Islamism enticing many of Pakistan’s best and brightest
Why are increasing numbers of educated young Pakistanis falling for the message of hate peddled by extremists online and among their social circle?
“They had two (explosive-filled) jackets and four hand grenades and the jackets were to be used for an attack on some church during Easter, and I was to be the suicide bomber,” the woman says, speaking to a rolling camera.
This would-be suicide bomber is Noreen Leghari, a second-year medical student from Hyderabad, who is telling her story at a press briefing held at the headquarters of the Pakistan Armed Forces in Rawalpindi. She is educated, from an affluent background… and an alleged Islamic State jihadist.
Leghari disappeared on February 10 from the home town of her father, a professor of chemistry. Days later, her brother received a text message which the military says was from Leghari in Syria.
On April 14, the military raided the suspected boltholes of terrorists in the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore. A gunfight erupted, a suspected terrorist was killed and a young woman was taken into custody. The young woman was later identified as Leghari.
The army said Islamic State jihadists had been in conversation with Leghari on Facebook. “Social media have become a tool for Islamic State to lure in people. They are using fake, factitious videos to gain the sympathy of ignorant people,” Sanaullah Abbasi told Asia Times. Abbasi is an Additional Inspector General with the counterterrorism department of Sindh province in southeastern Pakistan.
Alarmingly, Leghari is one of a stream of educated young Pakistanis that have fallen into the clutches of the extremists.
The Sindh police counter-terrorism department recently studied the backgrounds of terrorist suspects held in Karachi. Of the 500 inmates studied, 64 held master’s degrees and another 70 had bachelor’s degrees. Before their incarceration, 117 were earning 50,000 rupees (US$477) a month or more. Asked how they became radical Islamists, 197 inmates said a religious leader had cultivated their sentiments and 128 said friends or peers with radical views had influenced them.
Tariq Khosa is a former director-general of the Federal Investigation Agency, a body that investigates white collar crime. He says young Pakistanis are vulnerable. “They get much exhaustive exposure to different narratives that can easily ensnare them toward radicalism,” he says. “Tolerance and debate are not being encouraged. People are trying to force their convoluted views on others.”
Influenced by access to unfettered commentary online and the chorus of voices in the community urging extremism, it appears the stream of educated youth that are sympathetic to radical voices has become something of a torrent.
Social media have become a tool for Islamic State to lure in people. They are using fake, factitious videos to gain the sympathy of ignorant people
Among the eight gunmen that opened fire on a bus carrying Ismaili Muslims in Karachi in May 2015 was Saad Aziz, a graduate of the city’s prestigious Institute of Business Administration. Some 46 people were killed, including women and children.
Last year the intelligence agencies busted a group of Islamic State jihadists led by Hafiz Umar, an electronic engineer. One of his brothers, Hafiz Nasir, whom a military court has sentenced to death for his part in the Karachi bus attack, holds a master’s degree in Islamic studies from the University of Karachi.
Another of the attackers was Ali Rehman, a graduate of the National University of Sciences and Technology in Islamabad, who is alleged to have brainwashed Saad.
The leader of the kidnappers that seized the son of the late governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in Lahore in August 2011 was Usman Basra, a graduate of the University of Engineering and Technology. He was also involved in the abduction of an American aid worker, Warren Weinstein.
The number two figure in Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, who was killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan in January 2015, was a Pakistani, Raja Muhammad Salman. He had studied at the International Islamic University in Islamabad.
The man that stepped into his shoes was Atif Ghori, who also studied at the International Islamic University. Counterterrorism officials tell Asia Times that poor government, social injustice and corruption disturb educated young Pakistanis, but that the paucity of practical, peaceful solutions to these problems frustrates their urge to do good. Their eagerness is channeled into radical, violent ways of changing the world. If the rule of law is to prevail, new methods of harnessing the potential of educated young people must be found.