Graeme Wood

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The Fakir of Ipi

Originally appeared in The Daily.

They don’t make Pakistani safe houses like they used to.

Contrary to popular opinion, the most successful fugitive jihadist that Pakistan has ever known was not shot through the eye by a Navy SEAL over the weekend. He died peacefully, surrounded by friends and admirers in his home district of Waziristan, on April 16, 1960, when Osama bin Laden was still a 3-year-old brat in Saudi Arabia. Mirza Ali Khan — known to the British as the Fakir of Ipi — evaded a 12-year manhunt, then basked for another 13 years in the warm glow of victory. If bin Laden had studied up on the Fakir’s evasion techniques, he might have lasted a few years longer.

At the height of the hunt for the Fakir, which lasted from 1935 to 1947, over 40,000 British colonial army troops were on his scent, constantly showing up a day or two too late to catch or assassinate him. Like bin Laden, he espoused a radical version of Islam and viewed the armies who hunted him (British and Indian, in his case) as infidels. He hid in caves, and he disappeared, spectrally, for a dozen years while draining the resources and morale of the world’s largest army.

The British had eyed Waziristan with suspicion since the mid-19th century. Now known as the Land of Death from Above — U.S. drone strikes have pulverized a tight cluster of remote villages in the region, which lies between Pakistan and Afghanistan — Waziristan in that era had a reputation for banditry. The British and Indian armies frequently mounted raids to punish and subdue brigands, and on each incursion they were met with cold stares from distrustful Waziri locals. When the British planned their Great Game strategy later that century, they decided to integrate the Waziris into British India, so that the colony could play its role in the defense against Russia. One of the officers, Sir Robert Sandeman, insisted that the British should “knit the frontier tribes into our Imperial system.” But what the British spent the better part of a century knitting by day, the Waziris hurriedly unwove every night.

The Fakir (the term is a nom de guerre; it means “poor man” in Arabic and “mystical ascetic” in British English) was born into this climate of distrust around the time Imperial India officially annexed Waziristan in 1893. He grew up unremarkably, going on to study with Sufis in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, visiting Mecca and acquiring a reputation for piety. When religious tensions flared, he was ready to act. In 1936 in Bannu, the Waziri capital, a Muslim boy eloped with a Hindu girl, and the British magistrate invalidated the marriage and the Hindu girl’s conversion, on the grounds that she was still a child. Over the next few weeks, the Fakir organized protests, issued demands and dared the British to attack. They obliged by leveling his house, turning a minor kidnapping into a Helen of Troy scenario and promoting the fakir from village zealot to leader of a full-scale revolt.

At this point, the story begins to sound familiar, and Osama bin Laden’s vanishing act finds its historical echo. The Fakir sent out raiding parties to ambush army units and pick off individual soldiers with snipers. The local villages supported him and improvised crude tortures for captives, including castration and scalding with boiling liquids. For his headquarters, the Fakir chose caves in the mountains just on the edge of Afghanistan — so close that the British hesitated to attack with full force, because the Afghans on the opposite side of the border might protest and register the incursion as an international incident. Just as the United States risks Islamabad’s ire today whenever it violates Pakistani territory, the British trod gingerly on the Afghan side, with skirmishes never quite adding up to anything decisive — and, most importantly, never definitively producing the corpse of the Fakir.

He had a knack for choosing the time and place of his battles. The British executed bombing raids and frontal assaults on mountains in Waziristan where they thought he was hiding — and turned up nothing but empty caves. When they were sure they had tracked him to a town, the Fakir had himself smuggled out, wrapped in a sheet. In time, his followers came to attribute his survival to the divine — a perception he encouraged by telling them the British bullets wouldn’t hurt them, if they fought for Islam. It was said that up on the mountain, in communion with Allah, he transformed sticks into guns. More prosaically, he found minor assistance from Germany and Italy, which sent emissaries disguised as Pashtuns or as doctors and journalists.

When the British gave up India and partitioned it into India and Pakistan in 1947, the Fakir lost virtually all of his support — fighting against a newborn Islamic state held far less cachet than fighting against the king of England. He kept hammering away, though, at the Pakistani military, which learned the lesson the British never really took to heart: Guerrilla wars in the North-West Frontier Province are absolutely exhausting, and usually not worth fighting. In this case, neglect worked. No longer avidly pursued, the Fakir settled into his golden years and received admiring guests, until asthma left him bedridden and finally killed him in 1960.

What lessons should this life of jihad have held for the late bin Laden? First: Choose your enemies wisely. Ideally, choose a 1930s British Imperial Army indifferent to the concerns of the local population and willing to dole out collective punishment, blowing up local bridges and wells when needed. The Fakir depended on villagers alienated by the British. Second: Be dogmatic and independent. The Fakir never leaned too heavily on the charity or assistance of outsiders. That decision weakened him — money and guns would have helped — but it helped him survive, too, by keeping up the mystique and preventing his circle of confidants from expanding.

Third: Gain the magical abilities to deflect bullets and change sticks into firearms. Of course, if Navy SEALs are after you, even that might not help.

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