Written by Muhammad Suleman.

The recent trend in Pakistan is of the gradual penetration of radicalization and religious violent extremism into academic institutions. Traditionally, there were the madaris (religious seminaries) that played a vibrant role in breeding the jihadists and promoting religious violent extremism and terrorism in the society.

Violent extremist and terrorist activities carried out by some students and faculty members of prestigious institutes e.g. IBA, Karachi University, NED, and LUHM, is an emerging and potent challenge for the state. After observing the profiles of these educated jihadists, a large number of these people have pursued their degrees in natural sciences. Many experts argue that education is the best weapon against terrorism, however, the entry of university students into militancy challenges this argument.

These educated militants, inspired by global jihadi organizations, establish small violent organizations at the local level with new names, recruit students and carry out tactical terror activities. In this context, soft targets are chosen to kill the maximum number of people in order to create panic and terror in the society.

Conventional wisdom suggests that jihadists are indoctrinated from madaris as they have a long history of affiliation with these institutes.  During the Afghan Jihad against the former Soviet Union, madaris played the role of breeding factories of the jihadists. Nonetheless, it is also a fact that at that time many of the top leadership and some other significant members of these groups were educated from esteemed academic institutions, even from some western educational institutes. Among them Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are prominent.

A large majority of them were qualified, had completed their degrees and were professionals.  Ahmed Omer Saeed, who was involved in the kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Denial Pearl, had attended one of the prestigious institutes of the United Kingdom, the London School of Economics; Aafia Siddiqui—Al Qaeda’s courier and financier – was a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA. Another, belonging to a Pakistani elite family, Faisal Shahzad, who was the mastermind of a failed bomb attack in Times Square, New York, had an MBA from the University of Bridgeport.

A majority of these jihadists had already attended academic institutes before joining jihadi organizations and established their sleeper cells outside their universities. But recent activities show that the current educated jihadists are trying to establishing their sleeper cells inside their universities while pursuing their educational careers. Moreover, a few university faculty members are also involved in disseminating the so called jihadi propaganda which helps them in recruiting educated jihadists and collecting funds.

These educated militants, inspired by global jihadi organizations, establish small violent organizations at the local level with new names, recruit students and carry out tactical terror activities. In this context, soft targets are chosen to kill the maximum number of people in order to create panic and terror in the society. In this way they become instantly popular at the domestic and global level.  A few of them have established their own violent organization such as Ansar-al-Sharia which is involved in high profile target killings in Karachi. After dismantling of the group by the law enforcement agencies (LEAs), investigation reports suggested that initially the group was inspired by ISIS ideology but later it discarded it and brought themselves under the Al-Qaeda’s banner.

In order to remain in the limelight, target killing, especially of the policemen and other LEA officials, was used as a tactic. The group was consisted of a few students and faculty members of some prestigious institutes such as Karachi University, NED and Dawood University. Most of them were pursuing professional and technical degrees such as information technology, applied physics, engineering etc. It is alarming to see how  educated university students can be prone to militancy. In Pakistan, however, concerned authorities are aware of this threat. A few days ago, the head of the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) Sindh, Additional Inspector General said, “Radicalisation is growing at academic institutes with the CTD assessing that the next generation of militants is more likely to have university education rather than a madrassah background”.

The indoctrination of the minds of students in academic institutions with an extremist ideology utilized by violent extremist actors is extremely worrying.  Students having knowledge and skills in engineering, medical and other scientific subjects, along with their being inspired by the ideologies of ultra-violent terrorist organizations ensure they have the capacity to conduct terrorist activities. The knowledge of engineering subjects enhances their operational capabilities in developing low intensity bombs and other equipment used in terror activities. Moreover, it is more difficult for law enforcement agencies to identify and nab ‘educated radicalised’ youth than madaris students. The question is, why are students of natural sciences more inclined toward radicalization than social sciences students?

Gambetta and Hertog say in their famous book “Engineers of Jihad” that the number of jihadists among engineers is very low while the number of engineers among jihadists is high. Hazem Kandil, writes in his book “Inside the Brotherhood” that more than 20,000 Muslim Brotherhood members possessed master degrees or above. Among them 3,000 have PhD degrees and interestingly all of them had obtained their degrees in natural sciences. He argued that university students of the natural sciences are more vulnerable to join militant organizations as natural sciences subjects are more about facts than debates. So, they are more inclined to accept extreme ideology as facts rather than challenging it. In this way they are easily inclined toward jihad and later exploited and employed by jihadi organizations.

Undeniably, meaningful education is still the best weapon against extremism and terrorism but unfortunately the education system of Pakistan remains weak. The quality of research, teaching and courses or subject material is very poor. Moreover, there is no tradition and space for critical thinking inside or outside the campuses.  Moreover, more than twenty-five million children are still out of schools. The country’s education system needs to create more space for purposeful, critical analysis and awareness based study and debate. Students should be encouraged to participate in co-curricular activities like sports, debates and student unions. Moreover, civic education should be introduced from school to university level. Indeed, if the country wants to get rid of the peril of radicalization and extremism from educational institutions, it would have to create significant space for critical and progressive thinking among students.

Muhammad Suleman is a Research Associate at the Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies (Islamabad), Pakistan. The views are those of the author and not CPGS, Islamabad. He holds master degree in Strategic Studies from National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad and a MPhil degree in Political Science from International Islamic University, Islamabad. He can be reached at shahid.ndu@gmail.com and he tweets @M_S_Shahid. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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