KARACHI: The Sindh chief minister's thunderbolt revelation yesterday that three "well-educated" students have been arrested for plotting recent terrorist attacks in Karachi sent shockwaves across the country.
As Mr Qaim Ali Shah disclosed the names of university graduates Saad Aziz, Mohammad Azfar Ishrat and Haafiz Nasir for being involved in heinous crimes, friends and former schoolmates took to Facebook and Twitter to express both horror and disbelief.
Saad Aziz - the 'good kid'
That a student from one of Pakistan's finest and most prestigious business schools could become a "trained militant" who "provides funds for terror activities" in the city is difficult to understand for many.
The assertion that Saad Aziz - a BBA graduate from the reputable Institute of Business Administration (IBA) - has confessed to masterminding the murder of rights activist Sabeen Mahmud has been met with scepticism by former schoolmates.
“I remember him being a good kid. He played tennis and football. He had a good sense of humour," says one of Aziz's former schoolmates, requesting anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the case. He added that Aziz earlier studied at the Beaconhouse Schooling System, after which he went on to another elite institution, The Lyceum for his A' Levels and eventually IBA for his undergraduate degree.
Another former schoolmate describes him as "a calm and a composed person". "He used to hang out in the company of boys as well as girls," he adds.
A hardworking student at IBA
A former IBA schoolmate of Aziz scoffed at the idea that the boy would have had time for training as a terrorist, owing to IBA's rigorous schedule.
“The press release says he was involved in terrorist activities since 2009. He must have been 19 or 20 years old then and in his second year at IBA. I don't know whether being in a terrorist organisation is a full time job or not, but IBA didn't give time for us to be involved in anything. And he was there at university every day.”
Director Communication and Public Affairs at IBA, Huma Baqai also expresses alarm at the allegation.
"Saad Aziz from the batch of 2011 was our student, but it's been four years since he left. We won't deny that he was a student of IBA."
"During his time here he was a good student with good grades. Even before IBA, he was associated with a good school, where he had good grades. No such tendency towards [terrorist] activities came to light during his time at IBA," she continues.
"He was a good boy from a good family, a tax-paying family. It's as much a surprise to us as it is to you that someone from such a family could get lured into such activities."
'He grew religious over time'
One former IBA student, however, said Aziz may have grown religious over time.
“I know he had become religious, grown a beard and started going on those four-month religious evangelical trips. This is what I know through mutual friends. Maybe he got involved with such people during his religious trips. But he didn’t look the type of person who would be a mass murderer. We are all very shocked by this news.”
He added that no one has been able to contact Aziz' family.
"He was also out of touch with his university friends for a while now. Though he did bump into an IBA class fellow at the Karachi Literary Festival... "
According to a former schoolmate, Aziz is married and also has a child.
He worked at The Cactus, a restaurant in Karachi's Sindhi Muslim that serves a variety of Mexican and continental dishes. An employee at the restaurant told Dawn that the joint is nearly a year old and is owned by Aziz's father, with his son holding an administrative position in the business venture.
"Saad is not like that [militant] at all ...It is impossible. His character is not like that. He is a family man," an employee vouches.
KU, IBA students were friends
A highly placed source told Dawn that Aziz had become friends with the Karachi University student who was also named by the chief minister as a terrorist. Shah had said Haafiz Nasir alias Yasir, who completed MA in Islamic Studies from Karachi University is a trained terrorist, with expertise in brainwashing and motivating people for ‘Jihadi’ activities.
“The two met at a talk held by a religious preacher,” he said, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak on the matter. “The preacher is not known to incite religious violence, but some people do go too far and take the interpretation into their own hands.”
Jameel Yusuf, former Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) chief, tells Dawn, “It is a sad fact that militants have penetrated the educated circle.”
“Even in the kidnapping of Shahbaz Taseer in Lahore, the boys who came for him were highly educated. 9/11 attackers were engineers… so this is something we all must accept.”
Weighing in: Confessions by torture?
As scepticism grows over the assertions made by the chief minister, a security expert requesting that his name not be used for this story tells us there have been cases where men are falsely accused.
“Sometimes when the police is under pressure to solve these cases, they arrest people and torture them to confess. At times, they will pick up the wrong guy and say he is the culprit without even checking his alibi,” he says. He adds that this is a dangerous trend that allows the real killers to roam free.
“In this case, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) must do its job to ensure that they have arrested the criminals responsible for these acts. It must give the benefit of doubt to these suspects.”
He also says that while the chief minister’s disclosure may be based on sound evidence, it seems that too many crimes have been clubbed under one umbrella and pinned on these three men.
According to the chief minister, Saad Aziz alias Tin Tin alias John, is the mastermind of the attack on Sabeen Mahmud and has been a part of terrorist activities since 2009. "Aziz is a trained militant with expertise in producing different types of literature. He provided funds for terror activities in the city," the chief minister said.
While Shah did not disclose the organisation the arrested men belong to, CID Police Incharge, Raja Umar Khattab said it is a group inspired by Al Qaeda.
"It took 13 months to complete the investigations that lead us to this group," Khattab said, "They are all from the same group."
Given below are brief profiles of the other suspects arrested along with Saad Aziz:
Tahir Hussain Minhas alias Sain Nazir alias Zahid, alias Naveed alias Khalil, alias Shaukat and alias Mota-matriculate, who is the mastermind of the Safoora Goth carnage, has been involved in terror activities since 1998. A trained terrorist who has expertise in making bombs and using arms such as RPG-7 and Kalashnikov.
He had personally met Osama Bin Ladin and Aiman-uz-Zawahiri of Al Qaeda on several occasions.
Mohammad Azfar Ishrat alias Maajid is an engineer having passed out from the Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology. Involved in terrorist activities since 2011, Ishrat is a trained terrorist who has expertise in making bombs and electronic circuits used as timers in such bombs.
Haafiz Nasir alias Yasir, who completed MA in Islamic Studies from Karachi University, has been involved in terrorist activities since 2013. A trained terrorist, Nasir has expertise in brainwashing and motivating people for ‘Jihadi’ activities.
The confessions made by these terrorists include the carnage of Safoora Goth, murder of Sabeen Mahmud in Defence, firing on American educationist Debra Lobo in the Ferozabad area, bomb attack on a naval officer and suicidal attack on Brig Basit of the Rangers, grenade attack on schools and throwing pamphlets in Nazimabad and North Nazimabad, bomb blast and targeted killings on the Bohri community in the area of Arambagh, North Nazimabad, Bahadurbad Karachi and Hyderabad, bomb attacks on police vans on M.A. Jinnah Road, Arambagh, Gulberg, Gulistan-i-Jauhar, NIPA Chowrangi, North Nazimabad and North Krachi and in the targeted killing of police officials in Gulistan-i-Jauhar, North Nazimabad, North Karachi, Shah Faisal Colony and Landhi.