Universities told to step up anti-extremism measures

With a rising tendency towards extremism among university students from privileged backgrounds, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal last week urged university vice-chancellors to step up anti-radicalisation measures on campuses.

Chairing a 19 September summit of around 70 university vice-chancellors, convened to engage academic institutions in implementing Pakistan's counter-terrorism National Action Plan, the minister suggested marking an International Day of Peace at universities on 21 September to kick off the “counter-narrative against extremism”, as he put it.

The Pakistan government announced the 20-point National Action Plan after the December 2014 Taliban attack on the Army Public School, killing 141 people, including 132 children.

But the authorities and universities only stepped up their response in universities after the 2 September assassination attempt on Khawaja Izhar-ul-Hassan, leader of the opposition Muttahida Qaumi Movement in Sindh's provincial assembly, which police said was masterminded by a University of Karachi student.

"Terrorism or extremism is based on an ideology and to defeat such ideology, the involvement of education institutions is a must," Vice-Chancellor of Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, Dr Javed Ashraf, told University World News, adding that the counter-narrative against extremism must start from within the universities.

In every university, career counselling mechanisms must be set up to evaluate the potential of students and provide better avenues in the future, Ahsan told the summit, adding that “students must be enjoined to tolerate the difference of opinion of their peers and society”.

Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission or HEC recently issued a letter to university heads calling on them to strengthen campus security and set up programmes to curb radicalisation opportunities available to students.

More extra-curricular activities and the universities’ connection and coordination with students should be strengthened and faculty visibility ensured in all social spaces on campuses “to eliminate disconnect” with the students and between faculty themselves, it said.

The letter stressed that student mentoring and counselling should become a regular activity in universities. “Any unusual behaviour must be carefully monitored and analysed,” the HEC letter said.

Increased monitoring

However, Muhammad Murtaza Noor, coordinator of the Inter University Consortium for the Promotion of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, told University World News that seminars and dialogues are not enough to check the rising trend of extremism at universities and suggested that law enforcers and academics must agree on and put in place mechanisms to monitor suspicious activities.

"Some monitoring mechanism to check activities of suspicious students must be in place at the universities," Noor said.

Intelligence agencies have increased surveillance in major universities, while a security audit of several universities has begun.

There has been a debate on whether universities should give law enforcement and intelligence agencies access to data on all university students. However, the universities have so far not accepted this demand by the security agencies.

Already in July, the Counter-Terrorism Department of the Sindh Police facilitated a dialogue with universities in Karachi on the ‘growing radicalisation in educational institutions’ with the participation of representatives from 40 institutions.

Representatives of security agencies and university management agreed to set up vigilance committees and enhance surveillance. However, the vigilance committees have not so far materialised.

Just after the university Eid-ul-Azha vacations in August, the management of the NED University of Engineering and Technology and the University of Karachi each held meetings to take stock of the gaps in scrutiny of the students and considered a police verification certificate to be furnished by the students prior to admission to their universities.

Highly educated extremists

Although there have been reports of extremists or pro-extremism students at universities in Pakistan, the catalyst for authorities and universities in ramping up their response was the assassination attempt on Khawaja Izhar-ul-Hassan, who survived the attack in the Sindh provincial capital Karachi, but two others including a policeman succumbed to bullet wounds and died. Three others were injured.

Karachi police revealed that the mastermind of the attack was a Karachi University student affiliated with a new militant organisation known as Ansar-ul-Sharia Pakistan (Supporters of Islamic Law in Pakistan), made up of close to a dozen highly educated militants with degrees from the University of Karachi and other well-known institutions.

The two attackers, as identified by the police, were Hassan Israr, a lab technician at Karachi's Dawood University of Engineering and Technology, reportedly killed during the police response, and Abdul Karim Sarosh Siddiqui, who was a student of applied physics at the University of Karachi in 2011, who, according to police, managed to escape from the scene and also evaded a follow-up raid at his residence in Karachi.

Both Hassan and Siddiqui were from very well-educated families – Hassan’s father holds a PhD and Siddiqui’s father had been a professor at the University of Karachi.

While armed attacks by terrorists are not unusual in the country, the involvement of students, former students and university staff was shocking. Rao Anwar, Karachi’s senior superintendent of police, said that all the group members belonged “to noble and educated” families.

Lynch mob members indicted

Incidents of extremism and terrorism carried out either on campuses or by university graduates are not new. Journalism student, Mashal Khan, who was a member of the secular Pakhtun Students Federation, was lynched in April 2017 by fellow students at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The lynch mob claimed Khan committed blasphemy. Some 57 people, mostly students, were last week indicted for the murder.

In April 2015, Saad Aziz, a graduate of the reputable Institute of Business Administration, masterminded the mass killing of an Ismaili community at Safoora Goth in Karachi and murdered a social activist, Sabeen Mahmud.

Noreen Leghari, a female second-year medical student at Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences, was arrested in April this year in Lahore. According to her statement lodged with police, she confessed that she was to be used as a suicide bomber. Her father is a professor at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro city.

In her confession statement released to the media, she admitted she was not kidnapped from Hyderabad city by militants as her family had claimed, but came to Lahore to join a terrorist outfit sympathetic to Islamic State or Daesh.

Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences Vice-Chancellor Naushad Sheikh said a university inquiry into Leghari suggested that she may have been recruited from outside the university.

“We don’t think that she was approached by anyone within the university. We believe that she was contacted through social media,” the vice-chancellor said. “We are cooperating with law enforcement agencies on this issue.”

Measures taken

According to Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper, Interior Minister Ahsan suggested to university heads that every campus should have at least one psychiatrist to address the issue of students’ involvement in extremism.

However, Chairman of Pakistan’s HEC Mukhtar Ahmed told University World News: “Linking individual students or any former students of universities with the entire higher education sector is not an appropriate approach. University students are part of the society and a societal approach to curb rising extremism must be adopted.”

Ahmed conceded however, that incidents of violence and radicalisation had risen on campuses. Campus radicalisation was a worldwide phenomenon, not confined to Pakistan, he said. “But we are not shirking away from our responsibilities within Pakistan and we are awake to the situation. Recent seminars and other events aim at checking sentiments of extremism at universities."