EVER SINCE terrorism — specifically the jihadist variety — has stalked the globe, a common refrain has been that radicalised young men need to be educated and given job opportunities to steer them away from the murderous path they have chosen.
But as we have learned in attack after attack, many of those responsible have been not just educated, but well-to-do. The mantra of ‘education and jobs’ rang particularly hollow in the aftermath of the recent mayhem that took place in Sri Lanka a fortnight ago: all the suicide bombers involved in the terror attacks were from well-off families, and some had gone abroad to study.
Of course the classic example of well-heeled, well-educated terrorists remains the group of 19 (mostly Saudi) Arabs who flew the commercial jets into New York’s World Trade Centre, as well as the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
In Pakistan, we have the case of Omar Saeed Sheikh who confessed to kidnapping and beheading the American journalist, Daniel Pearl, in 2002. Educated at Lahore’s exclusive Aitchison College and the London School of Economics, he confessed to his crime in court and was sentenced to death. Seventeen years later, he’s still in jail, with his appeal yet to be heard.
All the men involved in the Sri Lanka attacks were from well-off families.
Saad Aziz of Karachi is another example of a rich, well-educated and highly placed young man who chose terrorism over the good life. Owner of a successful restaurant, he has a degree from the Institute of Business Education, Pakistan’s leading business school. Apart from leading the attack on a bus in which 54 Ismailis were slaughtered, he also assassinated Sabeen Mahmud, the gifted young woman who created the liberal space popularly known as T2F in Karachi. Recently, he was convicted of attempting to kill an American professor.
There are many others in the Muslim world who fall into the category of educated, well-off killers. Two brothers who blew themselves up recently in Colombo, together with scores of victims, were members of the Sri Lankan elite, and sons of a billionaire.
In many of these cases, the young men involved know little about Islam as they follow the teachings of violent men and their calls for jihad. In Sri Lanka, the little-known National Thowheed Jamath apparently had the support of the militant Islamic State group. According to experts, many jihadist groups help each other in carrying out complex operations.
Along with the elements of money and education that link these individuals, the other common thread is adherence to Wahabism and its more extreme form, Salafism. Both are propagated by Saudi Arabia through the vast network of madressahs and mosques it supports across the world. From Jakarta to Johannesburg, clerics often paid by Riyadh preach sermons full of hate towards non-Muslims.
Sri Lankans have often complained of the way Saudi Arabia is radicalising young Muslims. Who funded the recent attacks — not a cheap undertaking — remains a mystery. But it is a fact documented by foreign observers and journalists that the kingdom (together with Kuwait, Turkey and several Western powers) supplied extreme Islamist groups with arms and cash during the bloody Syrian civil war.
Despite the clear evidence of the links between extremism and Saudi money, the West remains oblivious to reality. When a tub is overflowing, the normal instinct is to shut the tap, not place buckets to catch the water as it drips over the top. But as we learned in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Saudi Arabia occupies a special place in the heart of the American establishment. Hours after the Twin Towers came down, a special flight picked up a number of Saudi VIPs across America to fly them home. This was at a fraught time when all commercial flights had been grounded.
Members of Pakistani religious groups like the Tablighi Jamaat have been visiting Sri Lanka for years, trying to convert Buddhists. On a flight from Colombo to Karachi a few years ago, I found myself seated next to one of them who, assuming I was Sri Lankan, offered to give me a brief lesson about religion. He shut up when I snapped at him in Urdu that I didn’t need any lectures from him.
Soon, he and his companions took over the space between the seats to pray, causing great inconvenience to passengers wanting to use the toilets. But when the speaker system broadcast the call to prayer in the luggage hall after we had landed, not one of them bothered to pray.
However, we are faced with a conundrum: experts are unanimous in suggesting that education and jobs are the answer to jihadist radicalisation. But as we have just seen, some of the deadliest attacks have been carried out by well-educated and well-off men. So how do we remove the poison that has infected them?
Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2019