WHY are we feigning shock at the revelation that IBA graduate Saad Aziz might be a militant? The news that Aziz and his friends from prominent universities are jihadis has been met with widespread histrionics. But there is nothing unprecedented about this.
In a Pakistani context, the obvious example is MIT graduate Aafia Siddiqui. Militants ranging from Osama bin Laden to the Nigerian ‘underwear bomber’ have hailed from affluent families and earned college degrees before turning to jihad. 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 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 in adverse socio-economic conditions has been perpetuated by donor agencies that fund education and social mobility initiatives under the banner of counterterrorism.
Posh extremists are active on social media.
In a 2012 study titled Poverty and Support for Militant Politics: Evidence from Pakistan, Graeme Blair et al 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 professor in 2012 told journalist Ziaur Rehman that he had since 2007 been monitoring the activities of the Punjabi Taliban, a group comprising KU students which apparently split from the Islami Jamiat Talaba over disagreements about jihad. The group gained prominence after a bomb blast at the university in December 2010 that injured four students from a Shia student group. Police in Lahore in September 2013 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 an 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 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 have yet to understand. As Madiha Afzal 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 jihadist groups like IS. 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 counterterrorism strategy. The PML-N government has introduced a National Internal Security Policy and a National Action Plan to counter terrorism. But paper pushing seems to be the extent of the government’s commitment to tackling the threats from militancy.
Posh 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 Nacta or a joint intelligence directorate should be doing. But these institutions have yet to be operationalised.
Even after the post-Peshawar brouhaha, the finance ministry appears reluctant to release funds to the interior ministry to finance Nacta and key positions remain unstaffed. The only steps 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 brutal deaths before we see some action?
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2015