BAHAWALPUR, Pakistan — The compound bore no sign. Residents referred to it simply as the school for "jihadi fighters," speaking in awe of the expensive horses stabled within its high walls — and the extremists who rode them bareback in the dusty fields around it.
In classrooms nearby, teachers drilled boys as young as 8 in an uncompromising brand of Islam that called for holy war against enemies of the faith. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Dar-ul-uloom Madina school, they rocked back and forth as they recited sections of the Quran, Islam's holy book.
Both facilities are run by an al-Qaida-linked terror network, Jaish-e-Mohammed, in the heart of Pakistan, hundreds of miles from the Afghan border that is the global focus of the fight against terrorism. Their existence raises questions about the government's pledge to crack down on terror groups accused of high-profile attacks in Pakistan and India, and ties to global terror plots.
Authorities say militant groups in Punjab are increasingly sending out fighters to Afghanistan and the border region, adding teeth to an insurgency spreading across Pakistan that has stirred fears about the country's stability and the safety of its nuclear weapons.
The horse-riding facility, discovered by The Associated Press during a visit to this impoverished region where miles of dusty, wind-swept desert spread out in all directions, had never before been seen by journalists.
Martial arts, archery
There, would-be jihadi fighters practice martial arts, archery and horse-riding skills and get religious instruction, according to a former member of Jaish-e-Mohammed, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified by ex-comrades or authorities.
Horse-riding is considered by many extremists to be especially merit-worthy because the pursuit is referenced in Islamic teachings on jihad.
Pakistan has seen a string of attacks, including the ambush this month of Sri Lankan cricket players in the Punjab capital, Lahore, and a truce with extremists in Swat less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad, that have heightened alarm in Washington and other Western capitals that the country is slipping into chaos.
Amid the near daily onslaught of violence, the country's president and opposition leader have been locked in a bitter political dispute that has exposed the weakness of the civilian government less than a year after it took over following years of military rule by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan outlawed Jaish in 2001, but has done little to enforce the ban, partly out of fear of a backlash but also because it and other groups in Punjab were created by the powerful intelligence agencies as a proxy force in Afghanistan and Kashmir, a territory disputed with rival India.
"You can say Jaish is running its business as usual," said Mohammed Amir Rana, from Pakistan's Institute for Peace Studies, which tracks militant groups. "The military wants to keep alive its strategic options in Kashmir. The trouble is you cannot restrict the militants to one area. You cannot keep control of them."
Apart from the martial arts and horse riding center, Jaish militants openly operate two imposing boarding schools in Bahawalpur, a dusty town of 500,000 people. Food, lodging and tuition are free for their 500 students, paid for by donations from sympathizers across the country.
A top police officer said the schools and other hard-line establishments in the area were used to recruit teens and young men for jihadi activities in Pakistan's northwest or in Afghanistan. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Armed guard at school
A guard wielding an automatic weapon stood at the gate of the Usman-o-Ali school and turned a visiting AP team away. But the head teacher at nearby Dar-ul-uloom Madina school allowed the group a tour and an interview.
Ataur Rehman said none of the students were allowed to be recruited for jihad while studying there, but added that he could not stop them joining up after they graduated.
"We have made it clear: our focus is teaching, teaching and teaching," he said in his damp threadbare office as a student served sweet, milky tea and biscuits. "But if someone does something independently, we cannot be held responsible."
Students range from 8 to mid-20s
In classrooms, students ranging in age from 8 to their mid-20s sat shoulder-to-shoulder along wooden planks as they chanted Quranic verses; one of the youngest boys broke off briefly from his studies and grinned at a visiting reporter.
In the kitchen, men stirred huge pots of chicken curry, washed potatoes and made fresh bread. Outside, workers mixed cement for a new cafeteria and dormitory.
The walled complex with the horse stables was on the outskirts of town, and from the road, laborers could be seen working on a building toward the rear of the compound.
Home to more than half of Pakistan's 160 million people, Punjab's large cities are centers of wealth and political power, but in towns like Bahawalpur, poverty is widespread.
Last year, the governor of Pakistan's border region warned that insurgent commanders and suicide bombers were increasingly coming from Punjab. Afghan police officers also say Punjabi fighters are becoming common there.
"Pakistani citizens, and especially Punjabis, are the Taliban trainers in the area for bomb-making," said Asadullah Sherzad, police chief in Afghanistan's insurgency-wracked Helmand province, adding there are around 100 Punjabis at any one time in that area of Afghanistan.
A police officer in Bahawalpur said Jaish members were not believed to be training with weapons in the town's schools and other facilities, adding that law enforcement agencies had infiltrated the group. He spoke on condition of anonymity because sections of the government and security agencies disagreed on the need to crack down on the group.
Jaish is believed to have been formed in 2000 by hard-line cleric Masood Azhar after he was freed from an Indian prison in exchange for passengers on a hijacked Indian Airlines flight that landed in Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan the same year.
Azhar was born in Bahawalpur, though the government says his current whereabouts are not known. A small stall outside the Usman-o-Ali school sells his speeches and writings.
"When my brother's blood is shed in Afghanistan, when he is a victim of bombs, then does America expect us to offer it flowers?" he proclaims in a recording of an undated speech. "America you should listen... We will not let you live in peace so long as we are alive."
In 2007, British militant suspect Rashid Rauf was seized at the Usman-o-Ali school on suspicion of links to a failed plot to blow up jetliners over the Atlantic in 2007. Rauf, who escaped Pakistani custody and was reported to have been killed last year in a U.S. missile strike close to the border, is related by marriage to Azhar.
Jaish members and leaders are also suspected in the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002, and in a bombing the same year in the city that killed 11 French engineers.
Jaish and other groups still recruit in villages in southern Punjab, according to the ex-Jaish member and another former militant who fought in Afghanistan.
The Usman-o-Ali school "requires each student to attend some sort of jihad training or practice each year," the ex-Jaish operative said, adding that the hot months of June and July were the prime recruiting period.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.