Karachi, Pakistan.--On the third Thursday of every month, a bus with about two dozen young men pulls away from a secret rendezvous point in this port city and travels 600 miles north to a base in Afghanistan, where the men spend 40 days in basic training for a worldwide holy war.
The camp, just north of the Pakistani border town of Miram Shah, is operated by Harkatul Ansar (Movement of Friends), a radical group headquartered in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, that is sworn to fight for the global supremacy of Islam. Since 1987, more than 4,000 militants--including Pakistanis, Indians, Arabs from several countries and a small number of Americans--have been trained by the group in making bombs, throwing hand grenades and shooting assault weapons, members of the group said.
`Ours is a truly international network of genuine Muslim holy warriors,' said Khalid Awan, who joined Harkat, as the group is popularly known, after receiving his master's degree in economics from Pakistan's Punjab University. `We believe frontiers could never divide Muslims. They are one nation, and they will remain a single entity.'
Harkat is one of the largest and most militant Islamic groups operating in Pakistan, which critics complain has done little to keep radical Muslims from using its soil to launch terrorist attacks.
Pakistant's reluctance to crack down was spotlighted last month when Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, suspected mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, fled here as a world-wide dragnet tightened around him. Yousef was arrested Feb. 7 in Islamabad when U.S. officials led Pakistani police to the guest house where he was staying.
Pakistan has been a haven for armed Islamic militants since the early 1990s, when dozens of fundamentalist groups and thousands of soldiers who had fought a jihad, or holy war, to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan began searching for new theaters in which to wage battle.
The groups have continued to thrive here and in Afghanistan because of the easy availability of cheap and sophisticated weapons--many can be traced to more than $1 billion per year the United States gave to Afghan militias based in Pakistan during the war against the Soviets--and because large tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan frontier are unpatrolled and lawless.
Politicians in Pakistan have been reluctant to launch a committed effort to shut down the groups because they have the support of the country's powerful Muslim clergy. The groups openly raise funds and recruit members.
`The government at the highest levels is sufficiently frightened of these people, but its ability to crack down on them is very limited,' said a Western diplomat in Islamabad. `No, they are not doing enough but it's not a lack of will--it's that the government here is not terribly efficient.'
Observers say Pakistan has put itself in the difficult position of allowing the groups to operate in the country to fight against Indian troops in the disputed region of Kashmir, and at the same time trying to prevent the groups from using Pakistan as a base for operations against other countries.
The Pakistani government did not respond to requests to provide a spokesman to answer detailed questions.
In a brief telephone interview, Foreign Secretary Najamuddin A. Sheikh said the underlying problem is religious extremism, fueled by sectarian clashes between Pakistan's majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslims. Often, he said, the extremism is encouraged in religious schools, which receive millions of dollars a year in state funding and are prime feeders for militant Islamic organizations.
Sheikh, the Foreign Ministry's highest-ranking civil servant, said Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has proposed registering the schools as one way to moderate them.
India has long charged that Pakistan is involved in `state terrorism' by arming, training and funding Muslim insurgents waging a brutal civil war in Kashmir.
In 1993, the United States warned Pakistan that unless it stopped supporting Kashmir insurgents, the country would be put on the U.S. list of terrorist states. Since then, say U.S. officials, Pakistan has significantly reduced its role in the conflict.
Last month, during a state visit by Bhutto to the Philippines, President Fidel Ramos protested that Pakistanis were fighting alongside Muslim extremists battling for autonomy against his government. Russia has charged Pakistanis are aiding the separatist battle in Chechnya.
Following complaints by moderate Arab governments in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan that Pakistanis were involved in extremist movements in their countries, Pakistan asked Afghan aid groups--many were really fronts for militant organizations--to leave. That forced some groups underground and pushed others into Afghanistan.
`They have a right to protest, but we have our duties to perform as Muslims,' said Tariq Cheema, 26, a member of the radical Markaz Dawatul Arshad organization, which aims to establish `the rule of God' throughout the world. While conducting street-corner recruiting in Karachi, Cheema passed out a list of names and addresses of 56 Markaz members killed last year during fighting against government troops in Tajikistan, the Philippines, Bosnia and Kashmir.
Since the end of the Afghan war in 1989, Pakistani officials estimate at least 10,000 Islamic militants have been trained by various groups in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas.
`Arabs run exclusive training camps for the recruits of Middle Eastern origin,' a leading member of Harkat claimed, adding the instructors are Sudanese, Egyptian and Libyan veterans of the Afghan war. `We only go to those camps for advanced military training that involves operating antiaircraft guns and tanks' and laying land mines, he said.
Funding often comes from Muslims who think moderate Arab governments are becoming too Westernized.
`Funding for our organization largely comes from Saudi Arabia, where several philanthropists are not happy with the way the country is governed by the ruling family,' said a Markaz activist. A Harkat official said his organization's largest donor is a group of Muslim merchants from India who now live in England.