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Tracking extremism

Updated April 23, 2017

THERE is apparently no direct link between the brutal lynching of Mashal Khan, the arrest of Naureen Leghari, a convert to the so-called militant Islamic State (IS) group, and the surrender of Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA) leader Ehsanullah Ehsan. Together, however, these incidents may depict varying expressions of tendencies in extremism and terrorism.

Mashal Khan’s case was an expression of collective behaviour of extremism, which can be invoked and exploited by interest groups for mala fide intentions. This can also be called the ‘criminal exploitation of extremism’, in which criminals take advantage of the masses’ religious sentiments, knowing that the state and its institutions will hesitate to take action. These attitudes are creating a conducive environment for ultra- and hyper-extremist groups to operate in the vulnerable spaces that exist in every class and institution in Pakistan.

Naureen was not the first victim of the violent extremist tendencies in the country. She was arrested in Lahore, while she was travelling to Syria for the nusra (support) of IS. Her case is similar to that of the Muslim diaspora youth in the West, who are recruited in cyberspace with their families having little idea. In Pakistan, radicalism is mainly a family phenomenon. The process starts with a male member, and gradually, female members of the family transform. Naureen’s inclination towards IS is a matter of concern, as her family was not aware of her transformation. This is the first time evidence has been found that the Middle Eastern terrorist group is targeting educated Pakistani youth. The potential for IS influence to spread, particularly on campuses and amongst the upper-middle classes, has not been measured yet. The overall socio-religious atmosphere and activities of radical groups on campus are alarming. The problem is not confined to a few universities; this is a story of every campus.


People are becoming more sensitive about their religious and sectarian identity.


The contradictory statements given by Punjab’s Counterterrorism Department and the Inter-Services Public Relations about Naureen’s travel to Syria reflect how the police handles such sensitive cases and manipulates information. To get credit and to justify huge budgets, counterterrorism departments manipulate information and exaggerate reports of the killing and arrest of militants. Very little is known about the terrorist activities they were involved in.

The surrender of the JuA leader is big news, as the group was involved in major attacks during the past few months. The JuA has denied the reports about his surrender and claims he was arrested at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Whatever the case, this is an undeniable success. What is to be seen now is how security institutions deal with the aftermath.

All these three incidents were reported within a week. The picture emerging from foreign and Pakistani media warns of how extremism in society has reached a level that it can motivate a mob to lynch anyone without proof. And while it is fine if a few terrorists surrender, it does not indicate that the entire problem has been eliminated, as terrorist organisations such as IS still have human resource. Naureen is an example. Some suspicious minds may go a step further and see the surrender of the JuA spokesman as part of the process of converting the ‘bad’ into the ‘good’, as happened in the case of the Punjabi Taliban leader, Asmatullah Muawiya. He was found to have been involved in major terrorist attacks in the country but later detached himself from the anti-Pakistan groups.

The state and the common Pakistani may not agree with the picture. Extremism changes people’s perspectives. The social and religious imagination becomes narrow, if not abnormal. One may argue that these are three separate incidents, and have nothing to do with each other. One may bring statistical evidence to support the argument and point to the number of terrorists that have been killed since the last attack in the country. The overall decrease in such attacks may also be a good reason to claim success. Naureen’s case may be explained away as one isolated incident, as IS is not present in Pakistan. As far as Mashal Khan is concerned, the violence that led to his murder may be ‘justified’ as a sudden reaction of the faithful. This is how we think.

These three incidents could constitute good case studies for understanding the dynamics of extremism, crime, negligence, terrorism and counterterrorism strategies. However, examining such phenomenon scientifically is not possible in a society that is not ready to accept science as a pure discipline in its educational institutions.

The little work on the subject done by local and international scholars indicates that the common man is becoming more sensitive about his religious and sectarian identity and affiliation. Even the expression of religion is becoming more sectarian, with different identities expressing themselves more vociferously, to the denial of others, facilitated by sectarian parties allying with mainstream parties, the presence of sect-based madressahs, and the changing geopolitical rivalry between Shia Iran and Wahabi Saudi Arabia. As old groups like the Pakistani Taliban decline, other groups like IS make inroads, relying on the resources of Pakistani Taliban militants.

Religious rituals once participated in by all are now are claimed by some, excluding others. Almost all sects have their rituals or events marked publicly to show strength. In southern Punjab, for instance, shrines and Sufism were a form of religious expression that people took as cultural expression; but now, even in that ‘city of saints’, intolerance is rising, expressed in a narrow religious-social context. In this process of the transformation of religious expression, religious and sectarian minorities are suffering greatly.

However, the state has a counterargument and claim to make. The National Action Plan was formed to address such deep-seated issues. Operation Zarb-e-Azb and now Operation Raddul Fasaad have rooted out the militant infrastructure, and physical spaces have shrunk too. While the state cannot fix the society’s thinking process, it can take several initiatives, from educational to security sector reforms. But who is the state? From where are its operators coming? Do they have the will or the vision to reverse the processes?

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2017