Imprisoned Beliefs

Forget re-education camps for terrorists. Jailed extremists in Pakistan are kept in isolation -- from anyone who might change their mind about waging jihad.


KARACHI—The Karachi Central Jail, an elegant, 111-year-old, fortress-like sandstone building, is home to some of Pakistan’s most notorious prisoners. Ahmad Omar Sheikh, one of the men who killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, is housed here, along with the extremists who attacked the U.S consulate in Karachi in 2006. Behind its arched, rust-colored metal gate, convicted murderers and petty criminals mingle in bare, cramped barracks that were meant for 1,800 but hold 3,800.

Despite the massive overcrowding, the jail’s superintendent, Nusrat Hussain Mangan, keeps one group of prisoners in separate accommodations, with three or four per room: religious extremists. There are more than 150 of them in this all-male prison — about 5 percent of the prison population — confined to their quarters for most of the day. Their hearts and minds, rather than anything they can do with their hands, make them dangerous. "To save the other prisoners from the terrorists, we keep them in," Mangan says. "They have enough conviction in what they think that they can influence others who can be easily molded."

As NATO forces are at work against the Taliban in next-door Afghanistan, Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts in recent years have centered on military offensives, with the army targeting the Taliban and al Qaeda in the northwest belt bordering Afghanistan. Little has been done, however, to tackle militancy in urban settings like Lahore and Karachi, save a few reactive gun-battles that follow after militants have already staged attacks. Less still has been undertaken to eradicate the ideology that fuels this violence.

In fact, Pakistan’s prisons today achieve the opposite. Extremist prisoners, like those in the Karachi Central Jail, are instead given too much access to one another (sharing jail cells and radical ideas) and too little access to anyone — psychologists, imams, or social workers — who might be able to change their minds about waging jihad. Prisoners leave jail even more confident of their fundamentalist views. And that’s particularly bad news, since most of those prisoners will indeed be let go.

The kind of men we’re talking about are epitomized in Mohammad Shahid Hanif, an extremist inmate who has spent most of the past nine years of prison reading and re-reading the Quran and other Islamic literature. Until 2001, the 36-year-old was the imam of a small mosque in Karachi. Authorities picked him up on suspicions that he helped murder several Shiites and for inciting terrorism in his fiery Friday sermons. He had also used the pulpit to rail against then-president Pervez Musharraf’s close alliance with the post-9/11 United States. Hanif denies any role in the murders, but has no qualms about admitting that he spoke forcefully in favor of an outlawed pro-Taliban Sunni extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba, and its radical worldview.

Hanif wields an intellectual weapon in the prison against which Pakistan really has no defense. There is no Pakistani equivalent of the ambitious Saudi government program to rehabilitate militants by persuading them to disavow violent Islamist ideologies. The kingdom’s program, run by clerics, psychologists, and social scientists, has had mixed success over the past few years. But even the critics agree that it does one thing right: recognizes that force alone won’t halt terrorism.

Pakistan has made some gestures toward building up its counter-ideology programs: Islamic scholar Javed Ghamidi, founder of Al-Mawrid Institute of Islamic Sciences in Lahore, for instance, broadcasts regular televised lectures with a moderate, progressive interpretation of Islam that are quite popular. And the Khudi movement, which means "awakening" in Urdu, is another example, founded last year by a former extremist turned democracy advocate, Maajid Nawaz. Even a quick glance at its snazzy website, Facebook page, and Twitter accounts, however, makes it clear that Khudi is aimed at keeping urbane university students out of one of the special cells in Karachi Central Jail, rather than reforming those already there.

In fact, life for those in prison can often retrench, rather than moderate, extremist beliefs. Unlike regular prisoners at Karachi Central, who are allowed to attend computer classes, literacy programs, Quranic studies, and even fine art lessons that teach sculpture, painting, and music, the extremists are left to themselves. Mangan, the jail’s superintendent and a 23-year career law enforcement officer, says it’s "just too risky" to let the extremists out. There are enough risks just from the regular prison population, he notes, let alone the extremists. A few months ago, for example, several prisoners deemed the jail’s music programs un-Islamic and smashed keyboards, guitars, drums and other instruments in the middle of a class.

And so the extremists sit alone together — stewing on their ideology with a readily available group of like-minded people and no exposure to anyone who disagrees. Hanif, a tall and burly man with a white knitted prayer cap, ankle-length white thobe, and long shaggy black beard graying along his jawline, has 26 years of his sentence left to serve, but he doesn’t expect to change. "Thanks be to God, I am a mujahid [holy warrior], not the type that kills people but the type that teaches people about the Quran and divine judgements," he says in Arabic. "When I leave this place, I will continue to do this."

Mangan, the jailer, acknowledges the problem, but laments that he can do little to help. The biggest roadblock, as he sees it, is a lack of people with the necessary religious expertise to remold the extremists. How could that be possible in a conservative city that boasts 8,000 Islamic seminaries? "It’s very difficult to trust [the instructors]," he asserts. Mangan worries that rather than reforming the extremists, Karachi’s religious men would reinforce their jihad. There just aren’t enough trusted moderates to go around, he seemed to be saying.

The province’s minister for prisons, Muzafer Ali Shujra, is aware of the problems but already has his hands full cleaning up other aspects of Karachi’s prison system. Deradicalization is low on the laundry list of issues he faces on a daily basis: Smuggled alcohol, heroin, marijuana, and cell phones are among the biggest nuisances. Shujra is building new facilities to cut down on overcrowding. He has also fired three superintendents, appointed 500 new prison guards (he wants to appoint another 500 more), and doubled guards’ pay to dissuade them extorting money and bribes from prisoners and their families.

Many of the extremists will likely be out on the streets again long before those reforms trickle down to improve the lives of prisoners, however. The vast majority of terrorism suspects are freed in court due to lack of evidence against them or intimidation of witnesses, I was told by Amna Warsi, a high court lawyer and fellow at the Lahore-based Research Society of International Law. "Unless and until your bring change in their mind, [nothing will] work [to stop them.] You have to kill an idea with an idea," she says.

In the absence of such re-education, extremists like Hanif, the convicted murderer, will only be more confident in their beliefs. And Pakistan can be equally confident that they will keep waging their jihad.

Rania Abouzeid is a Middle East correspondent for TIME magazine.