Educated militants not a new phenomenon

UP IN ARMS: Pakistanis protesting against the May 13 killings of Shi'ite Ismaili minority bus passengers by gunmen in Karachi. One of the suspects is Aziz, a graduate from the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.


    May 26, 2015

    Educated militants not a new phenomenon

    WHY are we feigning shock at the revelation that Institute of Business Administration, Karachi graduate Saad Aziz might be a militant?

    Aziz and several others are suspected of being the gunmen who killed Shi'ite Ismaili minority bus passengers in Karachi on May 13.

    The news that Aziz and his friends from prominent universities are alleged terrorists has been met with widespread histrionics. But there is nothing unprecedented about this.

    In a Pakistani context, the obvious example is Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Aafia Siddiqui, who was convicted of the attempted murder and assault of United States officers and nicknamed Lady Al-Qaeda. Militants ranging from Osama bin Laden to the Nigerian "underwear bomber" have hailed from affluent families and earned college degrees before turning to terrorism.

    In recent weeks, there have been news reports from Indian-held Kashmir about college graduates joining Hizbul Mujahideen, and about the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targeting rich Nigerian university students via its online campaigns.


    Numerous academic studies have debunked the correlation between extremism, and poverty and illiteracy. Several others have pointed out that the perception that militancy proliferates under adverse socio-economic conditions has been perpetuated by donor agencies which fund education and social mobility initiatives under the banner of counter-terrorism.

    In a 2012 study titled Poverty And Support For Militant Politics: Evidence From Pakistan, researchers surveyed 6,000 Pakistanis from diverse backgrounds and found that poor Pakistanis dislike militancy more than those from the middle class.

    The study also showed that the dislike of militant groups is three times stronger among poor communities in urban areas that have experienced militant violence - probably because the direct exposure to militant violence fuels negative responses.

    Reports about militant groups recruiting on university campuses began appearing as far back as 2010. A Karachi University (KU) professor told journalist Ziaur Rehman in 2012 that since 2007, he had been monitoring the activities of the Punjabi Taliban, a group comprising KU students which apparently split from the Islami Jamiat Talaba over disagreements about terrorism.

    The group gained prominence after a bomb blast at the university in December 2010 that injured four students from a Shi'ite student group.

    In September 2013, police in Lahore arrested nine Al-Qaeda suspects, including their handler, who was based in a Punjab University hostel.


    The diversifying profile of militants in Pakistan has often been explained as a response to American foreign policies and growing Islamophobia in the West.

    But there is also a more cynical explanation: Militant groups need the wealth, skills and expertise that such recruits offer.

    In the Internet age, a militant group is only as effective as its social-media strategy, and the media and technology skills of college students are key for further recruitment efforts via slick YouTube videos and snappy Twitter feeds.

    Educated militants also bring technical knowledge that allows groups to devise more sophisticated explosives, breach security barriers, infiltrate state institutions and manage financing.

    There is much about this phenomenon that we still do not understand. As Madiha Afzal from the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy has pointed out, literature about the correlation between terrorism and education does not differentiate between types of schooling or levels of educational attainment (her own work found that there is a gender distinction; as women become more educated, they are less likely to support terrorism relative to men with similar education levels).

    But here's what we do know: rich, educated kids are vulnerable to radicalisation; they are prized by militant organisations; they are likely to recruit from among their peers; and they are probably more dangerous: educated militants typically seek connections with global extremist groups like ISIS. They are also often self-radicalised and operate as lone rangers identifying their own targets, which leads to more erratic targeting patterns.


    The rise of educated militants reiterates the need for a serious counter-terrorism strategy. The Pakistani government has introduced a National Internal Security Policy and a National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism. But paper pushing seems to be the extent of the government's commitment to tackling the threats from militancy.

    Sophisticated militants hide in plain sight - they are active on social media and their changing religio-political attitudes are known to their peers.

    Detecting such militants should be a relatively easy intelligence-gathering exercise - exactly the kind of thing that the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta) or a joint intelligence directorate should be doing. But these institutions have yet to be put into operation.

    Even after the brouhaha over the Peshawar incident - in which terrorists killed children at an army-run school in December - the Finance Ministry appears reluctant to release funds to the Interior Ministry to finance Nacta, and key positions remain unfilled.

    The only steps Nacta chief Hamid Ali Khan has taken are to remove the list of proscribed groups from Nacta's website and publicly back away from many clauses under NAP, claiming that they fall beyond the authority's remit.

    Of all the reasons for Pakistan to suffer at the hands of violent extremism, bureaucratic delays and lack of political will are the worst. How many more people have to die brutally before we see some action?


    The writer is a freelance journalist.