The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s New Breed of Militants

Accused terrorist Saad Aziz doesn't fit Pakistan's terrorist profile; he's well-educated and from a privileged background. And he might be an indicator of the terrorists to come.

To go with story 'Pakistan-religion-education, FEATURE' by Gohar Abbas

In this photograph taken on September 4, 2013 Pakistani students attend a class at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.  At Quaid-i-Azam University, rated the best public university in Pakistan and the best Pakistani university in Asia, students are granted a 15-minute break for prayers but any student is allowed to get up as soon he hears the call to prayer in what critics call a chaotic interruption of academic life.          AFP PHOTO/Aamir QURESHI        (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
To go with story 'Pakistan-religion-education, FEATURE' by Gohar Abbas In this photograph taken on September 4, 2013 Pakistani students attend a class at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. At Quaid-i-Azam University, rated the best public university in Pakistan and the best Pakistani university in Asia, students are granted a 15-minute break for prayers but any student is allowed to get up as soon he hears the call to prayer in what critics call a chaotic interruption of academic life. AFP PHOTO/Aamir QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

On May 20, Pakistan announced that it had arrested four suspects in connection to the gunning down of 46 minority Ismailis aboard a bus in Karachi and the assassination of Sabeen Mahmud, a Pakistani activist. Many were surprised that Saad Aziz, one of the arrested militants, came from a privileged and educated background. With Aziz having confessed to his involvement in both attacks, the question remains: What led him down this path?

Aziz’s privileged background as a graduate of Pakistan’s top business school should not have been a surprise. Many prominent terrorists in recent history have been born to Pakistani parents and well-educated, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, who graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, and Omar Saeed Sheikh, the man responsible for the brutal murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was a master chess player and graduate of the London School of Economics.

However, Aziz is not just another story of a radicalized individual from a well-off family, but instead a horrifying glimpse into what may be boiling underneath the surface in Pakistan, waiting to explode.

What led Aziz, a young, bright educated man with a child to become an alleged terrorist? Two revealing sources provide an in-depth understanding of Aziz’s radicalization: his Facebook updates from 2008 to 2014, and the contents of Al Rashideen (which translates to “The Rightly Guided”), a magazine that he started publishing with his peers in 2013.

In September 2008, Aziz seemed to be far from the extremist he would eventually become. He mockingly posted on his now-deactivated Facebook profile, “Is telling people to read out songs rather than singing them out … It’s Ramadan,” in sarcastic reference against religious scholars and the prohibition on listening to music during Ramadan. The post by Aziz fits well with statements from his friends that he was not particularly religious, had male and female friends, and was generally an open-minded individual in 2008 when he started at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi.

Almost a year later, in July 2009, Aziz posted an update on Facebook, that perhaps marks his turn towards religion: “A journey ends. Another begins. It must begin.” Following that post, Aziz posted updates praising Mohammed and Islam that are typical for many born-again Muslims who are active on social media. For example, in October 2009 he posted twice on Facebook stating his contentment with his chosen path. According to his friends, around that time he became involved with the Iqra Society at IBA, an educational and somewhat missionary organization that invites Muslims to rejuvenate their faith by showing the positive side of religion while educating them through discussion of self-improvement.

In December 2009, on the 10th Day of Muharram — one of the most religious days in the Islamic world, especially among Shiite Muslims — Aziz posted a note on Facebook advocating for religious harmony and quoting verses from the Quran on peace and harmony, especially with Jews and Christians, writing: “Islam always did, and will never cease to respect members of other faiths, celebrate the times when they are given justice and help them through times of difficulties.” This strongly worded post on religious tolerance suggests that until 2010 Aziz’s religious beliefs and affiliations were mostly peaceful and that he was interpreting the Quran and hadith in favor of harmony and tolerance. It also suggests that he leaned toward the spiritual and religious side of Islam, not the political one.

However, as is the case with a lot of Islamic organizations, like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Tablighi Jamaat, radical Islamists penetrate such groups to target young people and establish sub-groups. The general trend with these radical groups is to start discussing spiritualism and once enough trust has been developed, expose the participants to political Islam.

In February 2010, Aziz, who had only a couple of months earlier spoke of tolerance, wrote a detailed note titled “Struggle for Supremacy: Proactive Enemies on Dormant Minds.” He starts by discussing British colonialism in South Asia and how it ripped apart the local educational system (meaning madrassas) and other social institutions in order to make Muslims a slave to British power and ideology. He then writes: “Now, almost 7 decades later we see that the Americans are all geared up to make the same kind of inroads into Pakistan.”

The concluding paragraph of this note goes to the core of how Aziz’s struggle transformed from opposition to the West into sectarian violence in Pakistan and the killings of Sabeen Mahmud and Ismailis. He argues: “The secular propaganda has subliminally and subconsciously convinced the so called ‘people of research’ currently standing under the label of Islam that the best people are only those that go to work early in the morning, earn their livelihood, come back, eat, sleep and just shut on all atrocities and injustices that they are witnesses to.” He ended: “Thus such individuals are associated with Islam on an individual and peripheral level but are not prepared to do anything substantial collectively.” According to Aziz, the enemy of Islam, hence, isn’t just the West, but the enemy is from within Islam as well — classic propaganda rhetoric used to stir sectarian violence.

By the time Aziz posted this note, it seems clear that he had been exposed to radical political Islam, in particular that of Sayyid Qutb — whose life is a gospel offered by political Islamists to recent spiritual recruits in order to take them into the political, and sectarian, realm. Qutb argues against the Western lifestyle and hypocrisy in similar terms to those of Aziz’s post, calling for “collective” action and viewing Muslims who wouldn’t join the “cause” with the same disdain as Western forces.

From 2010 onwards, clues gathered from Aziz’s Facebook and his friends confirm that what started off as a religious quest became completely intertwined with politics. He was unable to differentiate between the two — a message that is at the core of Islamist radical teaching that Islam and politics are inseparable.

In May 2010, Aziz posted a long note on Facebook announcing that he would boycott the social media site, a decision made upon politico-religious grounds suggesting that his transformation was complete. In a radical turn from his 2009 post on religious harmony, Aziz starts off the May 2010 post by quoting three chapters of the Quran — one that guides Muslims to not befriend those who are not of their own kind; another that specifically says not to befriend Jews and Christians; and a third that tells Muslims to fight against non-believers — before ultimately concluding that “Facebook is a non Muslim entity without a shadow of doubt.” But given the influence of social media on his generation, he manages to only reduce his Facebook activity, not completely boycott it as he proudly announced.

Aziz’s politico-religious transformation played out on Facebook was not limited to religious dogma. In late June 2013, he posted two photos back to back on his Facebook, both of the Joker character from the 2008 Batman movie. The pictures were significant — not because he merely liked the movie — but because the Joker symbolized the thought process of a new style of militants, taking influence both from Islamist radicals and American pop culture. The Joker was a more “hip” way to analogize his ongoing activities.

In August 2013, Aziz shared a post published by the Defiance Group — a Facebook group that in its own words aims to provide a forum for Pakistani youth to engage in intellectual ‎resistance against secular and liberal forces in Pakistan — that criticized the West for turning democracy and human rights into “idols.” In February 2014, he shared a post related to a missing drone activist in Pakistan. He noted that it was the foreign media that covered the news, instead of the local media, thereby proving to him that the media in Pakistan was in the hands of foreign powers and Shiites.

His posts reveal that his turn towards political Islam had not reversed. Instead it had slowly been growing. While his Facebook activity may have reduced, his online activities grew when he began to publish Al Rashideen, an online magazine that, before the web owner deleted the contents of the site, claimed to be for the educational purposes of English speaking people in Pakistan.

The magazine’s content gives startling evidence to his deep political transformation that Aziz’s Facebook updates couldn’t fully capture. The magazine put forward extreme propaganda against Iran and Shiites in general, including material similar to the hate-filled literature of the Sipah Sahab Pakistan, which views Shiites as the root cause for disturbances in the Muslim world.

Aziz may only be the tip of the iceberg; a new breed of Islamist radical that has been slowly developing in Pakistan, waiting to explode. These new Islamists are young, educated, and from well to-do backgrounds, who, because of their education and understanding of English, have been exposed to the West, drawing radical inspiration from sources as diverse as Sayyid Qutb and the Joker.

Photo credit: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Hussain Nadim is the Project Director of Peace and Development Unit at Ministry of Planning, Development & Reforms, Government of Pakistan where he initially served as Special Assistant to Federal Minister. Previously, he was a Scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC and Adjunct Fellow at International Center for Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King's College London.