Poverty And Militancy – Owen Bennett-Jones

This week five years ago Ajmal Kasab was sitting nervously in a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) safe house in Karachi. His Mumbai mission had been postponed after waves overwhelmed the dinghies that were to take the 10 jihadis from the coast off Karachi.
For weeks they waited. And then, on November 22, there was a moonless night and calm seas.
Ajmal seemed to be a typical jihadi recruit. His violent father sent him away from home at the age of 13 to a building site to earn some money. With seven people sharing a room and no water or electricity, there was no doubt his family needed any cash he could contribute.
It was gruelling, uncertain, ill-paid work. So much so that after six years Ajmal was easy pickings for a Lashkar recruiter whose opening tactic was simplicity itself: he provided Ajmal with copious amounts of food. So started a young man’s journey to Mumbai.
After the Mumbai attack, as he lay groaning on a hospital bed, Ajmal was caught on camera saying: “I have made a big mistake.” Indeed. But why? Why had he joined the Lashkar in the first place?
For the obvious reasons. Because it was better than shifting bricks; it was glamorous; it was empowering. This is a common theme amongst many jihadi recruits. They come from a world in which the chances of having a modest but secure lifestyle enabling them to provide for a family are close to zero.
Yet there is another side to modern jihad. Many leading militants have come from wealthy families and are highly educated. Omar Sheikh, for example, went to the London School of Economics. Ramzi Yousef studied engineering in Wales and the would-be underpants bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was at University College, London.
Indeed, the Mumbai attack brought to centre stage the most striking case of a man caught between Islam and the west. David Headley aka Daood Gilani may not have attended a western university but he did the next best thing, helping run a bar in Philadelphia. He not only scoped the Taj hotel for the Mumbai attackers, he also quaffed champagne there.
Enter into the debate fiery American academic Christine Fair whose research has led her to conclude that militants tend to be better educated than most of their compatriots.
It’s a finding that leads to surprising possibilities. If higher education levels don’t discourage militancy then western aid programmes directing funds into Pakistani schools are unlikely to achieve one of their main objectives.
Fair acknowledges some of problems with the argument. The militants who end up with an obituary are unlikely to be representative. Jihadi leaders, just like army officers, choose their best men for the most difficult missions. By being selected for Mumbai, in other words, the uneducated Ajmal may have been an exception.
But there is another underlying bias in the data. She and some other distinguished co-authors reached their conclusions after studying jihadi publications for the obituaries of Pakistani militants from LeT and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM).
The clue is in the fact that both the LeT and HM produce jihadi literature with obituaries. As militant groups go, they are very much at the sophisticated end of the scale with links to substantial political as well as militant operations.
Could you really extrapolate from the LeT and HM to understand the nature of, say, the most important militant force of all in Pakistan – the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP)? Of course, you cannot. They are different outfits with different memberships, historical roots, geographic recruiting grounds, ideological passions and support bases.
To see the point more clearly, imagine trying to work out anything about the TTP by studying Hezbollah. It just doesn’t work. The reasons a young Lebanese man might sign up for Hezbollah have very little to do with why a Pakistani might volunteer for the TTP.
While some militant groups such as the Punjabi sectarian outfits rely on the bourgeois conservatism of aspirational small traders, others draw their strength from the impoverished migrant underclass which ends up in the big cities.
President Bush tried to reduce the various post-9/11 conflicts to a single ‘war on terror’. Indeed, the US failures in Afghanistan and Iraq flowed in part from the inability of Washington’s military officers and politicians to understand the different histories of distinct battlefields and to distinguish between the tribalism, nationalism and various strands of religiosity coursing through the Muslim world.
And so it is with jihadi recruits. It’s complicated. Some are the reluctant fundamentalists so acutely identified by Mohsin Hamid. The bright young men caught between Lahore and New York or London. Others – particularly perhaps in Punjab – are the products of an education system that has taught them a religious based Pakistani nationalism but not the ability to think critically for themselves.
But many – maybe most – like Ajmal Kasab and the boys who killed Benazir Bhutto, are the products of poverty and despair. The TTP barely needs to recruit. It can rely on a steady stream of children who have run away from impoverished homes and who arrive in the tribal areas looking for food, shelter and, perhaps most importantly, a chance to make a mark.
Would Ajmal Kasab have behaved differently five years ago if he had been looking forward to life with a job, a home, friends and prospects? Of course we can never know. But many might agree – he might well have avoided making that big mistake.