Pakistani Town Roiled by Alleged Link to Mumbai Suspect

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 12, 2008

FARIDKOT, Pakistan -- The road to the home town of the only gunman captured during the Mumbai attacks is about 20 feet wide and rutted, cutting through vast expanses of sugar cane and potato fields.

Before Indian authorities linked Ajmal Amir Kasab and nine other Pakistani men to last month's massacre in Mumbai, the town of Faridkot didn't even rate a dot on most maps of Pakistan. Neither did the other two Pakistani towns named Faridkot.

But when Indian officials claimed last week that Kasab, 21, came from this town of 3,000 in the central Pakistani province of Punjab, it became a focal point in the investigation of the attacks. Indian authorities have said two of the other men behind the assaults that killed at least 170 people and wounded 230 came from the same area. But unlike the other attackers, who all died, Kasab was wounded and captured by police. Indian investigators say that under interrogation, he has revealed much about how the attacks were planned and executed.

Indian allegations that former or current Pakistani intelligence officers may have had a hand in training the gunmen have raised the stakes considerably in Faridkot. Pakistani government officials have denied that the country's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, also known as the ISI, played any direct role in the attacks. ISI agents, nonetheless, have put Faridkot under close watch.

The main approach to Faridkot bends into the dusty district of Okara, a sprawling, semi-urban warren of greasy auto parts shops and truck depots. It is at the last turn through Okara where the watchful gaze of Pakistani intelligence agents appears to begin.

At the edge of Faridkot, men in unusually spotless long, beige Pakistani tunics and tightly turned turbans laser passing cars with suspicious looks. At the entry to Faridkot's main road, not-so-undercover Pakistani security officers hustle quickly after arriving strangers, then jot down vehicle license plates.

Centuries ago, Faridkot was best known for its Sufi patron saint, Baba Farid. That was when Muslim mystics and poets roamed the subcontinent -- long before the 1947 partition that created six decades of enmity between Pakistan and India. In more recent years, the deeply impoverished area around Faridkot, which is about 25 miles from the Indian border, has been a recruiting ground for the Pakistani military as well as increasingly virulent Sunni Muslim extremist groups such as Lashkar-i-Taiba, according to experts on the region. Now the story of this Pakistani town includes Kasab, even if his former neighbors are deeply reluctant to admit it.

In interviews, residents variously claimed Kasab does not exist or is the son of a potter, a brick factory worker, a street vendor or is an 80-year-old man. "There is no Ajmal. There is no Kasab," said Ali Sher, brother of the town's mayor. "We have a list of each person who is registered to vote. There is no Ajmal."

When asked about Indian claims that Kasab's mother, Noor Elahi, lives in the town, Sher chuckled, shook his head and said several women sharing the same name live in Faridkot. As for Kasab's father, residents confirmed that a Muhammad Amir once lived in the town. But he was 75 or 80 years old and had moved away from Faridkot about 10 years ago, they said. And, besides, they added, Muhammad Amir was a brick worker, not a butcher, as the Urdu translation of the name "Kasab" would imply.

In an ad hoc town hall meeting in a dank, abandoned storefront on Faridkot's main drag, several of the men who gathered to answer questions about the surviving Mumbai gunman began shouting. A man in a tailored blue blazer and light blue, button-down oxford shirt leaned in conspiratorially, whispered something into his neighbor's ear and began dialing his cellphone. Soon, as the crowd spilled out onto the street, more well-dressed men in blazers appeared nearby.

"It is totally baseless. There is no Pakistani role. They are not Pakistani," Sher said. "He might be Afghan. He might be another nationality. We don't know that guy, so how can we know if it's true?"

Then Ghulam Mustafa, mayor of Faridkot, suddenly appeared. Yes, there was an Ajmal in Faridkot, Mustafa said. Yes, his house is here. His mother is there. We can go there, he said.

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