Radicalisation of Campuses in Pakistan

By  Farhan Zahid, RSIS
Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses
Volume 9, Issue 11 | November 2017

Radicalisation of youth at various university  campuses in Pakistan and the participation of a select few in militancy are a serious concern. This trend has generally been associated with the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group although it was pioneered by Al-Qaeda. While youth radicalisation is also not entirely new, it is a continuation of a historical trend that has existed since the 1990s. In this regard, the case study of youth radicalisation at the International Islamic University (IIUI) is instructive. Though IIUI is not the only university that
faces the problem of youth radicalisation, it presents policy-relevant insights into the environment that facilitates radicalisation  and increases youth vulnerability to militant
recruitment. .


Involvement of educated youth in terrorism is not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War, a number of left-leaning terrorist groups comprising educated individuals carried out terrorist attacks in South America (e.g. Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, Shining Path and others) and Western Europe (e.g. the Red Army Faction, Red Brigades, Communist Combatant Cells). The case of Islamist militancy is no different in this connection. A number of leaders of prominent jihadist groups are highly educated. For instance, Osama Bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, had a Bachelors in Civil Engineering from King Abdul Aziz
University. His successor, Ayman Al-Zawahiri also has a Masters in Surgery from Cairo University. Similarly, the head of IS Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, likewise has a PhD in Islamic theology from Baghdad University. Similarly, Anwar Al-Awlaki of the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was a Civil Engineering graduate from Colorado State University and had a Masters in agricultural economics from New Mexico State University. Following the September 2001 attacks in the US and the ensuing War on Terror, a number of Pakistani jihadist groups formerly involved in Kashmir and anti-Shia militancy joined ranks with Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) to wage „jihad‟ against the Pakistani state and its security institutions. This gave birth to a new breed of militant leadership in Pakistan that comprises local Pakistani radicalised youth, expatriate Pakistanis such as Omar Saeed Shaikh and Dr. Aafia Siddiquie as well as Al-Qaeda-linked foreign jihadists. In the last three years, a number of selfradicalised cells and „lone-wolf‟ individuals affiliated with the Islamic State of Khurasan (ISK), IS‟s Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter or Wilayat Khurasan, have been neutralised in Pakistani major cities such as Lahore, Karachi, Sialkot, Peshawar and Quetta. Most of these cells comprised of university and college-educated youth, leading to speculation that a new breed of educated jihadists is emerging in Pakistan under the IS
banner. However, this is factually incorrect: IS is not the only global militant organisation that has galvanised support from radicalised, educated youth in Pakistan nor is this trend entirely new. It is the continuation of a historical trend that started with the fascination of young Islamists with Al-Qaeda’s open challenge to the US and its allies.

In Pakistan, jihadist cells linked with various militant organisations have been busted in reputed institutions such as the Karachi University, Institute of Business Administration (IBA), NED University of Engineering and Technology, Punjab University, and Mehran University of Engineering and Technology. For instance, two Al-Qaeda cells were neutralised in the hostels of Punjab University in 2015. Similarly, the arrest of the Saad Aziz led militant cell involved in the Saffora Goth massacre of 43 Ismaili-Shias in 2014 in Karachi is another case in point. More recently, another Al-Qaeda linked militant cell, Jamaat Ansar Al-Shriah, was neutralised in Karachi. The militants studied at NED, Sir Syed and Karachi universities. Given the above, the larger issue that warrants introspection is youth radicalisation on university campuses in Pakistan and how this is linked with the country‟s jihadist landscape. While it would not be right to single out any one university and make a case out of it, it is also true that some university campuses in Pakistan appear to be more prone to radicalisation as compared to others. The case of the International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI) is an instructive case study in this regard. This article studies the case of IIUI with respect to youth radicalisation, and the susceptibility of some students to jihadist recruitment.

Historical Context

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the subsequent anti- Soviet Jihad (1979-89) had not only devastated Afghan society but also adversely affected Pakistan‟s social fabric. It resulted in growing intolerance, religious conservatism and the spread of jihadi concepts. It can be argued that the 9/11 attacks and subsequent „war on terror‟ were just the triggering factors for jihad against the Pakistani state. The involvement of jihadists of Pakistani origins in global jihad predates the 9/11 attacks. For instance, both Ramzi Yousaf, an Afghan War veteran who masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Khalid Shaikh Mohammad (KSM), the main architect of the abortive Operation Bojinka in Manila, are Pakistani nationals. (KSM was later named the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.) During this period, former President General Zia-ul-Haq (1978- 1988) took various steps towards the Islamisation of Pakistani state and society. A number of new laws such as the Hudood Laws 1979, Zakat and Ushr Ordinance 1980 and amendments to Blasphemy Laws 1986 were introduced.

Many seminaries linked to jihad in Afghanistan were opened. The educational curriculums were Islamised and many Islamists were appointed to key government and administrative positions. The period also witnessed the active promotion of Wahhabism, a puritanical version of Salafi Islam, in Pakistan through funding of various madrassas and organisations from the Middle East. Much has been written on the mushrooming of radical madrassas with links to jihadist groups, such as Jamia Haqqanis (which is the Alma Mater of several jihadist
leaders including the founder leader of the Afghan Taliban Mullah Muhammad Umar), Jamia Binoria in Karachi and the Lal (Red) Mosque in Islamabad, in Pakistan. However, very few studies have analysed the Islamisisation of higher education institutions in Pakistan. The IIUI was established in the same period (1980).

Jihadist Ideologues in Campus

IIUI had several faculty members who were jihadist ideologues. One of them was Abdullah Yousaf Azzam, the founder of Maktab ul Khidmat al Mujaheeden wal Arabiya (MAK, Al-Qaeda‟s predecessor organization) who was part of the IIUI faculty until his death in a bomb blast in Peshawar in 1989.2 A Palestinian by descent, Azzam had established a base in Peshawar to provide logistic support to arriving Arab Mujahedeen. Azzam secured a teaching position at the IIUI in 1984. He taught Islamic Sharia law and jurisprudence for a number of years and was instrumental in revising and institutionalising the curricula of other Islamic faculty courses.To date, Azzam‟s Fatwas and writings remain as the standard text material for jihadists all over the world. He provided seed money to create at least three jihadist terrorist organisations, namely Hamas, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Al-Qaeda. Another important jihadi ideologue who taught at the IIUI was Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad (aka Mullah Krekar), an Iraqi Kurd who later founded Ansar al-Islam, an Al- Qaeda affiliate in Iraq. Besides his teaching experience at the IIUI, Krekar also worked as an ideologue for jihadists.5 In 2001, Krekar established Ansar al-Islam in his native Iraq
and later moved to Norway where he was granted asylum and later naturalised. In 2014, he pledged allegiance to IS.

Islamist ideologues such as the blind Shaikh Omar Abdul Rehman (later convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) and Ahmad Khdr, the Egyptian-Canadian Islamist killed in a US drone strike in in 2009, have taught at the IIUI. For years, Abdul Basit
Abdul Karim (aka Ramzi Yousaf) remained the most notorious IIUI student due to his involvement in the 1993 WTC bombing, and the abortive Bojinka plot which included the
assassination plot against Pope John Paul in Manila and plans to blow up 11 US-bound planes from Asia.7 (Yousaf was convicted and imprisoned for life in the US.) In 2013, a former IIUI lecturer, Irtyaz Gilani from the faculty of engineering, was arrested from the suburbs of Islamabad for being part of an Al-Qaeda cell planning to attack key installations and government buildings in Islamabad. Besides recovering arms and ammunitions, the police also recovered a small drone from his house.

Links with Jihadism

The more ominous development was the emergence of an Al-Qaeda cell in Islamabad in 2013 comprising of IIUI students. During the post-arrest investigation, it was discovered that the cell had carried out attacks in collusion with Al-Qaeda since 2007. The cell was headed by Abdullah Omar, 24, a student of Islamic Sharia law at IIUI, and son of a former military officer Colonel Abbasi. He was assisted by another IIUI student of Sharia law Hammad Adil.
Other members of the cell also include Haris Khan and two brothers Saad and Fahd and Tanveer.The father of the ring leader, Omar Abdullah has a history of strong links with Al-Qaeda. His father Colonel Abbasi had been convicted for facilitating the stay of Khalid Shaikh Mohammad in an upscale neighborhood of Rawalpindi, a garrison town that houses Pakistan army‟s headquarters. On a tip off from the US, Pakistani intelligence arrested Abbasi, who was later court martialed and sentenced to six months‟ prison. During the investigation following his arrest, Abdullah revealed his father‟s jihadist connections, his association with JI and his education at the IIUI that contributed to his recruitment in Al-Qaeda. Abdullah was part of the Al-Qaeda‟s network in Rawalpindi that attacked the Friday prayer gathering at the Parade Lane Mosque in 2010. It was frequented by retired and serving military officers, and the attack left forty officers dead, including one Major General and one Brigadier.Two brothers, Hammad Adil and Adnan Adil,who were IIUI students of Sharia law, were also part of the Al-Qaeda Islamabad cell. The Adil brothers received training at a joining training camp of Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan and later moved back to Islamabad on the orders of Al-Qaeda. They were in charge of the logistics of the cell. Until its elimination in 2013, the Islamabad cell was involved in the targeted assassinations of Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, prosecutor of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Choudhry Zulfiqar Ali, former President General Pervez Musharraf (2012), suicide bombing of the Danish Embassy, and burning of NATO convoys at two different terminals in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The cell members also planned to assassinate the chief of Pakistan‟s premier intelligence agency using a suicide bomber but the plan could not be executed. Al-Qaeda‟s longstanding links with IIUI
students hit the headlines once again when the deputy head of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Al-Qaeda‟s South Asian affiliate, Ustaz Ahmed Farooq was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan in April 2015. Farooq was a graduate of IIUI who later moved to tribal areas to join Al-Qaeda, where he was eliminated along with fifty other militants during a US drone attack.The authorities took firmer actions after the
discovery of Al-Qaeda‟s Islamabad Cell consisting of IIUI students. In May 2015, The Express Tribune reported that an intelligence agency had several concerns regarding activities in IIUI. In a letter to IIUI, the agency stated that “[The IIUI] intentionally promotes sectarian doctrine at its campus….[and] that the administration and faculty of IIUI is intentionally promoting Salafi, Takfiri and lkhwani doctrines, whereas Pakistan is fighting the demon of terrorism, incubated and abetted by the same doctrines.” 


The case study of IIUI illustrates the growing problem of youth radicalization at universities, colleges and other higher education institutions in Pakistan. For instance, the killing of Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University, on fake blasphemy charges by a raging mob of university students in 2016, and the more recent arrests of Jamaat Ansar Al-Shariah, an Al-Qaeda linked militant outfit, operatives from the NED and Karachi universities, among others, underscore the need for immediate course correction. In this respect, the implementation of the country‟s first Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) policy formulated by the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) is highly welcome development. Likewise, a revision of the current educational curricula and a broader involvement of both the Higher Education Commission and the Ministry of Education in the affairs of universities, are equally important.

About the author

Farhan Zahid has a PhD in Terrorism Studies from the University of Brussels, Belgium. Zahid is author of three books and eight research papers and articles His most recent book “The Al-Qaeda Network in Pakistan” was published in 2015 by Narratives, Pakistan. His other two books “Roots of Islamic Violent Activism in South Asia” and “From Jihad to al-Qaeda to Islamic State” have been published by Narratives in 2014 and Center for Research and Security Studies in 2015, respectively.

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