FARIDKOT, near Depalpur, Pakistan — The lone gunman captured alive by Indian police during last week's terrorist attack on Mumbai comes from a dirt-poor village in Pakistan's southern Punjab region where a banned Islamist group has been actively recruiting young men for "jihad," according to residents of the village and official records seen by McClatchy Newspapers.
Ajmal Ameer Kasab, the dark haired 21-year-old man arrested by Indian authorities in the first hours of the assault -- in which over 170 people died -- left the village four years ago, several residents said. He would return once a year to see small family home and one villager recalled him talking about freeing the Muslim-dominated region of Kashmir from India.
His origins are a key to the investigation of the attack and could have a profound impact on relations between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, already at the brink of confrontation. Until now, the Pakistan government has repeatedly said that there was no solid evidence to back Indian accusations that the gunmen came from Pakistan.
A McClatchy reporter visited the village three times in four days and obtained official electoral records, which showed that Ajmal's parents, as named by the Indian authorities, indeed reside in the village.
At the time of the first visit on Wednesday, there was no sign of Pakistan plainclothes police. But village mayor, Ghulam Mustafa Wattoo, confirmed that a man named Ameer lives in Faridkot, with a son named Ajmal. But he said Ameer claimed his son was not the man captured by Indian authorities.
But everything in the village fit the details leaked from the Indian police interrogation of Ajmal. Indian police identified the father as Mohammad Ameer, who earns a meager living selling home-made snacks from a mobile cart, and his wife as Noor. At the tiny family house, located on a narrow street deep inside Faridkot, the McClatlchy reporter on a second visit Friday noted a mobile food cart lying in the courtyard.
Ameer, 44 and his wife, Noor, 47, were nowhere to be found. According to several villagers, who asked not to be named for their own security, "a bearded mullah" took them away during the night, likely, they thought, to be a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic extremist group accusing of being behind the Mumbai attack.
Wattoo led the visiting reporter to Ameer's house, where an elderly man named Sultan and a mid-aged woman named Miraj, who identified themselves as relatives, said the occupants had gone away "for a wedding."
But they gave inconsistent and changing stories, sometimes confirming that Ameer lives there, at other times denying it. The mayor, too, had attempted to delay the visit of a McClatchy reporter to the house Friday and changed his story at times. As a result of the delay, plainclothes Pakistani security officials got to the house before the reporter, and they appeared to have coached the occupants to throw visitors off the trail.
A villager, who asked not to be named for his own safety, told McClatchy: "These people are telling you lies. We know that boy (caught in Mumbai) is from Faridkot. We knew from the first night (of the attack)."
Shown a picture of Ajmal, he confirmed it was the young man from the village.
"They brainwash our youth about jihad, there are people who do it in this village. They tell them they'll get a ticket to heaven. It is so wrong," the villager added.
Another resident said separately that he recognized the face in the photograph, though he later changed his mind when other villagers crowded around.
"He (Ameer) has lived here for a few years," said villager Mohammad Taj, an agriculturalist, who thought his age was around 50. "He has three sons and three daughters."
Noor Ahmed, 45, a local farmer said: "He (Ameer) had a stall he pushed around, sometimes here, sometimes elsewhere. He was a meek man, he hasn't particularly religious. He just made ends meet and didn't quarrel with anyone."
Residents said that Faridkot and the surrounding area, including a nearby village called Tara Singh, are a hotbed for recruitment for Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The nazim or mayor of Tara Singh, Rao Zaeem Haider, said: "There is a religious trend here. Some go for jihad but not too many."
Ajmal, who had little or no schooling, has been gone from Faridkot for about four years but would return to see his family once a year, said several locals. One said he would talk about freeing the Kashmir region from Indian rule when he returned, - the main aim of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
There are several Faridkots in Pakistan and one in India, and McClatchy's weeklong search for the home village of the captured suspect was complicated by incorrect details of the location published in the Indian news media.
The Faridkot from which Ajmal came is near the town of Depalpur, in the Okara district in southern Punjab
Many residents and local plainclothes police now appear to be trying to cover up Ajmal's connection with the village. By Saturday, the atmosphere turned hostile, and several reporters who went to Fardikot were roughed up, witnesses said by phone.
Faridkot mayor Wattoo at first denied the village was home to Ajmal Ameer Kasab. "There is a man here called Ameer, he pushed a snack cart around. He came to see me because he was very worried about reports on the news about an Ajmal from Faridkot being caught. But he told me that the boy they caught is not his Ajmal," Wattoo said.
Wattoo had also said there had been no local police investigation of whether Ajmal came from this Faridkot. At another village called Faridkot, near a town called Khanewal, also visited by McClatchy, there had been marked police and intelligence presence.
McClatchy obtained the official electoral records for Faridkot, which falls under union council number 5, tehsil (area) Depalpur, district Okara. The list of 478 registered voters shows a Mohammad Ameer, married to Noor Elahi, living in Faridkot. McClatchy has the national identity card numbers for both husband and wife.
Residents said that the family belonged to a clan of butchers, for which the local word is Kasab or Kasai. There is no tradition of surnames in rural Pakistan, and individuals take the names of their profession or tribe. Ajmal told Indian police his surname is Kasab, according to news reports.
Faridkot is dirt-poor with a remote feel, despite being close to a town. Most people have little education and live in poverty. On the side of a building, just outside Faridkot, graffiti in large lettering says, in Urdu, "Go for jihad. Go for jihad. Markaz Dawat ul-Irshad". MDI is the parent organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba. In nearby Depalpur, there is a banner on the side of the main street that asks people to devote goat skins to Jamaat ud Dawa, another MDI offshoot.
Hafiz Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, had visited the nearby town of Depalpur to give speeches, where there were "hundreds" of supporters, locals said. There was a Lashkar-e-Taiba office in Depalpur but that was hurriedly closed in the last few days, they said. The Lashkar-e-Taiba newspaper is distributed in Depalpur and Faridkot. The area lies in the south of Punjab province, an economically backward area long known for producing jihadists.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2008