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Muslim Khan’s brutal turn

After years in Boston, Pakistani rose to prominence in Taliban

A trout farmer from the Swat Valley of Pakistan was injured in one of several attacks by Pakistani Taliban fighters in the violence-scarred region. He received a box of fish eggs from USAID, as part of a project aimed at reconstructing the valley. A trout farmer from the Swat Valley of Pakistan was injured in one of several attacks by Pakistani Taliban fighters in the violence-scarred region. He received a box of fish eggs from USAID, as part of a project aimed at reconstructing the valley. (Farah Stockman/ Globe Staff)
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / May 22, 2011

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SWAT VALLEY, Pakistan — He lived the anonymous life of an illegal immigrant in Boston, sharing a Brighton three-decker with his countrymen from Pakistan. He painted homes in the morning and pumped gas in the afternoon. He earned a reputation for being reliable, industrious, and polite.

But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslim Khan returned home and traded in that invisible existence for a certain kind of fame.

With a mastery of English learned in Boston, a festering rage against perceived injustice, and thousands of dollars saved from years abroad, Khan helped bankroll militants’ brutal takeover of his home area of Swat Valley. He helped orchestrate some of the Pakistani Taliban’s most vicious attacks and became a top spokesman for the insur gent movement.

Two years ago, Pakistan’s military — under heavy pressure from the United States — took back the valley, scoring its most important victory in its war against extremists and putting Kahn, now 60, out of action and into custody. But fear of a Taliban return still grips this place. And disbelief still grips the Swati community in Boston, which is trying to come to terms with what Khan did.

“He was just a regular guy, working 24/7,’’ recalled Mohammad Khan, who owns a pizza parlor in Newton. “He slept here and he ate here and he made money here. How could he go back and say America is no good?’’

Former tourist spot This picturesque valley of snow-capped peaks was once so peaceful that tourists flocked here. The area, populated by Pashtun tribesmen with ties to Afghanistan, is home to Pakistan’s only ski resort. Orange groves dot the landscape, farmed by peasants under a feudal system.

Khan’s father was a clerk for the prince of Swat, earning enough money to send him to a local college.

As a student, Khan was hot-tempered and intolerant, recalled his brother, Noor-ul-Huda, a retired superintendent at a health clinic in Swat. In college, Khan led an antigovernment protest that destroyed an office and landed him in jail, Huda said.

After college, Khan joined a shipping company and spent about five years loading airplanes in Kuwait. He returned to Swat to marry, fathering four children. But around 1999, he set off for Boston with a visa arranged by a British company, Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation, Huda said.

A unit of the company provided stevedore services to Boston’s Black Falcon Cruise Terminal at the time. But a spokeswoman for the operation, now called Ports America, said Khan never worked there. Instead, it appears that he slipped away after using the short-term seaman’s visa.

He found his way to a three-decker on Brighton’s Holton Street, a refuge for Swatis who had just arrived.

At least three of Khan’s roommates worked in gas stations. They worked such long hours that they hardly had time to go to the mosque. They prayed in a special area near the kitchen.

On holidays, they cooked lamb and invited guests over to watch Indian movies or Pakistani news from a satellite dish. On weekends, the younger men played cricket or caught a Boston Bruins game on television. But Khan avoided TV because of his religious beliefs, acquaintances recalled.

“All he did was work and pray,’’ said Mohammad Khan, the restaurant owner. Mohammad said Muslim Khan criticized him for selling pepperoni pizza — pork is forbidden in Islam. The two barely spoke again.

Others recall Muslim Khan as sociable.

“He was smiling all the time,’’ recalled a painter who employed Khan and who asked not to be identified because of fears it would hurt his business. “Customers loved him.’’

Some families trusted him so much they would leave him alone with their children as he finished a paint job, recalled his former boss. Each day, he prayed before lunch and then drove away in his blue Honda to his second job at the Gulf station on Fresh Pond Parkway.

But after the Sept. 11 attacks, some of the men of the Holton Street house decided to return home, fearing a backlash, recalled John Katranis, who lived across the street. Before they could, immigration agents raided the house, he said.

Left country after raid Khan was not deported, acquaintances said, but the raid persuaded him to leave. With some of the money he had saved, he built a big house in his village, took his wife to Mecca, and opened an appliance shop in Mingora, Swat’s main town.

Despite his relative wealth, years of laboring on the lowest rungs of American society had kindled an anger against the exploitation of the poor and against Swat’s feudal system.

“After he came back from America, Muslim Khan used to talk against the [Swat] landlords,’’ recalled Rashid Iqbal, editor of the local Chaand Newspaper, who used to drink tea occasionally with Khan. “He used to say they had taken away the land from the poor and they were responsible for the disease and suffering.’’

He also returned from Boston with a new air of authority, said Mohammed Idris Khan, the leader of a village near Khan’s home.

“Prior to going to America, he was a normal man and nobody cared much about him,’’ he recalled. “But when he came back, he was changed.’’

Khan’s money — and his knowledge of America — impressed Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of a fledgling militant movement to bring Islamic law to Swat.

Fazlullah recruited Khan, who helped him buy equipment to set up an illegal FM station, according to Pakistani police. At first, it broadcast only passages from the Koran. Families tuned in every night and protested when the government tried to shut it down. Over time, the station encouraged the poor to rise up against their feudal masters. Impoverished young men were inspired to become fighters, while their wives donated wedding jewelry to the cause.

“They were asking for social equality,’’ said Major General Ishfaq Nadeem Ahmed, the commander who would eventually lead the effort to defeat the militants. “They had a point.’’

In 2005, the militants began attacking landowners. They poured insecticide in the water of Swat’s oldest trout farm to kill the fish. They captured wealthy people and demanded guns or money to set them free.

Swat’s landed gentry fled. Their departure emboldened the militants, who began targeting police. They killed more than 120 officers, including one who was beheaded on video.

By 2007, Pakistan’s military moved in but feared a protracted guerrilla war. So they brokered a deal, agreeing to implement Islamic law in exchange for peace.

The district police officer in Swat, Qazi Ghulam Farooq, said Khan showed up for the peace talks with fighters who wore suicide vests as a precaution against arrest.

“Every time, they had a different demand,’’ Farooq said. “First they asked for authority in Swat. Then they said, ‘Give us Peshawar [the closest major city].’ The most popular demand was ‘Don’t talk to the Americans.’ We thought it was interesting because he was in America.’’

The deal splintered as Muslim Khan’s group joined with other militants around the country to bring down the Pakistani government.

The umbrella group they formed, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, claimed responsibility for a rash of assassinations, including former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Sometimes Khan showed mercy.

Raja Liaqat Ali, who runs a clinic for the poor, persuaded him to release a group of Chinese engineers taken hostage.

“I used to plead with Muslim Khan that Islam is a religion of peace and brotherhood,’’ Ali said. “I used logic with him.’’

But the militants in Swat gained a reputation for extreme brutality. In 2008, they invited a group of elders to a mosque for talks, then promptly opened fire on them for cooperating with the government. They hung their mutilated corpses upside down in the town like carcasses in a butchery.

As the violence increased, so did interview requests for Khan. In his signature black turban and white beard, he chatted jovially with journalists who made the dangerous journey to meet him.

In one interview, Khan invited Osama bin Laden to live in Swat, saying “Yes, we will help them and protect them.’’

In another, he assured CNN the Taliban in Swat were “killing the people which are only no good for society . . . like thieves and people who are making problems for the poor.’’

Occasionally, a journalist would ask him how his English got so good. He would shrug and say: “I was in Boston.’’

Boston Swatis surprised Muslim Khan’s deeds reverberated in Massachusetts. The painter who once employed him was watching CNN on his lunch break when Khan’s photo flashed across the screen.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, that looks like him,’ ’’ he recalled.

It seemed impossible that his former employee was a leader of the Pakistani Taliban — until US military investigators called him with questions about Khan.

The Swati community in Boston was also stunned to learn what Khan was doing — and in some cases to hear he ordered the murders of some of their relatives.

“Still to this day, everybody who had interacted with him are in shock,’’ said one frequent Holton Street visitor, who added that Khan claimed responsibility for the killings of two of his uncles. He asked that his name not be used out of fear of more Taliban reprisals. “Honestly no one knew he was this sort of a guy.’’

Swat’s peasants also became disillusioned.

The militants began targeting people who weren’t wealthy, hanging their bodies at the town’s busiest junction. Families tuned in to Fazlullah’s station to hear if they would be next.

“People started to realize they are not sincere with Islam,’’ said Iqbal, the editor. “People used to curse them in private, but they would never say anything about them in public.’’

In April 2009, Khan sparked outrage across Pakistan when he defended the televised whipping of a teenage girl in Swat for spending time with a man to whom she was not married.

Encouraged by the shift in the public mood, and under intense pressure from Washington, Pakistan launched a massive operation.

More than a million civilians fled the impending attack. Some 27,000 soldiers poured into Swat, including fighters dropped by helicopter onto remote paths of the valley to block the militants’ escape.

About 3,000 militants were captured, about 4,000 were killed, and 500 escaped, including Fazlullah, General Ahmed said. Ali, the human rights advocate, estimated that 1,500 civilians died.

As the militants retreated, Khan called authorities from a mountain hide-out to complain they had violated the 2007 peace deal.

“He was encouraged to surrender,’’ said Ahmed. “He was told, ‘There is no way you guys can survive. Your few days of glory are over.’ ’’

A Pakistani commando team stormed his hide-out. The photo they released of Khan in custody aired around the world.

’’He was a cruel man,’’ Khan’s brother Huda said, weeping into a handkerchief. “Due to the actions of Muslim Khan, the whole of the family, the whole of the tribe, and the whole valley has suffered.’’

Khan is being held at an undisclosed location. No date has been set for his trial. Authorities fear it would be a terrorist target.

US officials are currently pushing Pakistan to take its winning strategy from Swat to other parts of the country, particularly North Waziristan, home to fighters that threaten US troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan insists that the public is not ready for another big operation — and that they must consolidate their gains in Swat.

So they reopened the ski resort and rebuilt roads. Business is slowly returning. Vampire movies line the shelves of a new video store. Oranges hang in the orchards of landowners, waiting to be picked by peasants. Pakistani flags are painted on every storefront, as if by mandate.

But people are still afraid. In Khan’s neighborhood, thousands of armed volunteers keep watch. People fear that the Taliban will return and punish them for working with the government, or that Khan might be released in another deal.

Back in Boston, Swatis who have endured so much suspicion since Sept. 11 are gripped by another fear: That any connection between them and Muslim Khan could trigger deportation or endless visits from the FBI.

So they keep a code of silence and shake their heads when they hear his name.

At a gas station in New Hampshire owned by one of Khan’s former roommates, he begs to be left alone with his American dream.

“All we want is peace,’’ he said. “Everyone is afraid.’’

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com

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