In the mountains of I met young men who would have killed me. They would have slit my throat, put a bullet in my brain, caved in my skull with a rock. After I was dead they would have severed my head from my body and displayed it as a warning to all.
These same men would have strapped explosives to their bodies and walked into crowded market places to blow everyone – old women, mothers and children – to pieces. They would have happily died to kill. In fact they would have welcomed it with praise to God.
These young men – more accurately boys – were primed for death. They had been programmed for it. Their heads were full of hate.
They weren’t born for this. Once they had smiled and played. They loved cricket. Great Australian players Shane Warne and Steve Waugh were their heroes.
They went to school. They worked in the fields with their fathers. They loved their mothers.
But their innocence was stolen as surely as their bodies were snatched from their families, and their minds obliterated.
Each of these boys had a similar tale. They had been kidnapped and abused. The Pakistani – an extension of the militant Afghan insurgency but even more vicious – had grabbed them and spirited them into their camps in the hills.
They had been sexually abused. They were kept awake for days on end. They were forced to recite the Qur’an – Islam’s holy text – over and over. Hour after hour they would rock back and forth chanting the verses until in a trance.
Broken down, the boys would then be poisoned against the west. Every sin proclaimed in the Qur’an was ascribed to the Americans. In their eyes this is what we were, all of us infidels, we were Americans.
This is how the Taliban created suicide bombers.
When I met them their eyes were empty. They averted their gaze, staring only at the floor. They would not shake my hand or return my smile.
I was brought here by a Pakistani general on assignment with CNN. His soldiers had rescued these boys as they drove out the Taliban from the militant stronghold in the Swat valley in 2010.
A psychiatrist had been assigned to try to reach them. It was her job to see if there was enough humanity left to rebuild. She was not optimistic. She told me some of them would be lost forever. They would be institutionalised, ticking bombs always capable of violence. For them there was no way back.
I didn’t just meet the boys. I spoke to a man who would brainwash kids to kill. He was in chains, seated on a chair in the sun. He had fair skin and a red beard and piercing green eyes. This was not uncommon among the tall, strong Pashtun of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
He spoke English in the sweetest voice. His words caught in the back of his throat and came out clipped and hesitant and full of regret. He appeared so gentle. This was part of his deception; part of his charm.
But we would never know how many young men he sent to their deaths. We would never know how many lives had been taken on his orders.
He trained suicide bombers. Now a prisoner he told me he was sorry. He would soon be dead himself.
I saw what these people could do. I stood in the street in the aftermath of a bombing in the city of Peshawar. Two men had ridden their motorbikes into a parade outside a police cadet college and detonated their suicide vests.
The mangled wreckage of the bikes lay on the ground. There were pools of blood. People picked human remains from the shrapnel marks in the surrounding buildings. They placed what they could in plastic bags for burial before sunset as is Islamic custom.
I looked into the burnt out wreck of a car. Inside was a Qur’anic verse on a bookmark. It was a prayer for a safe journey.
I am reminded of this now when I hear that the Islamic community doesn’t do enough to fight extremism. The overwhelming number of victims of terrorism are Muslims.
More than 30,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks since 9/11. Muslims lose their children, their husbands, mothers and sisters to terrorism. And still they are told they don’t do enough.
I have seen what extremism can do. I can see how hate can fester in the minds of people.
I have seen young boys in repeat that same rocking motion reciting the Qur’an in schools where they learn nothing but religion. No maths, no science, no literature. There was no reasoning.
These boys told me how they revered Osama Bin Laden. They recited conspiracy theories about Americans kidnapping Afghans and using them as medical guinea pigs.
Just months before I visited this school police had raided it and found a cache of weapons and suicide vests under the floorboards.
I thought this world belonged to Afghanistan and Pakistan or Iraq but now it is here. Young people under the sway of extremists. Now these young people kill on our streets.
Science can explain part of how is happens. When we listen to charismatic speakers – preachers, politicians, generals and warlords – or when we are under severe stress, our prefrontal cortex shuts down. This controls abstract thought. We surrender our disbelief. We give them our minds.
This is physical: In this way we are all hardwired. It can happen in church; it can happen in the classroom; it can happen on the battlefield. It happens in the mountains of Pakistan and it can happen to a 15-year-old in the suburbs of Sydney.
We use terms like suicide bomber of terrorist: this is the language we have but it falls short. The boys I met were not suicide bombers, they were walking bombs. They were part of the apparatus. They are the pin in the grenade. They are the trigger on a gun.
By the stage they are ready to kill they no longer function as free-thinking people. Others may disagree, but this is what I saw.
Police can launch raids. They can make arrests and lock people up. They can comb the internet for early warnings. This is about security but it is not about solving the problem.
The terrorist is not the boy with the gun or the vest. The terrorist – and that word seems hardly sufficient for what they do – is the person who steals these young minds. And these are the people we don’t see.