The association of many educated young people with violent extremist outfits in recent years, has deflated the myth that only impoverished illiterate individuals fall prey to radicalization. Such cases have been reported not only from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where most of these terrorist organizations are based, but also from many Western countries, such as the USA, UK and many European countries.
The latest case of Mannan Bashir Wani, a well-off, award-winning Geology Ph.D. candidate from the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), who on social media exhibited his affiliation to the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), clearly illustrates how nobody is immune and unsusceptible to Jihadist ideologies and how university campuses have started becoming breeding ground for indoctrination and recruitment. The research scholar, who received the 'Best Paper Presentation Award' among 400 delegates in an international conference on 'Water, Environment, Energy and Society (ICWEES) held at AISECT University, Bhopal, was expelled from the AMU, shortly after he appeared in a picture posing calmly with an AK-47 rifle on the internet.
HM has applauded his actions, calling it a good omen for the ongoing so-called ‘Kashmir freedom struggle’. In a blood-chilling statement, the HM chief Syed Salahuddin said “From years on educated and qualified youth of Kashmir have been joining Hizbul Mujahideen to take this ongoing freedom movement to logical conclusion. This spirit of youth is laudable”. His words come as a major setback to the efforts of security forces to divert young people away from the path of militancy, especially after a 2017 security agency report stated that the year has faced the highest recruitment of Kashmiri youth in various militant groups, viz. 117, many of whom, hail from well-off families.
These statistics visibly demonstrate that Mannan Wani’s story is not an isolated case. In some cases, professors and tutors have also been involved with the recruitment of students: A Professor Muhammad Owais Raheel at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology in Karachi, a graduate of the NED University of Engineering and Technology and an MBA from the Institute of Business Management (IBA) was allegedly grooming young men for joining the Hizbut Tahrir (HuT), a banned terror outfit. Western high-class universities have also seen alarming incidents of educated youth lured by terrorist organizations; In 2010, Roshanara Choudhry, a 21-year-old student of English at King’s College London, attempted to assassinate Stephen Timms, a Member of Parliament. The same year, we also saw Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, the Stockholm suicide bomber, who was a graduate of the Luton University. A year earlier, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a student of University College London, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, was arrested for attempting to blow up an American passenger jet with 289 people on board. In 2011 Tarik Mahri and Jamal Achchi, who were linked to the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir were elected to become President and Vice-President of the Student Union of the Westminster University, from which Mohammed Emwazi/Jihadi John has also graduated. The Liverpool John Moores University student, Abid Naseer, who was plotting a terrorist attack at the Manchester Arndale Centre in 2015 and was affiliated with Al-Qaeda, is another case study. The list of examples is extensive.
At least 70 events featuring so-called ‘hate speakers’ were held on university campuses in 2014 in the UK, according to the British Government’s extremism analysis unit. One such profile case from the past is the leader of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Saeed, who carries a $10 million bounty on his head for masterminding the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, and has been known of rallying at academic institutions in the UK, inciting youngsters of embarking upon the path of Jihad. One such establishment is the University of Leicester, where in 1995, Saeed spoke at a conference attended by 4,000 people. He claimed that his words “…..Infused a new spirit in the youth. Hundreds of young men expressed intention to get Jihad training”. Following his trip to Britain, Saeed argued that a group of around 50 college and varsity students had already finalised their programme.
Such disquieting stories compel one to question what preventative measures have been taken by Governments and educational facilities responsible for safeguarding the rights of their students. The British government’s PREVENT programme, under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, is the main body of guidelines, which requires specialist staff training on radicalization that must carry out risk assessments on vulnerable students. Yet, many experts are concerned that this regulation will prove counter-productive since the guidelines for identifying extremism are phrased so vaguely that they risk making the most banal behaviour part of a wider global extremist conspiracy. No British politician has yet set out exactly what the “tell-tale signs” could be. Moreover, under the preceding coalition Government, Theresa May, UK’s Prime Minister, was forced to abandon proposals that would have forced universities to ban extremists from speaking on campuses, after the Liberal Democrats raised fears that this would impede freedom of speech and critical thinking.
Yet, as the Former British Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed, “Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds and ensure that our young people are given every opportunity to reach their potential. It is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom: it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish.”
For a long time, intelligence and security agencies have assumed that poverty, unemployment, political and social insecurities, faulty administration of justice, marginalization, discrimination and the resultant sense of indignation and revenge, have been the major reasons driving people to join terrorist organizations and oppose the legitimate governing structures. However, for affluent highly educated young people, although the aforementioned rationales could reflect their motivation to an extent, additional criteria apply. Often, incapacitating and fighting the Government comes with the objective of taking control over it. Therefore, the thirst for unchallenged power and prestige, which comes with wreaking havoc and following one’s extremist ideologies, appeals young people, who are at an age when Utopian radical goals, sustained by a sense of intellectual superiority, more than often seem accomplishable. Such individuals could become seduced by the sense of honour in forming the intellectual basis of violent extremist movements, obtaining the mastermind roles and securing control over those at lower ranks. Aliya al-Alani, an expert in radical Islamist groups at the University of Tunis, states that recruits are often lured by power, as it gives them an opportunity to be in charge of a large number of people.
As Mannan Wani’s case manifests, in recent years in South Asia – just like in Europe and US-, a growing number of students from prestigious institutions have joined terrorist groups or plotted terrorist attacks. Unlike students from Madrassas, which are under increasing surveillance, young people on campuses are harder for authorities to track, making them an attractive asset for extremist outfits. Such alarming evidences require universities to adopt appropriate mechanisms for preventing radicalization on their territories and disrupting any possibilities for providing a platform to alleged terrorist sympathisers and extremist ideologues.
The creation of a legal duty on behalf of educational facilities of accurately recognising and reporting any signs for potential terrorist activity is essential. Educational establishments must take ownership and share responsibility. This could take place through comprehensive counselling, guidance and staff training programs. Understanding about the dangers of social media and the internet is also crucial - both to identify these signs and to respond accordingly.
Traditionally, universities have been seen as places where ideas and beliefs can be tested without fear of control, yet education does not simply mean obtaining a degree - it stands for igniting a spark of interest for accumulating knowledge and acknowledging the responsibility of using it wisely. Education leads to enlightenment, and this is the reason why violent extremist ideologies are so dangerous: under their influence, as people try to extinguish the life of others, in the process slowly and quietly, their own inner light blows out.