By Saeed Shah
FARIDKOT, Pakistan — For the past three days Pakistani intelligence agents and police have been combing this sleepy village in search of clues to the identity of the lone gunman captured in the Mumbai terror attacks, residents said on Monday.
Indian officials and news media officials identified him variously as Ajmal Amir Kamal, Azam Amir Kasav, or Azam Ameer Qasab, and Indian news media quoted police as saying that the alleged killer’s home village was in Faridkot, near the city of Multan in the southern part of Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Local residents, however, are bewildered and alarmed. They said there was no one of that surname in this village, and no missing resident who fit the pictures and description shown in the Indian news media.
“All the agencies have been here and the (police) special branch,” said village elder Mehboob Khan Daha, referring to Pakistan’s plainclothes counterterror police. “We have become very worried. What’s this all about?” Agents from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also appeared to be present on Monday, questioning locals.
Shown a picture of the alleged militant, Daha said: “That’s a smart-looking boy. We don’t have that sort around here.”
The peasant farmers who inhabit this dusty backwater own small parcels of land and have little education. Water buffalos and goats roam down the dirt tracks of the village. Men sit around gossiping on traditional woven rope beds, placed out in the open, wearing the usual baggy shalwar kameez pajama suits, some with turbans.
Roughly built small brick homes and little mud huts dot the village, which has a population of about 3,000. It’s about 33 miles east of the nearest large city, Multan, and a few miles outside the town of Kanewal.
“There are no jihadis here,” Ijaz Ahmed, a 41-year-old farmer, chimed in, sitting by Daha. “I can think of maybe 10 or 20 people here who have even been as far as Multan.”
The Faridkot link is a key element in the evidence cited by Indian officials that the attackers of Mumbai came from Pakistan.
The captured terror suspect was said to come from Faridkot. He was said to be 21 and to speak fluent English. A photograph of him shows a modern-looking young man swaggering in Western clothing, with an AK-47 in hand.
In Faridkot, no one appeared to be able to speak much English, and most could converse only in a dialect of the provincial language, Punjabi. None of the villagers recognized the face in the photograph, nor could they think of anyone mysteriously missing from the village.
They said the intelligence agents wanted to know if there was any presence of the radical Deobandi or Alhe Hadith religious movements in the village, to which the answer was a flat “no.”
The police also came with a list of five names to probe, villagers said, including Ajmal, Amir, Kamal and Azam, all common names in Pakistan. While there are five Ajmals in the village, all were present except one who’s living in the provincial capital of Lahore, and none fit the description of the militant. The only Azam in the village is a 75-year-old retired railway worker.
One of the Ajmals, a man who thought he was about 30, looked scared. He’s worked in a nearby tea factory for the past 12 years, he said. The police and intelligence agencies have been to his house demanding to know his whereabouts.
“All I ever do is go to work, which is about three kilometers (two miles) away. I have never been beyond Kanewal (the closest town),” said Mohammad Ajmal. “I’m uneducated. I never went to school for even one day.”
Faridkot is in a part of Punjab that’s known for extremist activity, but the village showed no signs of being a hotbed of militancy. A notice on a board at the entrance to the village mosque declares that members of the fundamentalist Tablighi Jamaat “are not permitted.”
To add to the confusion, there are several other places called Faridkot in the Punjab, although this village seemed to be the most likely Faridkot, because it’s near Multan. There’s also a well-known Faridkot in India, just across the border in the Indian half of the Punjab province.
An exasperated local police chief, Kamran Khan, who sent his men twice to Faridkot (the one outside Kanewal), told McClatchy: “Whatever we’re doing to investigate, we’re doing off our own initiative. No definitive information has come to us from any official channel. We’re still not clear this is the right Faridkot.”
Even the nearest hardline madrassa, or Islamic school, to Faridkot — the Darul Uloom at Kabirwala, a half-hour drive away — didn’t appear to be a den of violent extremism that might’ve influenced a aspiring militant from Faridkot. This institution schooled Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, an extremist who founded one of Pakistan’s most violent militant groups, Sipah-e-Sahaba. On an unannounced visit Monday, however, classrooms full of students learning the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Mohammad were all that was to be seen.
“We are praying that peace prevails between India and Pakistan,” said Irshad Ahmed, the head of Darul Uloom. “It is wrong to kill innocent people. Islam doesn’t allow it.”
He added, however: “American bombardment also kills innocents.”