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If 50,000 men couldn't catch the Fakir, how will we ever get bin Laden?

Byline: JON CLEMENTS

THE soldiers crept up to the terror chief's lair, a cave deep in the mountains of Afghanistan.

They had cornered him after months of bombing from the air and fighting in the valleys.

The troops threw in hand grenades, waited for the explosion and charged in, firing, to finish off any survivors.

But the Fakir of Ipi - the original Osama bin Laden - had gone, escaping yet again, never to be captured, dead or alive.

It was the British Empire's nightmare in the 1930s, and one which many fear is being relived in Afghanistan today.

Nearly five months into the "War on Terror" there is no sign of Osama bin Laden.

Despite the rout of the Taliban and the capture of dozens of al-Qaeda fighters, the man said to be behind last September's attacks on America is still free.

George Bush swore to find bin Laden, dead or alive, and put a $25million bounty on his head.

But so far, the hunt for the al-Qaeda chief has gone as badly as British efforts to find the Fakir of Ipi.

The Fakir, from the province of Waziristan (present-day Pakistan), led an Afghanistan-based rebellion against the British Raj.

He preached holy war against non-Muslims, defying the Royal Air Force and nearly 50,000 troops for a decade.

His men killed thousands of civilians and more than 900 British and Indian troops on the North-west Frontier.

And, like Osama bin Laden nearly 70 years later, the Fakir vanished into the mountains when his enemies closed in.

Veterans of the British campaigns in Afghanistan and Waziristan fear bin Laden could also escape capture.

Frank Leeson, 75, was an officer in the Kassadar Police Force which patrolled the North-west Frontier. Frank, from Worthing, West Sussex, says: "The Fakir was the Bin Laden of his day. His headquarters were in the hills near the Afghan border so he could nip across from Pakistan when things got too hot for him."

The Fakir of Ipi was a Muslim priest called Mirza Ali Khan, who led a reclusive life in Ipi, a village in Waziristan, until 1936.

That year, a Hindu girl was allegedly kidnapped by a Muslim from Ali Khan's tribe, the Tori Khel, converted to Islam and finally married.

WHEN the Muslim was sent for trial, 2,000 tribesman, including Ali Khan, gathered in support. He was cleared but the girl was returned to her family.

Ali Khan, 39, was enraged at the treatment of his tribesman, and he accused the British of interfering in religious affairs.

Though short and physically unimpressive, the bearded hermit was a charismatic speaker with a fierce hatred of non-believers.

Single-handedly, Ali Khan set out to inflame the North-west Frontier with his preaching of Holy War against the British.

Moderate Muslims were cursed for their weakness, those serving in government threatened with an un-Islamic burial.

His message found an audience among the tribesman, who already sensed British rule was crumbling in India. The Tori Khel elders were too scared to meet British demands to silence or expel Ali Khan.

And when the British decided to mount a show of strength, they fatally underestimated the preacher's fanaticism.

On November 25, 1936, two columns of British and Indian troops left the fort of Razmak and the village of Mir Ali. Their plan was to march to Biche Kashkai, a small village in Tori Khel territory. Two days later, more than 100 soldiers lay dead, their bodies castrated and skinned following an ambush in a narrow pass by Ali Khan's guerrillas, armed with flintlock rifles and generations-old daggers.

The British retreated swiftly and the legend of the elusive Fakir of Ipi was born.

Hundreds of fighters flocked to his ranks, eager to serve with the man who had humbled the mighty British Empire. By early 1937, the Fakir had carried out dozens of hit-and-run raids from across the border in Afghanistan.

Soldiers were ambushed, under constant sniper fire, and Hindu villages burned to the ground.

Britain responded with the RAF bombing the villages of the tribesmen who supported the Fakir. Protests to the League of Nations about women and children dying in the raids were ignored by the British government.

Throughout 1937, British losses continued to mount with one ambush killing 52 men and leaving a trail of blazing lorries.

Britain poured more men and equipment into the conflict, and by December, 50,000 troops with tanks were in the field.

They were opposed by 10,000 Wazir and Masud tribesmen, armed with stolen rifles, daggers and their cunning.

They sniped from hilltops, laid booby traps, poisoned wells and disguised themselves as women. Often they pretended to surrender, before pulling a knife or opening fire.

Tom Daws, 91, a private in the 2nd Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment, spent 18 months in Afghanistan.

"It was a horrible country, very inhospitable," said Mr Daws, of Watford, Herts. "The tribesmen didn't have sophisticated weapons but they'd still try to ambush us. We'd shell their villages in retaliation. There were never any pitched battles as it was impossible to corner the Afghans."

AS the war dragged on, the Fakir rejected a pardon offered by Britain, which was increasingly worried about Hitler's plans for Europe.

In fact, it was the outbreak of World War II which stabilised the North-west Frontier, more than the pounds 50million spent fighting the Fakir.

Many of his followers chose to join the British army to earn a regular wage and travel abroad, isolating their former leader. Still the British tried - and failed - to kill him.

The Fakir's support briefly grew when the tribesmen came home, but with Britain leaving India his holy war lost its enemy.

The Hindus had already gone, dreading life under Muslim rule in what would become Pakistan.

But the Fakir refused to stop fighting, using the partition of India in 1947 to launch a war for an independent state.

Soon the self-styled President of Pakhtunistan had only fellow Muslims left to attack, the Pakistan border patrols.

When he died from asthma in 1960 in his cave, few moderate Muslims mourned him.

One Pakistan official said: "He was a vicious old man, twisted with hate and selfishness."

Another similarity with bin Laden, in fact.

CAPTION(S):

DEFIANT TO THE END? The Fakir of Ipi was never captured; ELUSIVE: Osama bin Laden
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 19, 2002
Words:1053
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