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Frustrated strivers in Pakistan turn to jihad

Frustrated strivers in Pakistan turn to jihad
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First Published: Sun, Feb 28 2010. 09 20 PM IST
Updated: Sun, Feb 28 2010. 09 20 PM IST
Lahore, Pakistan: Umar Kundi was his parents’ pride, a young man from a small town who made it to medical school in the big city. It seemed like a story of working class success, living proof in this unequal society that a telephone operator’s son could become a doctor.
But things went wrong along the way. On campus Kundi fell in with a hardline Islamic group. His degree did not get him a job, and he drifted in the urban crush of young people looking for work. His early radicalization helped channel his ambitions in a grander, more sinister way.
Instead of healing the sick, Kundi went on to become one of Pakistan’s most accomplished militants. Working under a handler from al Qaeda, he was part of a network that carried out some of the boldest attacks against the Pakistani state and its people last year, the police here say. Months of hunting him ended on 19 February, when he was killed in a shootout with the police at the age of 29.
Kundi and members of his circle—educated strivers who come from the lower middle class—are part of a new generation that has made militant networks in Pakistan more sophisticated and deadly.
Like Kundi, many came of age in the 1990s, when jihad was state policy—aimed at challenging Indian control in Kashmir—and jihadi groups recruited openly in universities. Under the influence of al Qaeda, their energies have been redirected and turned inward, against Pakistan’s own government and people.
The result has been deadly. In 2009, militant attacks killed 3,021 Pakistanis, three times as many as in 2006. The issue is urgent. Pakistan is in the midst of a youth bulge, with more than a million people a year pouring into the job market, and the economy is not growing fast enough to absorb them.
Kundi’s journey and the ways he veered off course parallel Pakistan’s own recent history. Born to Pashtun parents, he grew up in a small town in south-western Punjab. His father’s monthly income of $255 (Rs10,395) put them at the lower edge of Pakistan’s middle class. But life still took patience. Meat was a luxury. His father could afford to visit him in medical school only once.
He brought that past—part shyness, part shame—with him to college in Faisalabad. The city was an explosion of things modern. To ease the adjustment, young people join student groups, which help them navigate life—how to use a bank, which mosque to pray in —but also offer protection.
When Kundi arrived at Punjab Medical College in the late 1990s, he chose a group with an Islamic focus, according to a friend, Muhammad, who asked that his last name not be used because he feared association with a militant. The group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), ran charities and prayer meetings. It also offered training for jihad in Kashmir. LeT’s blend of adventure and patriotism appealed to restless young men.
When al Qaeda came to Pakistan, Kundi did not have to go far to find it. The US invasion had pushed many of its leaders over the border, including Abu Zubaydah, a member of Osama bin Laden's inner circle. In 2002, he surfaced in Allied Hospital in Faisalabad, where Kundi was working. He was seeking treatment and preaching against Pakistan's government for supporting the US. His audience loved it, Muhammad said.
LeT’s activities now seemed small, and embarrassingly pro-government. Kundi began to argue with Saeed, the group's leader, picking fights with him in public about LeT's mission. The US, he argued, was killing Muslims, and Lashkar was doing nothing for them.
His frustration coincided with a bitter discovery. His father, who had retired, could not pay for schooling beyond Kundi's basic medical degree. Without a specialization, Kundi faced a salary at a public hospital of less than $100 a month, too low to support a wife and children, a humiliating prospect.
It was 2005, the year he disappeared.
Conventional theory on militant organizations says groups have hierarchies, members and sometimes territory. But in Pakistan after 11 September 2001, those lines blurred. Of the half a dozen groups that were active in Punjab in the 1990s, many had splintered by the middle of the next decade, divided by differences over, among other things, whether jihad required attacking the Pakistani state.
Now, most acts of terrorism are carried out by loose associations of individual militants, making militancy more fluid.
“It's more about networks than formal organizations now,” said an American defence official who studies the issue. “Their attacks are focused on aspects of the state in a way they haven't been ever before.”
According to the police investigation, Kundi was one of eight jihadis under a man named Sheik Issa al-Masri, Arabic for “the Egyptian”. Most were born around 1980 and had come to jihad after the 11 September attacks.
They moved between cities in Punjab and Waziristan, an area near the Afghan border where militants from al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups have set up bases.
They came together for attacks but more often for crimes to pay for their militant activities.
In Faisalabad, Kundi extorted a textile mill owner. In Lahore, his friend Asif Mehmoud stole cars. According to a police interrogation of Mehmoud, one kidnapping that brought $60,000 was split among themselves and Issa.
In an indication of how fluid their lives were, Mehmoud, a graduate of Lahore’s most prestigious engineering university, also held a string of ordinary jobs, as a repairman for textile equipment, a welding instructor in a cutlery institute, a worker in a call centre. His resume lists two hobbies: cooking and current affairs.
Issa, who is on the US’ most-wanted list, provided the early intellectual justification for attacking Pakistan, a development the American defence official described as “very significant”. It was a common approach for al Qaeda in other Muslim countries, but a sharp departure for Pakistan, whose militants had fought Soviets, Indians in Kashmir and Pakistani Shias, but had never gone all-out against the state itself.
“Sheik Issa said the Pakistani army has become the well-wisher of America,” stated a police interrogation report, citing a 29-year-old member of the network arrested last year. “It’s mandatory that we should give maximum losses to the agencies of Pakistan. This is also jihad.”
Their strikes were skilful. In last year's attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team, led by another educated young man from a working-class family, a 29-year-old nursing assistant, Aqeel Ahmed, only three top people out of about 14 attackers knew the nature of the target, according to a police official who investigated the attack. The rest believed that the bus they were ambushing held an American delegation.
When the attack on the army headquarters unfolded last October, Ahmed, the nursing assistant, was at the centre of it. His father, Nazir, watched it on television. A photograph of his son’s face flashed on the screen. It was the first glimpse he had had of his boy since he disappeared in 2007. He froze, overcome with shock and shame.
Since then, a question has tormented him. His son earned As in high school, had a decent salary in a military hospital and received spending money from an uncle in Canada. How could he have gone so wrong?
A Pakistani military psychiatrist is trying to answer that question. In a study of 24 young men who were involved in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, the psychiatrist, Brigadier Mowadat Hussain Rana, has found that they tend to be the younger or middle siblings in families of six or more children. The households are not always poor but are often violent, and the youngsters get lost in the chaos.
“He’s that boy who is not in a rigorous system of rule setting,” Rana said in an interview in Rawalpindi. “He becomes someone who drifts, who spends afternoons hitting stray dogs, and no one notices.”
His parents, at their wits' end, take him to a mullah, hoping to instil discipline, the theory goes. The two develop a close relationship, sometimes even sexual, giving the boy the attention he has long craved. The mullah then introduces him to others, men who make him feel important, as if he is part of something bigger than himself.
For Kundi, an emotional young man with thwarted ambitions, militancy had a psychological pull. Parvez of the National Counterterrorism Authority said militants he had interviewed called jihad an addiction, a habit that made them feel powerful in a world that ignored them.
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First Published: Sun, Feb 28 2010. 09 20 PM IST
More Topics: Pakistan | Jihad | Militancy | Terrorism | Militants |