Academics are demanding better security for education institutions after a brutal terrorist attack on Wednesday morning on Bacha Khan University in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that left at least 20 dead – including students and two staff members – and many injured.
Security analysts and academics say the country’s education institutions are relatively soft targets for terrorists.
“Terrorists attack schools and universities as the killing of students evokes terror feelings among the whole society, and they [the terrorists] have succeeded in doing so because educational institutions cannot be guarded like military and other sensitive installations,” the Vice-Chancellor of Bacha Khan University, Professor Fazal Rahim Marwat, told University World News.
Marwat said: “Our university hosts 3,000 students, including female students coming from far-off areas, and this brutal attack was against education, by intimidating students and parents to stay away from learning.”
Malala Yousafzai, a female education activist and the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate, who was herself shot in the head in October 2012 by the Taliban but survived, has demanded the government provide security to education institutions in the country, Pakistan’s Geo News TV reported.
Four terrorists, loaded with suicide jackets which they could not explode, attacked Bacha Khan University in Charsadda city, 29 kilometres north-east of the provincial capital Peshawar.
“Four terrorists entered university premises when classes and examinations were in progress and started indiscriminate firing with Kalashnikovs and hand-grenades,” security officials said.
The university’s guards resisted but the killing spree continued until army troops reached the scene from Peshawar and killed all four terrorists near the hostel building of the university where they had intended to take the boarding students hostage, according to security officials.
“They also intended to enter the examination hall but their attempt was foiled by counter-firing from the security personnel. Had they managed to get inside the examination hall, it would have caused more deaths,” Pakistan Army spokesperson Lt General Asim Bajwa said during a media briefing on Wednesday.
Bajwa said terrorists attacked a university because education institutions are a symbol of progressive and modern Pakistan.
The Pakistani Taliban have attacked several education institutions in Pakistan in the past on the grounds that these institutions impart Western education.
Javed Ashraf, vice-chancellor of Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, told University World News: “It is not just co-education that the Taliban says is un-Islamic but the entire education [system] is their target. They want to hit out at our future generation, and they want us to go back to the Stone Age. They want us to surrender our values and aim at destroying the future of Pakistan.”
“[The] Taliban choose to attack universities because they want us to stay away from free thinking and modernity,” Ashraf said.
He added: “It is now time to speak for academic security rather than academic freedom. Academic freedom will come only if academic security is ensured.”
But the province’s Chief Minister Pervez Khan Khattak said providing security to many thousands of educational facilities across the province was not practically possible because of resource constraints.
Umar Mansoor, chief of one of the Pakistani Taliban factions, has claimed responsibility for the university attack. Umar Mansoor was also the alleged mastermind of the December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that left 141 dead, including 132 students and school staff – an incident that deeply shocked Pakistan.
According to Education under Attack 2014, the global study of violent attacks on education published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, armed groups attacked at least 838 schools in 2009-12, mostly by blowing up school buildings.
In 2009 the Pakistani Taliban staged two suicide attacks on the International Islamic University in Islamabad that resulted in the death of five students, most of them enrolled in Islamic studies courses. In June 2013 a bomb explosion at Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University in Quetta killed 14 women students and injured 19. There was also a clear pattern of targeted killings of academics or students in Balochistan by Baloch militants in 2009-12.
The latest attack last week has caused an outpouring of sympathy and condemnation from academics overseas. The New York-based Scholars at Risk Network said: “In addition to the terrible loss of life and injuries, such attacks target the core values of the university, including academic freedom, the free exchange of ideas, institutional autonomy, and social responsibility.”
“State authorities have a responsibility to safeguard these values by taking all reasonable steps to ensure the security of higher education communities and their members, including a responsibility to deter future attacks by investigating incidents and making every effort to hold perpetrators accountable, consistent with internationally recognised standards.
“Members of society similarly have a responsibility to help safeguard the higher education space, especially following incidents of such gross violence, by pressing demands to state authorities for greater protection and accountability, and by contributing to efforts to understand and reinforce principles of autonomy and academic freedom.”
The European University Association said in a statement: “Attacks on universities, their students and scholars weaken or obliterate academic freedom, have a devastating impact on research, teaching and access to education, and impair society’s long-term development. Safeguarding the freedom and safety of universities and university communities is therefore vital in ensuring the advancement of knowledge and the cultural and scientific development of humankind.”
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