Inside the Pakistani school accused of teaching terrorism

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The Independent Online

The reputation of the Markaz Taiba madrassa goes before it. Journalists who have tried to enter before have been turned away, even threatened. Local people refer to the students as mujahedin. The school is openly run by an organisation that everybody in Pakistan knows is linked to militants fighting in Kashmir.

But when The Independent visited yesterday, the madrassa couldn't have been more welcoming. We were invited to join a game of cricket with the students. The school administrators wanted to show off their horses, on which the students learn to ride, and the pride of their stable, a thoroughbred stallion who reared on his hind legs when a trainer cracked his whip.

We were given a tour of badminton courts and the computer suite. Could this really be the "terror school" of yesterday's news reports? But for the mosque, it looked pretty much like a wealthy private school in Britain: red-brick buildings housing the classrooms, wide playing fields, a large swimming pool.

The madrassa includes a school for children aged between six and 17 and a university. It doesn't offer only religious education but computer science, engineering and medicine.

This is the place that Pakistani intelligence sources say Tanweer attended for four or five days during a two-month trip to Pakistan that began last December. "It's not possible because it is our policy not to accept any foreign students," says Professor Zafar Iqbal, the director of education, a nervous man with red highlights in his beard and thinning hair. He comes out with the answer before you finish the question - it's clearly prepared.

However, Pakistani intelligence sources say Tanweer was not a student but just visited. The professor denies that too.

When you ask him about the London bombings, he says: "I've been very busy writing a book. Today was the first I heard about the bombing. I think it's possible some Jews did it. I don't think Christians and Muslims were involved in this." That is a familiar conspiracy theory in Pakistan.

"Have you seen any militant activity here?" asked Yahyaa Mujahid, the information secretary of Jamat-ud-Dawa, the political party that runs the madrassa. "You can go anywhere you want. You can go alone and look . "

But for all the harmless image the madrassa was giving off yesterday, it is no secret in Pakistan the full story is not quite so innocent. Abu Talha Rashid Minhas, from the education department, parries every question with a polite smile, until you ask about the madrassa's involvement in Indian-held Kashmir. He holds your eyes an instant, a hard look, before waving away the question.

The Jamat-ud-Dawa, which owns and runs the madrassa, used to be, and is widely believed still to be, the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a group of armed militants fighting in Kashmir. What we saw yesterday appears to have been a carefully orchestrated charm offensive.

Mr Mujahid openly admits the past connection but claims the Jamat-ud-Dawa severed all links with the militant group after it was banned by President Pervez Musharraf last year. Pakistani journalists say they believe the two groups are still linked.

"How can there be any militant activity here?" asks Mr Mujahid. "We are just outside Lahore. We are closely watched by the security forces." And that begs a question, with Pakistani intelligence naming the madrassa as a link in the Pakistani connection to the London bombings.

There are an estimated 10,0000 madrasas in Pakistan, providing education to students from poor rural families. Many are financed by donations from Saudi Arabia, and teach an austere form of Wahabi Islam, but critics accuse them of extremism.

This is not Jamaat-ud-Dawa's only madrassa in Pakistan. The organisation has 137 all over the country. Altogether, it teaches 22,000 students. As one Pakistani journalist put it: "If all the other groups with militant links are banned, why does the government still allow Jammat-ud-Dawa to operate freely?"