COVER: Heart of darkness: The Militant: by Muhammad Amir Rana

Published June 28, 2015
Supporters of the religious group Jamaatud Dawa raise their party’s flag and chant slogans during a rally headed by the party leader Hafiz Saeed, to mark Pakistan 
Day in Lahore.	— AP
Supporters of the religious group Jamaatud Dawa raise their party’s flag and chant slogans during a rally headed by the party leader Hafiz Saeed, to mark Pakistan Day in Lahore. — AP
The Militant: Development of a Jihadi Character 
in Pakistan 
(POLITICS)
By Muhammad Amir Rana
The Militant: Development of a Jihadi Character in Pakistan (POLITICS) By Muhammad Amir Rana

MUHAMMAD Amir Rana’s new book The Militant: Development of a Jihadi Character in Pakistan is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who prefer to take solace in simplistic, linear explanations for the problem of militancy in Pakistan. This is a work that tracks in meticulous detail the amorphous, ever-evolving monster that has held the country in its thrall for well over two decades and is now in a frighteningly sophisticated phase where it hides in plain sight.

At the same time, it is also a cautionary tale, one that is evidence of the enormous risks that a state incurs when it uses militants as an instrument of policy to further regional agendas. For, as the book illustrates, this is not a hydra that can be contained. Instead, it outgrows its master and mutates into a creature that bears little resemblance to the ‘original’ militant that served the state’s objectives. However, it is only recently that the Pakistani state has realised the gravity of the problem. And that in some ways, says the introduction to the book, is not surprising. “[It] is ironic that as a state’s dependence on militants increases it starts believing that they would perpetually serve as its stooges or proxies … even when the latter are no more willing to serve as proxies, the former continue to treat them as such.” Perhaps most significantly: “When militants are perceived as proxies it becomes difficult to treat them as the rational actors that they are”.

The Militant is divided into three chapters, with the first taking up the bulk of the book’s hypothesis, and the other two giving it context and a purpose as guidance for the future. Chapter one examines the evolution of the militant’s character over three generations — from the 1990s until the present — through brief case studies. The next chapter contains a structural analysis of Pakistan-based militant groups and charts the evolution of a ‘defensive’ strategy against Pakistani troops to an offensive one. The last chapter looks at the means whereby militants can be reintegrated into society.

A series of annexes rounds off the book with charts giving a bird’s eye view of the politico-religious parties, religious groups, their student wings, and assorted militant groups in Pakistan along with the dates of their founding, their sectarian affiliations, etc.

As per the book’s analysis, the first generation of militants comprised those jihadis who were nurtured post-1979 to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and onward into the 1990s. The promotion of jihad by the state and the media, and the Jamaat-i-Islami — Gen Ziaul Haq’s vehicle of choice to remake society in a conservative mould — created a culture in which “being a passive spectator did not seem like the thing to do”. However, these militants’ strong family ties, and the fact that they were not involved in acts of terrorism within Pakistan made it easier for them to return to their pre-militancy lives. Some did, while others evolved into the second generation.

The latter emerged towards the end of the ’90s but its characteristics acquired more clarity after 9/11 in 2001. The then Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s apparent volte-face on the policy of jihad at the United States’ insistence left the middle and lower rungs of militant groups disillusioned with their leaderships whom they saw as compromising on religious ideals for the sake of expediency. Many of them formed small terrorist groups — some of them violently sectarian in outlook — to express their fury against the state, and resorted to criminal activity to raise funds. Concurrently, there were crucial developments taking place in the tribal areas;

“factions of Al Qaeda [who had escaped from Afghanistan following the US offensive at the end of 2001] lent these activists ideological underpinning and the emerging tribal Taliban offered them sanctuary”.
The third-generation militant, according to the book, “belonged to the educated middle class where people [were] associated with the defence and services sectors …. He was surprised to find that the support structures were already present all around him and the multiple options available to him ranged from joining Al Qaeda, to Taliban and sectarian outfits. This was the ‘lone wolf’ who was given to ‘self-radicalisation’”. Most disturbingly perhaps, the book describes this breed of militant as having a desire for “maximum impact” and being “drawn towards hard-line ideologies” and groups such as self-styled Islamic State. The latest breed of extremist is still an unknown entity, says Rana, and it is “too early to predict how he will behave”.

The militants’ case studies, mostly related in first person by the individuals themselves, offer some interesting, and occasionally poignant, insights. For example, “Arab militants did not trust the militants who had fought in Kashmir and believed that we were affiliated with Pakistani intelligence agencies and had been tasked with spying on them”.

Also, not every would-be jihadi was prepared to rush headlong into the embrace of the Grim Reaper. One first-generation militant says, “Sajid [organiser of a students’ group in college] kept coming up with ways to persuade our frail-hearted friends. A ‘pilgrimage’ to the local graveyard was arranged every two to three days to ‘rid them of the fear of death’”.

A consistent strand that runs through most of the accounts of first and second-generation militants is their families’ opposition to their participation in jihad. In an effort to protect them, many parents would send their children off on preaching tours with the Tableeghi Jamaat, as opposed to violent jihad. Some went to the extent of bringing them back from training camps.

The families of second-generation militants who had turned to acts of terrorism on their own soil were particularly subjected to social censure. One moving account, narrated by the father of a militant who had been involved in major acts of terrorism, says, “Even though it was not our fault … people in the neighbourhood … treat us as if we were terrorists. My other son is educated but no one gives him work. An agony greater than my son becoming a terrorist [is] the piercing stares of people and the fear that no one would marry my daughters because they are a terrorist’s sisters”.

The treacherously complex nature of the problem comes through very clearly in the second section where the writer discusses the nexus between various kinds of groups, their linkages with international militant groups, the overlap in their agendas, as well as the possibilities of their disengagement from militancy. Here, the inclusion of some examples of terrorist attacks coordinated by multiple militant groups — such as the Karachi airport attack or the assault on the Mehran airbase for example — would have enhanced the narrative which at this point reads somewhat like a textbook. That was admittedly its original purpose: as Rana says in the introduction, The Militant was initially planned as a manual for a training course for police and academic institutions.

In the final chapter, which discusses possible templates for the social, ideological and political reintegration of militants, one realises the enormity of the challenge before the state. Rana looks at the example of the Harkatul Jihad-e-Islami (HUJI), the first Pakistani group to launch attacks on the country’s own soil and one that the establishment decided to sever its links with soon after 9/11. Despite being a small group, it took over nine years before HUJI became non-functional, and by then it had spawned a number of other violent groups. That is why, the writer argues, tactical engagement with conventional militant groups, which once served as proxies, is so important.

In other words, when you ride a tiger it is difficult to dismount, and that is where the ‘mainstreaming’ of conventional militant groups — if they renounce violence — comes in. This can perhaps be seen in the latitude allowed to the ultra-right groups that comprise Difa-i-Pakistan Council, or to the fulminations of individuals like Hafiz Saeed around Kashmir Day every year. In fact, Rana examines the example of the Jamaatud Dawa — of which Hafiz Saeed is the emir — in some detail, saying, “The JuD taking part in electoral politics would be an interesting case of an active militant group going full circle and becoming a religious-political party”.

However, this suggests Pakistan’s rightward slide cannot be arrested, that so much water has flowed under the bridge that we must be content to allow the dangerously divisive narrative peddled by such groups — even if they publicly abjure violence — to percolate through society. That is a chilling thought. Also, the apparent mainstreaming of some virulently sectarian groups who, despite their well-established links with violent extremists, continue to be cosseted by the state, raises some uncomfortable questions. However, The Militant does not stray into this controversial territory.

Another critical aspect of militants’ reintegration that the book refers to includes the establishment of a national dialogue forum, with voices of reason belonging to the Deobandi school driving a rational, logic-based narrative to counter extremist ideologies. Rana looks at 1990s Egypt where a debate over the legitimacy of violent jihad among its main militant groups, Al Jihad and Islamic Group, led to them giving up violence. Whether such a debate can take place in Pakistan is a moot point, as the writer himself notes.

The book also touches upon the de-radicalisation of jihadist detainees in prison, an extremely important issue given that prisons can be a fertile ground for incarcerated militants to radicalise fellow inmates, make new contacts outside and even “attempt to form an operational command structure”. It is worth recalling that the principal architects of the Islamic State are said to have formed linkages with each other during their time in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Bucca detention facility.

Rana already has an established reputation as an expert on the subject of militancy, and his latest book will very justifiably further burnish his credentials on that score. With its unremittingly focused look at a little understood aspect of militancy, The Militant will be of immense value to those who are engaged in countering the phenomenon, as well as being a gripping read for anyone interested in the subject. Problems with narrative flow here and there do not take away from what is an extremely important work. Moreover, this is an evolving story, and a sequel is but inevitable.


The Militant: Development of a Jihadi Character in Pakistan

(POLITICS)

By Muhammad Amir Rana

ISBN 978-9699645501

170pp.

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