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Militancy in Pakistan Getting Younger and Urbane



By Mahendra Ved

March 03, 2014

Militancy in Pakistan is increasingly getting urban and attracting the educated. Besides its numerous local affiliates, the most significant beneficiary is Al Qaida.

That Pakistan is home to several Islamist militant groups with Al Qaida connections is not a secret. Several top-ranking foreign militants belonging to the transnational terror franchise, including Osama bin Laden, have been apprehended on Pakistani soil. It is also not a secret that while thousands of impoverished tribal youths recruited from the rural areas have provided the foot soldiers for the ‘jihad’ against Afghanistan and India and for sectarian violence, the ‘brains’ are coming from the urban areas.

The recent discovery of what Dawn newspaper (Feb 14, 2014) has called an “organized network” of Al Qaida by Karachi Police indicates that Al Qaida is recruiting university students from numerous middle-class Karachi localities, focusing on young talent proficient in information technology.

They are part of a new Al Qaida that has taken root in Pakistan, one whose influence is no longer confined to the distant mountains. The port city of Karachi, a metropolis of 18 million people that is Pakistan’s economic capital, has become a significant militant hub and source of funding. Thousands of madrasas in the city provide a steady stream of new recruits and suicide bombers.

Militancy has come a long way since the students recruited from thousands of madrasas that dotted Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan provided the fighting force against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul, a process that was fully backed, politically, monetarily and militarily by the West. Even a reference to this has become passé as the US-led NATO forces begin to leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, without even a mention of the “war on terror” that was unleashed after 9/11.

Pending the withdrawal, the battle for the mind of Pakistan is seriously on. The discovery of the organised network has put the spotlight on urban religious militancy. Its spread is indicated by the fact that most of the earlier focus had been on extremist madrasas. Now, besides Karachi, discoveries have been made in Lahore as well.

Undoubtedly, madrasas continue to be the recruiting ground. But the urban educated youth plucked from universities and colleges and selected to run the infrastructure of ‘jihad’ are perhaps more dangerous than the Jihadi foot soldier, providing the brains for transnational terrorism.

Al Qaeda recruits these young educated Pakistanis to groom them for leadership roles and to provide the technical and logistical support structure for global militancy.

Al Qaida has gained strength on the ground despite the wave of US drone attacks that have killed many of its leaders. A flood of recruits from Pakistan’s well-educated urban middle class — young people, professionals, and retired military officers —have flocked to its strongholds in the tribal areas. This new generation of militants, committed to global jihad, act as a magnet for Muslim radicals from across the world.

The educated militant is politically aware, media and tech -savvy and ideologically driven. Its role is reflected in increasing use of radio and social media. The mainstream media too has been providing a platform to the spokesmen of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and other proscribed groups. Speaking from undisclosed locations, they are able to effectively articulate their viewpoints, while the state that has proscribed them, remains silent.

The picture we have is one of a phenomenon that is not exactly new. Also, educated youths of different nationalities from the West, of the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany among them, have been attracted and have received training and motivation in Pakistan. Among them is David Coleman Headley, partly of Pakistani origin, who played a key role in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American, spent weeks in Waziristan with the group before his attempt to blow up Times Square in 2010. It is hardly surprising that the Pakistani Taliban has threatened to attack American cities.

The phenomenon of militancy among Pakistan’s urban educated has a long history. There were leftist groups who rose against the government in order to overthrow it and those who supported the ‘nationalists’ struggle in Balochistan. They were driven by Marxist-Leninist ideology of different variants and focused on the streets and university campus.

The important thing is that although they were dubbed as terrorists by the state because they used violent means, they did not kill unarmed civilians. They never indulged in acts of slaughtering innocent people in mosques, shrines and markets. And thanks to their leftist ideology, they did not engage in sectarian killing or targeted the religious minorities.

This marks them out as totally a different lot compared to the current wave of right-wing, religion-driven extremism that has its roots in the policy pursued by former military ruler Zia-ul Haq and Pakistan’s involvement in the ‘jihad’ against the then Moscow-backed regime in Afghanistan.

Al Qaida provided the global platform to the Pakistani youth and 9/11 consolidated this trend. Omar Shaikh, convicted in 2002 for the murder of the Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in Karachi, belonged to a well to do urban middleclass family. He had studied in prestigious British schools and at the equally prestigious Atchison in Lahore. He had a degree in economics from the London School of Economics.

Shaikh had well-known links with a number of clandestine jihadist organisations and had already been jailed in 1993 by an Indian court for entering India and taking part in the kidnapping of a number of foreign tourists to raise money for the so-called ‘Kashmir jihad’. Shaikh was released in 1999 when jihadis hijacked an Indian airliner and negotiated the release of Shaikh and others from Indian prisons.

Shaikh’s links with extremist terror outfits quickly called for a reassessment of the way terrorism’s demographics were understood. But the trend has only stepped up in the recent years. Indeed, after Shaikh, more cases have emerged in which the arrested or killed extremists have turned out to be members of educated middle-class families.

The only exception to this trend is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young chief of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). He attacked the Taliban during the recent Karachi Cultural Festival, something that demanded courage, considering that his mother Benazir was killed by the same militants in 2007. Reports indicate that he is facing opposition on this score from his father, former president Asif Ali Zardari, and other PPP leaders.

Islamist militant outfits played a key role in the elections in May last year. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) rode to power on the tacit support it received from these outfits that targeted the rival parties. At least a hundred political activists, particularly of the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) were killed.

The most prominent apologist for the TTP and other outfits is cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan. Along with Islamist parties, he also benefitted from the selective violence unleashed by the militants.

Considering that the charismatic Khan is himself a product of the urban educated middle class that idolizes him, the phenomenon of this class producing more recruits for Al Qaida and their Pakistani franchises can only get strengthened in the foreseeable future.

Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based writer and columnist.