June 21, 2011 — -- A 17-year-old died this week in Afghanistan, hanging from the end of a rope. A prison official fastened it around the boy's neck in Kabul's largest jail, tightened the knot, and then, in front of a crowd, removed the platform that held up the boy's feet.
He was hanged by the Afghan government because he was a killer. In February, Zar Ajam put on a suicide vest and a police officer's uniform. He picked up an AK-47, walked into the Kabul Bank in Jalalabad and started shooting. Forty people were dead by the time he took off his suicide vest and walked out, trying unsuccessfully to blend into the crowd of victims.
Zar Ajam might sound cold-blooded; he might sound evil.
But consider that Ajam, a Pakistani from North Waziristan, left school when he was seven years old. He didn't know how to read or write. He worked as a day laborer and had little to no economic future. That made him easy prey for his Taliban teachers.
He believed them when they said the people banking in Jalalabad were foreigners because he'd never seen a foreigner before. He believed them when he visited the bank during a dry run and his teachers told him foreigners were so scared of the Taliban, they wore local clothes and spoke Pashto, the local language. He believed them because he knew no better.
Two months ago, in an interview with ABC News from prison, Zar Ajam said he would never do what he did again -- because he knew better, now.
But he also said he accepted his punishment. He accepted responsibility. He never got a chance to apologize to the families of those he killed.
"When police arrested they put me in a room. The window was open and I heard the prayer call and I saw a person in a police uniform praying – and it was then I realized the people I killed were Muslim," Ajam said in the long, somber interview, during which one of his guards hovered a few feet away. "It was like I woke up and I realized that I have killed innocent people."
It is far too simple to suggest that Ajam became a terrorist because he was poor and uneducated. Millions of boys grow up in the impoverished, rugged tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border and never choose to join the Taliban. Some studies suggest that poorer Pakistanis are actually less likely to support extremism.
But Zar Ajam's story reveals just how easily boys from that area can become militants. It reveals just how many boys are willing to become suicide bombers, how they are passed from one militant commander to another, and how easily they can be sent to Afghanistan.
Perhaps more than anything, his story is a warning that, despite military advances in Afghanistan and advances in pinpoint targeting in Pakistan, defeating the Taliban may require reducing their pool of recruits by improving the lives of those living on the border.
'You Should Pass Your Time Doing Jihad'
Zar Ajam grew up in the Shawal district of North Waziristan, Pakistan, just across the border from the Birmal district in Paktika, Afghanistan. It is one of the poorest, most remote corners of the planet, with few jobs, no cell phone coverage, and not a single university for hundreds of miles.
Ajam studied until the third grade, although he seems to have never reached a third-grade level of comprehension. He never learned to write or read.
When he left school, he went to work in a quarry as a day laborer alongside two of his uncles. Everyone else in the family, he said, was working, and he was never encouraged to stay in school.
By the time he was a teenager, an Afghan friend of his cousin named Sharif was a repeat visitor to the family home.
"He was a Talib," Ajam recalled. "He was encouraging me to go to Jihad, and he was telling me about the Westerners in Afghanistan and how it is our duty to do Jihad."
Sharif then made his pitch: "Come with us," he told Ajam. "You don't have to work. You should pass your time doing Jihad."
Ajam's story of how he came under the sway of the Taliban and trained for jihad cannot be independently confirmed. According to his version of events, his decision eventually led him to a local militant training camp, then to Peshawar, then across the border to the bank in Jalalabad. But he did not seem to take it very seriously at the time. He said he wasn't all that interested in school or work, and he was easily convinced by his older friend. His was not an ideological decision.
Ajam says he was first taken to the bazaar in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan and a virtual alphabet soup of terrorist groups. Pakistan has refused to launch a military campaign into the area; Pakistan's critics say that is because some militant leaders in the city have been linked to Pakistan's intelligence service. But U.S. officials believe that another reason Pakistan is unwilling to attack militants in North Waziristan is that the country could not withstand the blowback if the militants who live there -- and restrict their attacks to Afghanistan -- suddenly turned on Pakistan.
Ajam and his new handlers were therefore left alone to introduce him into the Taliban. He was first kept in two different holding centers, and then driven out toward the border.
"There were no rooms in that camp -- only a few tents," Ajam recalled. "There were 25 other people, some of them my age, some were older, some younger. They were all suicide attackers."
For 27 days, Ajam learned first how to fire a pistol, then an AK-47, then a rocket-propelled grenade.
'If You Kill Westerners, God Will Shower You with Blessings'
And then, Ajam received the pitch that convinced him he had made the right choice:
"The teacher told us, 'If you kill Westerners, God will shower you with blessings. And if you die, you will go to paradise.' So I decided this is the way to get God's blessing."
It was then that Ajam started hearing the drones.
North Waziristan residents have long complained about the CIA's unmanned killers hovering in the sky almost every day, sounding like insects. Residents say they often sleep outside, out of fear that a small chip will be thrown inside their homes that will allow the drones to fire with pinpoint accuracy.
Ajam quickly felt the impact of the drones. His teacher -- whom he spoke of with respect -- was killed while driving between two different Taliban camps.
"These planes were circling day and night, sometimes four times, sometimes one time," he says. "During the clouds they wouldn't come. During the clear sky, they were coming."
'The University of Jihad'
Zar Ajam completed his training and finally received his marching orders: he would become a suicide bomber and attack foreigners in Afghanistan.
Before he crossed the border, Ajam was given $50 and a cell phone with a number for a teacher in Peshawar. He ended up in one of the most famous religious schools in South Asia -- the Darul Uloom Haqqania, or Center of Righteous Knowledge, some of whose graduates read like a who's who of Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar.
It has been called "the University of Jihad," and its leader, Maulana Samiul Haq, is a firebrand who has been linked with the Taliban leadership council and led anti-U.S. demonstrations after the war in Afghanistan began.
But Pakistan says it has cracked down on radical madrassas, and while today, many do teach hate, they are far from bomb factories. Ajam's experience seems to support Pakistan's claim. He says that was he not radicalized -- at least not any more than he already was -- in the Haqqania madrassa, and that he could not openly speak of his plans for jihad.
He spent a month there and was specifically told not to share with anyone that he had chosen to become a suicide bomber. He was taught the Koran, he says, and kept his head down.
"We were studying the basic Islamic books, just so no one could see us as suspicious," he said.
The Jalalabad Attack
After his month at the madrassa, Ajam traveled over the Afghan border to Jalalabad and saw Kabul Bank for the first time."I was told it was a palace where Westerners were coming and collecting money," he said.
But he noticed something unusual: the "Westerners" were wearing local clothes called shalwar khameez and speaking Pashto, the same language Ajam spoke.
He asked his teachers, surely these people couldn't be foreigners?
"They wear these clothes and speak the language," his handler told him, "because they're frightened from Taliban."
Ajam agreed, and went to sleep early the night before the attack.
He was woken up at 3:00 a.m. and given something to eat. Afghan officials say after all the brainwashing, all the preparations, and all the radicalization, Taliban commanders still don't take anything for granted with their young recruits. The commanders give young suicide bombers a chemical that will make them more compliant the day of the attack, Afghan officials believe.
Ajam says looking back, he thinks he was drugged. "I was accepting whatever he was telling me," he said.
He was handed a police uniform with shoes too small for his feet, so one of his handlers ripped open the tips. Underneath the uniform was an explosive suicide vest. He was handed an AK-47 and a phone that he was supposed to use to set off a motorcycle bomb outside the bank.
He never pushed the button on his suicide jacket. He never pushed the button to trigger the motorcycle bomb. But he did kill his fellow Pashtuns -- more than 40 of them, before walking out of the bank.
Asked whether he understood why Afghanistan wanted to put him to death, Ajam said he did understand it. "They will kill me because I killed Muslims, I killed the people of Afghanistan."
Did he accept his punishment, then?
"Yes, I accept it."
He was hanged two months later.