Frustrated Strivers in Pakistan Turn to Jihad

By Sabrina Tavernise and Waqar Gillani

Published: February 27, 2010

Cross Post from The New York Times

LAHORE, Pakistan — Umar Kundi was his parents’ pride, an ambitious 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.

Lahore has enduring social problems like chronic unemployment.

But things went wrong along the way. On campus Mr. Kundi fell in with a hard-line 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, Mr. 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 Feb. 19, when he was killed in a shootout with the police at the age of 29.

Mr. 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. Al Qaeda has harnessed their aimless ambition and anger at Pakistan’s alliance with the United States, their generation’s most electrifying enemy.

“These are guys who use Google Maps to plan their attacks,” said a senior Punjab Province police official. “Their training is better than our national police academy.”

Like Mr. 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.

That shift has fractured long-established militant networks, which were once supported by the state, producing a patchwork of new associations that are fluid and defy easy categorization.

“The situation now is quite confusing,” said Tariq Parvez, director of the National Counterterrorism Authority in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “We can no longer talk in terms of organizations. Now it’s a question of like-minded militants.”

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 — at its current rate — is not growing fast enough to absorb them. Only a tiny fraction choose militancy, but acute joblessness exacerbates the risk.

A Student’s Education

Mr. 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 southwestern Punjab, where camels lumber in slow clumps, and sand stings the eyes. His father’s monthly income of $255 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 third-biggest city in Pakistan. The city was an explosion of things modern. Traffic jams. Fancy restaurants. Uncovered women. For young people from small towns, unfamiliar with city life, the atmosphere can arouse a rigid defensiveness, said Mughees-uddin Sheikh, a dean at the University of the Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.

“The student is tempted, but he doesn’t understand it because he wasn’t educated,” said Mr. Sheikh. “He’s been deprived of things like this.”

To ease the adjustment, young people join student groups, which, like powerful inner-city gangs, help them navigate life — how to use a bank, which mosque to pray in — but also offer protection.

When Mr. Kundi arrived at Punjab Medical College in the late 1990s, he chose a group with an Islamic focus, according to a classmate and friend, Muhammad, who asked that his last name not be used because he feared association with a militant. It was a typical choice for students from devout families, who want their sons to stay out of trouble in the city.

The group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, ran charities and prayer meetings. It also offered training for jihad in Kashmir. Lashkar’s blend of adventure and patriotism appealed to restless young men. It even had an office on campus: Room 12D.

Such jihadi groups had become part of mainstream society in Pakistan in the 1980s, when the United States was financing Islamic radicals fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and when an American-supported Pakistani general, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, empowered hard-line mullahs and injected Islam into school textbooks.

By the 1990s, recruiters for jihad in Kashmir were holding rallies on public university campuses. After 2001, Lashkar was driven underground, but it continues to operate through a charity wing. American, Indian and Pakistani officials say it carried out the attacks on hotels and other landmarks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008.

It is the lower middle class in Pakistan that is most vulnerable to radicalization, according to Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. They consume virulently anti-American media. They are recruited aggressively by Islamic student groups in public universities, which are attended almost exclusively by lower- and middle-class youth.

“They’re politically conscious, but it’s not mature,” Mr. Rana said. “They have big problems, but when they try to solve them, they get confused.”

Mr. Kundi threw himself into Lashkar’s activities, working summers at an eye clinic in Kashmir, his friend Muhammad said. He held Koran-reading sessions. He developed a close relationship with the group’s spiritual leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. Mr. Kundi was a skilled recruiter, even winning over a secular classmate whose family lived in Canada.

“He had logic for every single point,” Muhammad said. “He could convince anyone.”

Despite his zeal for jihad, it was a relatively quiet time in Pakistan. The war against the Soviets was long over, and most of the country’s jihadi groups were drifting. All that changed when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, jolting young Pakistani jihadis who saw it as a war against Muslims.

“That was the beginning,” said a security official in Karachi. “They went from small local targets, to a much bigger global one, the United States.”

When Al Qaeda came to Pakistan, Mr. Kundi did not have to go far to find it. The American 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 Mr. Kundi was working. He was seeking treatment and preaching against Pakistan’s government for supporting the United States. His audience loved it, Muhammad said.

“Every doctor at the hospital was against the government,” he said. “They saw Abu Zubaydah as the hero of Muslims.”

Lashkar’s activities now seemed small, and embarrassingly pro-government. Mr. Kundi began to argue with Mr. Saeed, the group’s leader, picking fights with him in public about Lashkar’s mission. The United States, he argued, was killing Muslims, and Lashkar was doing nothing for them.

In a stinging insult, Muhammad recalled, Mr. Kundi began calling Mr. Saeed “the B team of the government,” a reference to the group’s not-so-secret connection to the state.

His frustration coincided with a bitter discovery. His father, who had retired, could not pay for schooling beyond Mr. Kundi’s basic medical degree. A pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and a family wedding had sapped the family’s savings, Mr. Kundi’s father, Dilawar, said in an interview. Without a specialization, Mr. 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.

“I’ve earned a degree, but I’m a zero” Muhammad recalled him saying.

 His father begged him to return and open a practice in their hometown. Mr. Kundi refused.

 It was 2005, the year he disappeared.


Life as a Militant

Conventional theory on militant organizations says that groups have hierarchies, members and sometimes territory. But in Pakistan after Sept. 11, 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 defense official who studies the issue. “Their attacks are focused on aspects of the state in a way they haven’t been ever before.”

A car bombing in Lahore last May killed 23. Officials said it was a failed strike on Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

While the Pakistani Taliban have captured imaginations and headlines, many law enforcement officials say they believe that militancy in Pakistan is much more diffuse.

According to the police investigation, Mr. 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 Sept. 11 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 — on the Lahore office of Pakistan’s spy agency, on two police training academies and on the Sri Lankan cricket team — but more often for crimes to pay for their militant activities.

In Faisalabad, Mr. Kundi extorted a textile mill owner. In Lahore, his friend Asif Mehmoud stole cars. According to a police interrogation of Mr. Mehmoud, one kidnapping that brought $60,000 was split among themselves and Sheik Issa.

In an indication of how fluid their lives were, Mr. 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 center. His résumé lists two hobbies: cooking and current affairs.

Sheik Issa, who is on the United States’ most-wanted list, provided the early intellectual justification for attacking Pakistan, a development the American defense 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 Shiites, 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 skillful. 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.

 Their plans were ambitious. A computer memory stick found on a militant linked to Mr. Ahmed and killed last fall in a shootout with the police in the southern Punjab town of Dera Ghazi Khan contained plans to destroy bridges and railroads and to strike at the heart of the Pakistani state, its military. The language was in code: “Lentils” meant aluminum paste. “Wheat” was fertilizer.

 “GHQ is an important task — do it immediately,” said the voice on the memory stick, referring to the military’s headquarters. “Don’t wait.”

A Powerful Addiction

 When the attack on the army headquarters unfolded last October, Mr. Ahmed, the nursing assistant, was at the center 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. “My muscles were not with me,” Mr. Ahmed said in an interview in November.

 Since then, a question has tormented him. His son earned A’s 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, Brig. 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,” Brigadier 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 instill 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.

 Of the 24 militants in the study, about a third attended college, though not all graduated.

 But socio-economic theories explain only so much. For Mr. Kundi, an emotional young man with thwarted ambitions, militancy had a psychological pull. Mr. 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.

 “Out there I’m a useless guy, unemployed and cursed by my family,” one militant said. “Here I’m a commander. My words have weight.”

 The police in Punjab Province arrested about seven young militants last year who they say were connected to Mr. Kundi, weakening two groups, they said.

 Since then, attacks in Pakistan’s main cities have dropped sharply. But militants’ capacity for regeneration has surprised the authorities before, and a deeper fix would be tackling some of Pakistan’s social problems, which the country’s political elite, preoccupied by power struggles, has ignored.

 The last time Muhammad saw Mr. Kundi they were sitting together on a bench outside Allied Hospital in Faisalabad. A scruffy old man walked by, hunched over a cane. The man’s death, Mr. Kundi said, would be unimportant. His own, in contrast, would have meaning.

 But did it? Muhammad disapproved of Mr. Kundi’s choice, because it led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. But he understood it. Mr. Kundi wanted badly to be important. Now, in a way, he is.

 “He applied his mind,” Muhammad said. “He took what society offered.”


Filed under Al Qaeda, Army, Economy, FATA, Islamabad, Lahore, Pakistan, poverty, psychology, Taliban, Terrorism, USA

3 responses to “Frustrated Strivers in Pakistan Turn to Jihad

  1. Unless you address basic economic problems of the people , the net result will be Pakistan.Unfortunately for Pakistan, its rulers, past and present are more interested in securing themselves from cases against them, witch hunting and obsessed with a bogey called India, with out addressing the problems of people.
    If they don’t wake up, the slide will be faster towards anarchy.

  2. Curious

    I am indeed curious. I am Indian by birth and citizenship but my primary identity is that of a Calcuttan. And here is my question:
    We keep hearing in India that Muslim militancy in India is caused by the insecurity felt by Muslims in a state that they see as a Hindu state.
    Why should there be a problem of Islamic Militancy in a state that defines itself as an Islamic state?
    There are instances of Islamic militancy in other Muslim majority nations viz. Egypt & Algeria but those nations do not profess to be Islamic States.
    This is a serious question. Please do not see this as anything but an attempt to learn.
    India has other forms of militancy but I think I do understand the inspiration of those.

  3. Majumdar


    Why should there be a problem of Islamic Militancy in a state that defines itself as an Islamic state?

    In the opinion of some folks, Pakistan is Islamic only in name not in reality. They want to correct that.