ISLAMABAD, Asharq Al-Awsat – Despite the unusual media coverage given to stories that report on the presence of Arab fighters in Pakistani tribal areas, for the local tribesmen, the presence of Arab-Afghan militants remains a mystery.
Local tribesmen have also heard stories about Arab militants in tribal regions, but very few claim to have actually seen or met any fighters of Arab backgrounds.
Pakistani security officials claim that there are hundreds of Arab fighters in Pakistani tribal areas especially in the Bajaur tribal district, while the Americans claim the figure is even greater with thousands of Arab fighters linked to Al Qaeda situated in these same tribal areas.
On a daily basis, local and international media is replete with reports describing the details of how numerous Arab militants were killed by US drones that targeted militant hideouts in Pakistani tribal regions.
These reports usually reinforce the belief that Arab Afghans have a strong presence in Pakistani tribal regions especially in Bajaur, which neighbors the Afghan province of Kunar.
However contrary to popular belief, most of the local tribesmen say that they have never seen or met any Arab militants.
“I have never seen any Arabs in my area. I don’t know if they are present here,” said Abdul Shakoor, a local tribesman from the Bajaur tribal agency, who now lives in a refugee camp for those displaced by conflict. The camp is based in Taimargara on the outskirts of Bajaur.
A senior military official, while briefing the media and later parliamentarians, said that Mahmond, a sub-district of Bajaur, is famous because many of its residents have married off their daughters to Arab fighters.
Jan Wali, a former resident of Mahmond who now lives in a refugee camp in Taimargara, told Asharq Al-Awsat, “It is difficult to recognize Arabs firstly because they look like Pashtuns and secondly because they always cover their faces.”
However Jan Wali said that he had never met an Arab fighter despite that he had lived in Mahmond, which the military authorities claim was an Arab-Afghan stronghold.
However another local tribesman, Zubair Shah, said that without doubt, there were many Arab Afghans in Pakistani tribal areas especially in the Bajaur tribal agency. “The people of tribal areas would not tell you about Arab fighters because they are afraid of them,” he said.
“I could not tell you their exact strength and where they live because I have not seen them, but they are there,” said Shah.
A former Pakistani intelligence official, Brigadier (retired) Mehmood Shah told Asharq Al-Awsat that Arab militants have a small but strong presence in the tribal Bajaur district.
“Firstly, because the granddaughter of the local Taliban commander, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad is married to an Arab militant, Arabs regularly visit the area,” he said. “Secondly, Bajaur has a special significance with regards to Arabs because it neighbors the Afghan province of Kunar where there is a large number of Arabs.”
Most of the internally displaced people from Bajaur now living in the refugee camps who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat said that they had not come across any Arab fighters yet they related stories about them.
“There is a possibility that Arabs lived in the mountains, but not in Bajaur, at least in our area, there were no Arabs,” said Jan Muhammad, another resident of Bajaur.
“I have heard people talking about the presence of Arab fighters in our areas, but I have never seen any,” said Abdul Shakoor.
For local tribesmen the Arab fighters remain mysterious figures, but they have clear ideas about the presence and activities of other foreigners in their areas.
For instance Ajmad Ali, a resident of Bajaur tribal district told Asharq Al-Awsat that he had seen Qari Ziaur Rahman, an Afghan national notorious for his armed campaign against the Pakistani army, on a number of occasions.
Qari Ziaur Rahman is considered a dangerous militant commander and the Pakistani military has made numerous attempts to capture him alive.
“Qari Ziaur Rahman’s men came to our area a few months back and set up a training camp there,” said Amjad Ali, “I took part in the training in that area.”