping. As they whisk away their suspect, one or two militants usually capture the event on video for propaganda purposes. “They never flee fast,” said one North Waziristan tribesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They always leave slowly, and sometimes fire shots into the air as they leave.” The shop owner in Mir Ali, who escaped serious injury and returned home after he was released, told his family he believed he was abducted because two other tribesmen that the militants had kidnapped had been seen spending time at his shop.