Thursday, December 25, 2008

LAHORE, Pakistan | The profile of those joining the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba is changing to include more young, educated men, some of whom even hold advanced degrees.

“The big change is that until a few years back most of the militants were hailing from the [Afghan] frontier, but now the scenario has changed and young men from all over Pakistan are joining,” said Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, who served the Pakistani army in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan.

A ripe breeding ground for the new militants is southern Punjab, he told The Washington Times. Since the school system in Punjab is better than in the tribal areas, most of the new entrants to militant groups are better educated, GenShah said.

Lashkar-e-Taiba is blamed for terrorist attacks in Mumbai last month that killed more than 170 people. Pakistan last week officially banned Lashkar’s charitable arm, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, froze its bank accounts, sealed at least 45 of its offices and arrested 50 of its leaders. Dawa chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed - who also headed Lashkar until it was banned in 2002 after an attack in India - was put under house arrest for a month at his home in Lahore. Eleven people, including Mr. Saeed, were banned from leaving the country.

The only Mumbai attacker captured had completed only the fourth grade, according to Indian and Pakistani press reports. But in a recent interview, a Kashmir-based Lashkar-e-Taiba commander told The Times that members of the group include young men with master’s degrees in business administration and bachelor’s degrees in computer science.

The militant commander, who goes by the name Abu Aqasa, spoke by cell phone from Lahore and answered other questions in writing.

“We have doctors and engineers and computer specialists working for us,” he said. “These people don´t necessarily fight wars with us. They mainly help us spread our message in cities and villages and also help us in our dispensaries, hospitals and other charitable works.”

Abu Aqasa said the organization uses educated people and especially those with good communications skills to recruit supporters in religious congregations. Once a young man has embraced the militants’ ideology, he is inducted into the organization and sent for further training.

A 27-year-old man who abandoned a militant organization after one month said that he had a degree in computer science and was introduced to the organization at a mosque.

“I met many educated men,” said the man, who asked not to be named to avoid arrest “Nobody [held] less than a bachelor’s [degree] and the average age was between 18 and 30 years.”

The profile of the militants is similar to an emerging trend in Britain.

Brendan O´Duffy, a researcher from the University of London who has studied militant organizations in Britain, said he has found members are “mostly of working class origins but a large minority achieved relatively a high education, tending towards engineering and science degrees, including medicine in the case of the failed [June 2007] London and Glasgow attacks.”

In that case, the perpetrators of the failed plot targeted London’s theater district with two car bombs that were detected by police before they detonated. A day later, a burning Jeep carrying gas cannisters was driven through the glass doors of Glasgow International Airport and burst into flames.

Bilal Abdulla, a 29-year-old physician with Britain’s National Health Service, was sentenced this month to serve at least 32 years in prison for plotting to murder hundreds of people in the two botched terrorist attacks.

Kafeel Ahmed, a 28-year-old Indian who participated in the attack on the Glasgow airport, died of burns. He had studied mechanical and aeronautical engineering.

An organizer for a Lahore-based religious organization said dire economic conditions are the main reason young, educated people are being attracted to militancy in Pakistan.

“People can´t find jobs and have nothing to eat,” said the man, who asked not to be identified to avoid attracting attention from the police.”Families find it attractive that if one person is sent for jihad then that means one less mouth to feed in their house.”

While he denied that jihadist organizations pay their members, he said that those who become a part of such groups are given food and clothing.

Abu Aqasa said that political consciousness trumps finances in prompting the young and the educated to join organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. He said hundreds of thousands have joined the group in the disputed territory of Kashmir and that while they have been affected by a government crackdown following the attacks in Mumbai, they are still going strong.

Kashif Alam, senior superintendent of police in the northwest city of Peshawar, said the profile of the average militant in Peshawar, near the border with Afghanistan, has changed but that the number of educated Pakistanis was actually decreasing.

“We´re seeing an increase in the number of criminals who are working for these militant organizations,” he said. “More and more of their operations are being carried out by criminals. Some of the people we have captured were found with thousands of rupees in their pockets.”

However, profiles of two would-be suicide bombers captured in the tribal areas and shown to the press contradicted Mr. Alam´s views. Ali Raza, who surrendered to the police in November, was in his final year studying mass communications. In Dera Ismail Khan, a young man wearing a jacket loaded with explosives was intercepted inside a mosque. He was later found to have completed his high school matriculation.

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