Intelligence agencies have started keeping a close eye on Karachi’s academic institutions too along with madrassas following the recent arrest of three university students in connection with high-profile terrorist attacks.
The alleged involvement of young men who had graduated from reputed universities in terrorist activities indicates that al Qaeda and Taliban groups are recruiting educated youth from the upper-middle class.
The three men were nabbed by the police’s counter-terrorism department, which described them as a local al Qaeda network comprising university graduates.
The police said the group was involved in an attack on a bus carrying members of the Ismaili community on May 13 near Safoora Chowrangi in Karachi in which at least 44 people were killed.
They also maintained that the arrested men were responsible for the murder of rights activist Sabeen Mahmud and attacks on the Bohra community, Rangers and police.
“Apparently, al Qaeda and the Taliban are penetrating academic institutions under a strategy,” said an intelligence official who has been monitoring extremist groups in the city.
“Al Qaeda-linked outfits have successfully gained sympathisers not only at the University of Karachi but also at the NED University of Engineering and Technology and other prestigious universities including private ones too.”
Security officials and experts say that terrorist outfits have been making inroads in the academic institutions of the city for a long time and it was only now that the issue had come into the open.
Al-Qaeda-linked groups have been working at academic institutions and recruiting middle- and upper-middle class young students for years but the issue went underreported for many reasons including too much focus on madrassas.
Muhammad Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, said the threat of militants, who were from the upper-class and studying in prestigious academic institutions, had been highlighted several times in the past.
“It’s a new brand of militants in the country and they are gradually growing,” Rana told The News.
“They are self-radicalised individuals who are mainly influenced by militant ideologies and not formally affiliated with any local or global militant network.”
Interviews with university teachers and students suggest that terrorist groups have been working in many public and private universities and mainly focusing on recruiting students studying computer sciences, applied physics and applied chemistry.
“The knowledge learned in certain courses of these subjects can come in handy in carrying out terrorist activities,” said a teacher at the University of Karachi.
Moving on to individuals
Security analysts believe that al Qaeda and Taliban groups initially found their sympathisers among the student wings of religious parties, especially the Jamaat-e-Islami. But later they shifted their focus to individuals with affluent and educated backgrounds.
Rana said the case of the Jundullah was important in understanding the stream of urban militancy involving educated and affluent youth.
He noted that the Jundullah had emerged from the JI and its sister organisation, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba. The Punjabi Taliban, he added, were breakaway factions of the Deobandi and Salafi jihadist groups.
Naimat Khan, a journalist, concurs.
“Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda initially eyed ‘ripe cherries’ in the religious parties, including the JI, but found them hard to digest,” Khan informally explained.
“Then they moved towards the ‘raw’ stuff in form of the upper class ‘burger’ youth studying in prestigious institutes like the IBA,” he added.
“It’s easier for the militants to brainwash the sons of The Cactus restaurant owner or a senior police official.”
The recent arrest of three suspects, one of whom, Saad Aziz, is the son of The Cactus restaurant owner and the involvement of Awais Jakhrani, son of additional inspector general Ali Sher Jakhrani, in the Pakistan Navy dockyard attack in Karachi, corroborate the change in the militant groups’ strategy.
JI splinter group
Police and intelligence officials say that recruitment of university students by terrorists had first come into focus after the arrest of Dr Akmal Waheed and Dr Arshad Waheed in April 2004, two Pakistani brothers linked to al Qaeda.
They were accused of attacking the convoy of the Karachi corps commander and financially aiding as well as harbouring Jundullah activists, but thencleared of these charges.
In March 2008, Arshad Waheed was killed by a US drone strike in Wana, South Waziristan while his brother, was sentenced to three years in prison in the United Arab Emirates in 2011 for running a jihadist organisation there and having direct communication links with a senior al Qaeda member.
Interestingly, al Qaeda media wing, Al-Sahab, had released a 40-minute compilation video commemorating Arshad Waheed. It was also the first time that the terrorist organisation had used Urdu in a video instead of Arabic.
In January 2011, Raja Omar Khattab, a senior police officer, had unearthed a militant group that was using the names “Punjabi Taliban” and “Badar Group” and operating in academic institutions, especially the University of Karachi, by arresting three university dropouts.
The group was formed in 2007 by the expelled members of IJT after a disagreement with the JI leadership over the ideology of jihad.
Several members of the group, including Abdul Rehman Shujaat, Zohair Imtiaz Kudwai, Omair Imtiaz Kudwai, Azib Imtiaz Kudwai, Misbah Usmani, Mohammad Shabbir and Imran Nazeer, were reportedly killed in drone attacks in the tribal areas.
Shujaat, a graduate of the NED University of Engineering and Technology and a former leader of the IJT, was killed on November 29, 2013 in a drone attack in Miramshah, North Waziristan.
The JI has clarified several times that its dissident student activists were no longer associated with the party.
“The defection of such members from the party should be seen as individual acts of dissent,” said a JI Karachi leader. “Many former party activists in Karachi associated with jihadist groups have been gone ‘missing’. We don’t know whether they have been killed in fighting in the tribal areas or picked up by the intelligence agencies,” he added.
However, JI and IJT insiders claim that the network of the group has been shattered by the security agencies.