KARACHI: From students at prestigious private educational institutions to alleged militants bent on killing hundreds of their own countrymen, the tale of youngsters being used in the name of jihad is not a pretty one.
The tale is not new – the entire country knows the names of Saad Aziz, Tahir Hussain Minhas, Muhammad Azhar Ishrat and Hafiz Nasir who, after years of being educated at some of the city’s most elite educational institutions, planned and successfully executed attacks that resulted in the deaths of 45 members of the Ismaili community in Safoora Goth in 2015 and T2F director Sabeen Mahmud.
Minhas, alias Saeen, was identified as the mastermind behind the Safoora attack. He was the ‘least educated’ of the group and had only completed his matriculation.
Aziz, alias Tin Tin, holds a BBA degree from the Institute of Business Administration. Ishrat, alias Majid, has a degree in electronics engineering from Sir Syed University and Nasir, alias Yasir, has an MA degree in Islamic studies from the University of Karachi.
Contrary to popular opinion, the youth of Pakistan are not being radicalised solely in religious seminaries and these young men are evidence of this.
Now there is a new chapter in the story of radicalisation of Pakistan’s youth. The tale of Abdul Karim Sarosh Siddiqui and Sheharyar alias Abdullah Hashmi, who are suspected of being top commanders of a mysterious Pakistani version of the Ansarul Sharia militant group, begins at a university.
Sarosh is currently being considered the mastermind of an attack on Muttahida Qaumi Movement – Pakistan MPA and Leader of the Opposition in the Sindh Assembly Khawaja Izharul Hassan.
At one time the two friends and neighbours who both studied at the department of applied physics at the University of Karachi were simply associates of Masood Azhar’s Jaesh-e-Muhammad. Like any other young assets of a political or a religious organisation, they were used to collect funds and maintain a stronghold in their neighbourhood.
Contrary to common ethnic stereotypes regarding terrorists, both Sarosh and Sheharyar were from the Urdu-speaking community.
Both from the middle-class, there was no evident financial motivation for the men’s terrorist activities.
An acquaintance of the young men who requested anonymity said tension has gripped the area since the police’s failed attempt to arrest Sarosh in an early morning raid at his residence in the Rufi Rose Petals gated housing community in Gulzar-e-Hijri.
Local residents have seen Sarosh and Sheharyar together often. According to the residents, the men were activists like those of any other religious or political organisation. “They would engage in clashes — sometimes armed — with rivals and law enforcers.”
Once the two engaged in a clash with their rivals over a dispute regarding their organisational activities in the area near Fariya Chowk and responded with heavy fire to force the other party to retreat, despite their greater numbers. “They usually carried arms with them,” commented an individual who was previously associated with a political party and wished to remain anonymous.
“They never interfered in our work, so neither did we interfere in theirs,” he said, adding that both the parties knew each other’s capacity to fight and were of the view that maintaining good ties was in their interests. “But we never thought that they would go this far, if what is being propagated by the media is true.”
Though Sarosh and Sheharyar studied at the same department at the varsity but it would be unfair to assume that they were radicalised there. Indeed, it is not yet clear whether they studied at the department at the same time or not.
“I never remember Sarosh running a [radicalisation] campaign in class or among other students,” shared one of Sarosh’s former classmates. “He was good at his studies. A bright fellow but not a regular student. He would disappear for days, weeks and sometimes months at a time,” he added, saying that he was not a ‘social animal’ by any means but would definitely respond if someone initiated a conversation with him.
While maintaining a low profile at the university, the youngsters were not shy or isolated when it came to their neighbourhood. They are said to have been regulars at the local mosque and at congregations around the city and country. Police claim they travelled to Afghanistan for militant training but their neighbours and acquaintances are unaware of this.
“Sarosh appears to be a strong guy. He has some extra fat on him. But Sheharyar on the other hand appeared quite lean,” said a resident who had seen them opening fire at their rivals during a clash.
“If you shook hands with him, you would never believe that his soft hands could fire a gun. But he did professionally,” he said. “It was so accurate,” said the witness.
Law enforcement version
The militants of Ansarul Shariah Pakistan were not ordinary terrorists. Their modus operandi was very different from local terror outfits operating in Pakistan. They kept the evidence of their terrorist activities with them. This has been revealed during interrogations of Sheharyar, who has been arrested by security agencies.
“We filmed all our terrorist activities. There were multiple reasons for that. One of them was to prove that we actually carried out the activity, as multiple outfits used to take the credit for each and every activity via social media,” revealed Sheharyar, who was also the spokesperson for the organisation and holds a Master’s degree in applied physics from Karachi University. The videos of have been obtained by security agencies.
This is the second such terror group in Karachi to have an interest in filming their terrorist activities, as earlier another well educated group of militants inspired by the Da’ish — the Saad Aziz group — also filmed their attack in Safoora Goth. But senior counter terrorism officers have a different opinion.
“Both groups — the Saad Aziz group and the Ansarul Sharia Pakistan have too many differences with each other,” senior Counter-Terrorism Department officer Raja Umer Khattab told The Express Tribune. “The Saad Aziz group was carrying out terror activities which had an international impact. Ansarul Sharia Pakistan was carrying out low-profile attacks like targeting those who were wearing police uniforms, even if they were from the Police Foundation or Police Volunteers.”
Khattab said that Saad Aziz group had carried out major terror activities but only attempted to film the Safoora carnage and even that attempt failed, as they lost the camera’s memory card. “Usually, the actual aim to film the terrorist activity is to prove their work to the media, masses and their leadership,” Khattab explained.
The group was also trained to carry out terrorist activities and received training in Afghanistan. They used special mobile applications to communicate with each other and kept USBs hidden in the talismans around their necks to store data of their terrorist activities, literature and other important things.
The group comprised over a dozen highly qualified members from different varsities, including the University of Karachi, NED and Dawood Engineering University. According to investigators, the group started killing policemen because they are soft targets. By killing the policemen, the outfits can prove their power.
The police have also recorded the statements of Sarosh’s father, Sajjad Siddiqui, who is currently in the custody of security agencies. The father admitted that his son has been involved in suspicious activities for the past few years. “He never gave me a satisfactory answer when I noticed his suspicious activities,” revealed Sajjad during investigations. “I even asked him to surrender but he resisted and tried to kill them instead of surrendering himself.”
Investigators believe that the group’s militants had earlier been associated with different banned militant outfits including the Da’ish, alQaeda, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaesh-e-Muhammad.
Sarosh is reportedly on the run with two others, Muzammil and Talha, after allegedly killing a policeman and injuring another during the early morning raid at his house on September 3.
KU strikes back
The Karachi University Teachers Society reacted to alleged portrayal of universities as breeding grounds for militants strongly, saying that Sarosh, who is being treated as a suspected militant, actually left in the middle of his studies six years ago.
A statement issued by KUTS Secretary Dr Muhammad Haris Shoaib also read that it was not the work of varsities to scrutinise its students’ profiles and provide their data to law enforcement agencies.
The teachers’ society hoped that the law enforcement agencies would be able help trace the militants and also reprimanded some media outlets for their alleged biased and insensitive reporting on the issue.