Abstract: Militancy on university campuses is quickly becoming Pakistan’s next major counterterrorism challenge. Since Pakistan launched its National Action Plan to counter terrorism in December 2014, military and paramilitary operations have resulted in the detention and killing of thousands of suspected militants across the country. But there is no strategy yet to confront what officials fear is growing radicalization among Pakistan’s affluent, middle-class population, particularly university students. Although more research is needed before definitive conclusions can be made, Pakistan’s campus radicalization is a trend with global security implications. Militants with higher education are better positioned to plan sophisticated attacks, infiltrate elite government and military circles, and facilitate increased connections between Pakistan-based groups and transnational movements.
The 13th issue of Dabiq, the propaganda magazine of the Iraq- and Syria-based militant group the Islamic State, praises the courage of Tashfeen Malik, the woman of Pakistani origin who along with her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, killed 14 people on December 2, 2015, in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Immediately after the attack, Malik’s violent actions drew attention to her alma mater, Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU), in Multan, Pakistan, where she was a student of pharmacy between 2007 and 2012, and to her enrollment in the local franchise of a network of Islamic schools for women, al-Huda. Multan, in the south of Punjab province, is the base and prime recruiting ground for many militant groups in Pakistan, particularly anti-Shi`a sectarian outfits, and Islamic seminaries in the region are known to be feeders for such groups.
Universities in the area are not immune to militant infiltration. Since the launch of the government’s National Action Plan to counter terrorism in December 2014, the BZU campus and its 35,000-strong student body have been under 24-hour surveillance. Intelligence agency officials have also been stationed at the university to monitor militant activities, particularly recruitment, that may be underway.[a]
As of 2010, the last year for which official statistics are available, there were 132 recognized degree-awarding institutions in Pakistan, up from 118 in 2006. These cater to the growing demand for higher education among Pakistan’s rapidly expanding middle-class—by some estimates, comprising 70 million people, or 40 percent of the population. The percentage of the population enrolled in tertiary education has increased from 4.94 percent in 2005 to 10.36 percent in 2014, indicating the potential for further growth of the higher education sector. Pakistani officials believe that the number of radicalized students might be increasing as a result of concerted attempts by militant groups to recruit on campus, greater exposure of students to extremist ideas via social media, and the low prioritization of campus militancy among law enforcement officials already stretched thin trying to sustain the pace of counterterrorism operations launched over the past year. According to a senior Karachi-based police official who has been involved in counterterrorism investigations, the growing cohort of educated, middle-class youth is an attractive target for recruitment by militant groups.
Comprehensive statistics on the number of suspected militants apprehended from university campuses in recent years are not available. It is also unclear whether the uptick in arrests of university students in 2015 documented in this article points to a growing trend or is the result of increased vigilance on the part of counterterrorism officials operating under the National Action Plan. However, it is important to understand what is driving radicalization on university campuses, particularly as the number of students at risk of exposure to extremist ideologies grows.
While some recently arrested students have been accused of maintaining links to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or anti-Shi`a militant groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), most students who are detained are accused of having ties to transnational militant groups such as al-Qa`ida or Islamist activist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), both of which have historically targeted more educated recruits. For example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the architect of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, had a master’s degree in Islamic studies from Pakistan’s Punjab University. The anti-Western extremist narratives of transnational groups appeal to university students who are prone to anti-Americanism and mainstream resentment against Western troop presence in Afghanistan that has soared across Pakistan since 2001.
Students can also be easily accessed by militant recruiters via social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and video-sharing sites. There are 30 million internet users in Pakistan, and Facebook is the most popular site with 23 million users. The Pakistan government, as of 2012, had blocked more than 15,000 websites, including YouTube, on the grounds of blasphemy and pornography, but the social media feeds of transnational and domestic militant groups have not been censored, driving further recruitment efforts online and exposing new middle-class audiences to extremist rhetoric. More importantly, students offer technical skills—in fields ranging from video editing to engineering—that are increasingly valued by militant groups with sophisticated media strategies and that are planning high-impact attacks.
The potential for domestic militant groups to follow the example of transnational groups and increasingly recruit on university campuses cannot be discounted. A 2013 study on the anti-India group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) found that its recruits tend to be more educated than the average Pakistani. Sixty-three percent have secondary education, and some have enrolled in undergraduate degree programs. Another study found that 17 percent of LeT militants are educated to the intermediate level or higher. As madrassas, the traditional recruiting grounds of militant groups, come under greater government scrutiny under the National Action Plan to counter terrorism, and as urbanization drives the growth of Pakistan’s middle class, university students are likely to be increasingly coveted by militant recruiters.
The threats posed by radicalized students—and the extent of their networks and resources in Pakistan—are exemplified by the case of Saad Aziz, a graduate of the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), one of Pakistan’s top privately owned business schools. In May 2015, Aziz confessed to murdering civil rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, who on April 24, 2015, was shot dead by gunmen in Karachi. Police have also charged him with carrying out or participating in numerous other attacks in Karachi, including a gun attack on April 16, 2015, against Debra Lobo, a U.S. national then working as a professor at a dental college; an attack on May 13, 2015, by eight gunmen against a bus carrying members of the Ismaili community—a sub-sect of Shi`a Islam—during which 46 people were killed; and several small-scale attacks against co-educational schools and security targets.
Aziz’s accomplice for Mahmud’s assassination, according to police statements, was Allure Rehman, who graduated from the engineering department of the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in the northern city of Rawalpindi. Other militant suspects arrested along with Aziz, who police believe are part of the same al-Qa`ida-inspired cell that carried out multiple attacks in Karachi, include Azhar Ishrat, an engineer who graduated from Karachi’s Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology (SSUET), and Haafiz Nasir, who holds a master’s degree in Islamic studies from the University of Karachi, the largest and most prestigious of Pakistan’s public sector universities. While investigating this cell of radicalized students, police also detained two other University of Karachi graduates who had been recruited by al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and were involved in maintaining the group’s website. The suspected militants would gather at the home of a SSUET sports coach who taught students how to assemble IEDs in a makeshift laboratory.
Aziz’s radicalization trajectory echoes that of other students who are recruited by militant groups, according to the Karachi-based police official. While at IBA, Aziz became involved with the university’s religious society Iqra and served on the editorial board of its journal. His accomplice Rehman introduced him to the Lahore-based Islamic movement Tanzeem-e-Islami and subsequently to Abu Zar, an al-Qa`ida operative who recruited Aziz in 2010.[b] In 2011, Aziz traveled to North Waziristan, a tribal area along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, to train with a group headed by Ahmad Farooq, then deputy head of AQIS, himself a former student of Punjab University who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2015 in the tribal agency of North Waziristan. Aziz then returned to Karachi where he worked under a militant commander before starting to plan and launch attacks on his own initiative.
While Aziz and his accomplices were charged for having links with al-Qa`ida, militant groups—particularly anti-Shi`a sectarian outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi—are also recruiting on campuses, typically targeting students that have already been wooed by the student wings of religious political parties.
Role of Religious Political Parties
The recruitment of university students by militant groups has also been spurred by the shift in recent years to more hardline positions by religious political parties with significant student wings such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. These parties have rarely performed well at the polls, winning less than 5 percent of parliamentary seats in the 2013 general elections. But they are now in danger of losing even their limited space in Pakistan’s political spectrum as traditionally centrist parties such as the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) have increasingly adopted conservative positions on issues that have been the hallmark of religious parties. These stances include protests against U.S. drone strikes, refusals to repeal the country’s draconian blasphemy laws, and in 2014, support for reconciliation with the TTP. At the same time, militant groups such as the anti-Shi`a SSP have also started to enter electoral politics. (SSP members in the May 2013 general election fielded candidates as part of the religious coalition Muttahida Deeni Mahaz, which won more than 350,000 votes but no seats in parliament). These newcomers to participatory politics threaten to rob religious parties of their most conservative supporters.
To check this trend, religious political parties are becoming more radical in their approach. This is most evident in the growing extremist links of JI’s student wing, Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT). The IJT maintains an active presence on university campuses, recruiting students, circulating party publications, and inviting participation in lectures and protests organized by the JI. But its members also aim to enforce Islamic codes on campuses, harassing female students who behave in what they perceive to be an un-Islamic manner, discouraging co-educational activities, and intimidating—or attacking—university professors with whose views they disagree. Many university students and recent graduates apprehended on terrorism charges are either current or former members of the IJT, though the group repeatedly denies wrongdoing and rejects allegations that it maintains links with violent extremist and militant groups.
Several examples illustrate the growing links between the IJT and militant groups, and indicate a trend whereby religious political parties recruit university students before channeling them toward militant groups. For example, the Karachi faction of the Punjabi Taliban—historically Punjab-based, anti-India militants who have in recent years targeted Pakistani security forces and engaged in the Afghan conflict—comprises students enrolled at the University of Karachi, many of whom were previously affiliated with the IJT.
In 2013, a student affiliated with the IJT accused Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer in English at BZU—the university that San Bernardino shooter Malik attended—of insulting the Prophet in comments on a Facebook page. Hafeez was subsequently accused of blasphemy, which carries the death penalty in Pakistan, and currently awaits trial. Human rights activists monitoring the case believe Hafeez was targeted by IJT-affiliated students because of his liberal views. In May 2014, two men fatally shot Hafeez’s lawyer, Rashid Rehman, in a killing perceived to be a warning to the legal community against defending people accused of blasphemy and indicating links between campus-based targeting and Islamist militant activities in Multan.
In September 2013, nine people suspected of links to al-Qa`ida were arrested at a hostel in Punjab University in Lahore, a known stronghold of the IJT. These included six potential suicide bombers, two collaborators with technical expertise in information technology and IED production, as well as the coordinator of the cell. While some of the suspected militants lived across the city of Lahore, the handler was based at the Punjab University hostel and would hold meetings with his accomplices on campus. Intelligence officials involved in the arrest at the time accused JI, through its student arm IJT, of accommodating and protecting al-Qa`ida operatives in Pakistan.
Later that year, on November 29, 2013, Abdul Rahman Shujaat, a recent graduate of the NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi, and a former activist of the IJT, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the tribal agency of North Waziristan, then the main base of the TTP. Shujaat hailed from a family with long-standing connections with JI, and his death raised fresh questions about the ties between the religious political party and militant groups, though party workers at the time denied Shujaat’s party affiliation.
A long-running ban against politics and student unions at universities is contributing to the rise of extremist groups on campuses. In 1984, then military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq imposed a ban on student unions and prohibited political parties from maintaining a presence on campuses. Many political parties, including the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), continue to recruit student members, but there are no opportunities for political debate or student elections, and because campus politics are officially prohibited, universities do not have formal means in place to monitor or regulate the campus-based activities of political groups. In this vacuum, religious political parties that have historically had a strong presence on university campuses—particularly the student wing of JI—have consolidated their presence and emerged as the dominant groups on campus. These groups mask some of their activities as religious and cultural interventions; however, the basis of their successful entrenchment on university campuses is the reluctance of university administrators to challenge their religious viewpoints on issues. On coming to power in 2008, then Prime Minister Yousaf Reza Gilani announced that he would lift the ban on student unions, but his directive was not implemented. Bilawal Bhutto, co-chair of the PPP, directed the Sindh provincial government in January 2016 to lift the ban on student politics, though it remains to be seen whether the measure will take effect on this occasion.
Targeted by Hizb ut-Tahrir
HT, a radical international organization with a strong base in the UK, is also increasingly focusing on recruiting university students in Pakistan. In its Pakistan manifesto, the group explains that its goal within the country is to create a new khalifa state to be an example for the others and reunify the Islamic world. Estimates of the group’s size in Pakistan vary from the low thousands to significantly higher in the tens of thousands; globally it has around one million members. The group, which was banned in Pakistan in 2004, has gained notoriety in recent years for seeking to infiltrate the Pakistan military. For example, in 2011, Brigadier Ali Khan, a senior army officer who opposed Pakistan’s alliance with the United States in the global war on terror, was arrested along with four other army officers for recruiting on behalf of HT and was convicted in 2012 by a military court for having links to a banned organization. In 2003, HT had reportedly established links with commandos of the army’s Special Services Group, and in 2009 recruited several army officers, including a lieutenant colonel.
There are now growing indications that the group is targeting university students in Pakistan. In an interview with an academic in 2014, an Islamabad-based HT member explained that the group is seeking to indoctrinate students at Pakistan’s top universities. Police arrested Owais Raheel in October 2015 in Karachi for distributing HT pamphlets at mosques in the city’s elite residential areas of Defence and Clifton. Raheel, who is a graduate of the business school IBA and the engineering school NED, joined the organization in 2007. Counterterrorism police in December 2015 also arrested three professors and a student from Punjab University suspected of ties to HT. One suspect, Ghalib Ata, a management sciences professor, was arrested after a student complained that Ata tried to “brainwash” him. HT is likely to appeal to students, particularly those with middle- and upper-class backgrounds, because of its global reach, sophisticated online communications strategies, and the fact that its members are primarily educated and English-speaking.
No Plan, No Action
When IBA graduate Aziz and his accomplices killed 46 members of the minority Ismaili community in Karachi, they claimed the attack in the name of the Islamic State, the Iraq- and Syria-based militant group that in 2014 acknowledged a wilayat, or province, of its self-styled caliphate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Aziz’s actions indicate the increased potential for attacks in Pakistan’s urban areas by educated militants, and for transnational militant groups, including the Islamic State and AQIS, to exploit the rise of small-scale militant cells that are independent from local militant groups such as the TTP.
Pakistan’s National Action Plan to counter terrorism—a consensus security policy issued by the government and opposition parties as well as military stakeholders in December 2014 following an attack by the TTP against an army-run school in Peshawar in which 141 people were killed—does not address the threat posed by educated militants. The policy takes a securitized approach to counterterrorism and has focused on the launch of military and paramilitary operations in areas where militant groups, primarily the TTP, maintained safe havens, including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Balochistan, and Karachi.
The plan calls for registering madrassas and better monitoring their activities, checking hate speech, preventing the circulation of extremist material, and blocking banned groups’ access to social media platforms. However, police action in this context has been limited to the arrest or temporary detention of low-profile clerics engaging in hate speech, primarily on sectarian grounds. Militant groups continue to use social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which have not been blocked despite the government’s increasingly aggressive and sophisticated approach toward internet filtering and blocking.
There are no provisions in the plan to counter extremist narratives or develop new competing narratives to help stem the recruitment of Pakistani youth. And there are certainly no clauses specific to preventing extremist groups from operating on university campuses. However, private-sector universities that recognize the challenge posed by campus radicalization have started to launch initiatives to counter extremist rhetoric. For example, in February 2016, students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences won a counter-extremism competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a social media campaign urging Pakistani youth to resist radicalization. But such initiatives are rare at public-sector institutions that are most vulnerable to militant infiltration. Ad hoc paramilitary and police operations against militant cells on such campuses in Karachi and Lahore have not led to campus-specific security interventions or wider calls for counter-radicalization initiatives at university campuses.
In the absence of a holistic approach to checking the radicalization of university students, this demographic will continue to pose a growing threat within Pakistan. Militants with higher education will be better positioned to plan sophisticated attacks and infiltrate elite government and military circles. They will also facilitate increased connections between Pakistan-based groups and transnational movements, increasing the ambition and resilience of the former. Moreover, owing to their skills and greater ability for exposure, educated militants will be well placed to operate internationally and carry out attacks outside Pakistan. As such, the evolution of on-campus militancy is shaping up to be one of Pakistan’s major counterterrorism challenges.
Huma Yusuf is the lead Pakistan analyst at Control Risks, a global risk consulting firm, and a Global Fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She writes a column for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper and was previously an award-winning journalist based in Karachi. Follow @humayusuf
[a] It remains unclear whether Malik was radicalized at BZU. She arrived at the university after being raised in Saudi Arabia, where her family converted from the more inclusive sect of Barelvi Islam to the more stringent Deobandi sect. Her university professors believe she was influenced more by her upbringing in Saudi Arabia, but this has not prevented BZU and other universities from coming under greater scrutiny since Malik launched her attack in California. See Declan Walsh, “Tafsheen Malik was a ‘Saudi girl’ who stood out at a Pakistani university,” New York Times, December 6, 2015.
[b] Abu Zar was subsequently arrested on November 30, 2013, at a hostel of Punjab University, the oldest public university in the country and based in Lahore, for harassing academic staff and maintaining links with al-Qa`ida. See “Police arrests many students from Punjab University,” Pakistan Tribe, November 30, 2013.
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