Young, educated and dangerous

An analysis of 900 biographies of Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives killed between 1989 and 2008 chips at the argument that youngsters in Pakistan take to terrorism out of poverty and deprivation alone

Updated - October 18, 2016 01:42 pm IST

Published - April 10, 2013 01:40 am IST

When Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American upwardly mobile son of a retired senior Pakistan Air Force officer was picked up for the bombing attempt at New York City’s Times Square in the summer of 2010, it was seen as an aberration but it chipped at the comforting argument that youngsters take to terrorism out of poverty and deprivation.

Subsequent studies have driven home this disconcerting fact. The radicalisation of Pakistani society was pervasive enough for analyst Ayesha Siddiqa to call it a “social pop culture” in her study of the socio-political attitudes among students of elite educational institutions in 2010.

Another concern that emerged in several attempts to understand terrorism in Pakistan was that it was not peripheral geographically — as in not just confined to the tribal areas adjoining Afghanistan — but flourishing right in the heart of the country, especially Punjab. The Pakistan Security Report of 2010, brought out by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, dwelt on “growing urban terrorism.”

And, more recently, a pre-election survey conducted by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute had Central Punjab showing the strongest support for punishment for blasphemy laws, maximum opposition to non-Muslims in public office, and anti-Ahmadi sentiments.

The recent analysis of 900 biographies of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives killed between 1989 and 2008, thus, fits the pattern that has been established though the powers that be in Pakistan seemingly refuse to read the writing on the wall. The LeT cadres were found to be well-educated compared to Pakistani men, and the bulk of the recruitment was from Punjab.

Locations and recruitments

Billed as one of Pakistan’s most “lethal and potent militant proxy groups” essentially focused on “waging a low-level war of attrition in Indian Kashmir,” a vast majority of LeT fighters were Punjabi, not Kashmiri.

As much as 89 per cent of the recruits were from Punjab and within the province, while a greater number of militants seem to have originated from the areas that border India or are quite close to it. A majority of the militants under the scanner in this study came from densely populated and urbanised districts of the province with Gujranwala, Faislabad and Lahore producing more terrorists than any other district in the country. These are also the locations where the LeT is active and has a lot of infrastructure.

Links with army

Conducted with the support of Combating Terrorism Centre at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, the study does not subscribe to the official narrative that Pakistanis are not involved in acts of terrorism, and only “diplomatic and moral support” is rendered to indigenous mujahideens fighting in India. “There is considerable overlap among the districts that produce LeT militants and those that produce Pakistan army officers, a dynamic that raises a number of questions about potentially overlapping social networks between the army and LeT.’’ “While certainly not the norm, at least 18 biographies in our data set describe connections between LeT fighters and immediate family members (i.e. fathers or brothers) who are currently serving or had served in Pakistan’s army or air force. In several of these cases, the militant’s father had fought with the Pakistani Army in the 1965 war in Kashmir and/or during the conflict in 1971 over the status of then East Pakistan. In one case a militant’s father was described as a senior officer in the Pakistan army.”

As for LeT’s training capacity, the authors of the study, titled “The Fighters of Lashkar-e-Taiba: Recruitment, Training, Deployment and Death,” quote estimates suggesting that at least three lakh men have received some form of LeT training over the last two decades.

They are picked young with 90 per cent of the militants joining the LeT before they turned 22. The youngest recruit this study threw up was 11, the oldest, 30. The mean age when a recruit joins LeT is 16.95 years and the militants’ median age at the time of death is 21. Among the 900 biographies, the youngest age at which a militant died was 14. While this analysis shows that some of the best educated men of Pakistan were sent to Indian Kashmir to die, it challenges the perception that they are all products of religious education offered through the madrassas . Religious education in all likelihood supplemented non-religious education rather than the former serving as a substitute for the latter. The amount of time fighters spent at a madrassa was less than three years on average. Fewer than five per cent of fighters had attained a sanad (a formal certificate signifying completion of a defined religious curriculum).

Stating that the data at hand attests “to the enduring nature of LeT and its sustained ability to attract high-quality recruits from across the Punjab and through a variety of means for operations throughout South Asia,” the authors of the study conclude that the ongoing programmes to Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) will not diminish the LeT’s ability to recruit, retain and deploy militants.

“For CVE programming in Pakistan to be effective, it would have to undermine the trust that exists between LeT and members of Pakistani society, and counter the narrative that LeT is an instrument for positive change,” says the study. This task is rendered challenging by the range of LeT’s social service activities through its reincarnate, the Jamat-ud-Da’wah. Add to this the LeT’s linkages with elements in the security establishment. Referring to the expansive and overt presence of the LeT throughout the country and its ability to recruit from schools, mosques and madrassas besides circulate its publications, the authors say this reflects a “degree of tolerance if not outright assistance from the Pakistani state.”

Having said this, the concern articulated is that should elements of Pakistan’s security establishment view it in their interest to spoil peace or reignite conflict in the region (potentially to serve as a release valve for domestic challenges or to direct the actions of militants actively waging war against Islamabad), they will likely turn to trusted Pakistani militant groups like LeT to do their bidding.

The article has been corrected for a typo error

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