The Magazine

Our Pakistan Problem

Could its holy warriors be the most dangerous?

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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The attack on Mumbai was in a way a primitive terrorist operation--individuals using machine guns and grenades. There were no high explosives, use of chemical weapons, or the like. The difference between ordinary terrorists, who kill at most hundreds, and mass-casualty ones, who aspire to kill thousands, is the coupling of fearless, wicked intelligence to firepower. If al Qaeda had access to nuclear weapons, the organization would surely melt New York City. If Iran's clerical regime, which blew up 19 American airmen at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 (and has allowed al Qaeda to transit its borders) gets a nuke, its virulent anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism could translate into tens or hundreds of thousands of American and Israeli fatalities. Iran has the scientific intelligence that al Qaeda lacks. Al Qaeda has the single-minded will, unfazed by the possibility of earthly losses.

Which brings up the question of whether Pakistan's holy warriors have the ability to marry al Qaeda's sanguinary zeal with greater technical accomplishment?

Looking at Lashkar-e-Taiba ("the Army of the Good"), which likely conducted the attack on Mumbai, the answer would seem to be no. If the Lashkar still had real friends in the Pakistani military and in the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency--the most Islamist-friendly Muslim intelligence service in the world--its attacks in Mumbai would have been more murderous. So these holy warriors, widely feared in Kashmir and Pakistan for their savagery and their disciplined organization, are not yet the missing link for the jihadists who aspire to kill "the enemies of God" in huge numbers.

What is perhaps most encouraging about our struggle with al Qaeda since 9/11 is that the organization has so far been unable to develop real scientific resources. Al Qaeda obviously can learn from its mistakes. Think of the bungled attempt on the USS The Sullivans in the port of Aden in 2000, where the terrorists sank their own skiff. Ten months later, al Qaeda nearly sank the USS Cole in Aden using shaped charges successfully molded into the second boat. Islamic terrorist organizations, if they evolve and learn, can be much more lethal than the sum of their sloppy operational parts. But learning how to use plastique is much easier than deploying some kind of chemical, biological, or uranium-based device.

A principal reason al Qaeda has been unable to develop truly terrifying weaponry is the extremely poor quality of Arab higher education. The Arab Middle East produces thousands of graduates in engineering each year, but most of these young men and women possess only a rudimentary understanding of their field. The last 50 years have been devastating for preparatory schools, colleges, and universities in the region. The serious study of hard sciences and mathematics is for all practical purposes dead through much of the region. (Clerical Iran would not be on the threshold of a nuclear weapon if it were not for its Western-educated experts.) And of those who do study science in the West, how many want to become holy warriors? Evidence so far suggests none. There are no doubt many reasons why scientists have not become holy warriors. Mutatis mutandis, today's faithful Muslim scientists may find it very hard to join up with organizations that rigidly interpret God's will into orders to kill large numbers of human beings.

But Pakistan might be different. Its school system, at both preparatory and university levels, has not been as badly damaged by the ideological whirlwinds that have wreaked so much of the Middle East. British rule created educational institutions and, more important, an educational ethic that have weathered the political chaos and the increasingly religious militarism. And Pakistan sends a large number of first-rate minds abroad to receive the best Western educations. Could well-educated Pakistanis be subject to the clarion call of militant Islam?

Although founded by men of an overwhelmingly secular orientation, Pakistan can seem as religious as Egypt in the streets at prayer time. Secularism, though deeply embedded into the Pakistani elites, doesn't have a non-religious national identity to lock onto. At heart, Pakistan is just the Muslim alternative to Hindu India. Secular Pakistanis really only have the remnants of British culture to fall back on. The Turks, who are in a somewhat similar situation, have developed a tough nationalist identity by creating a largely fictional history marrying modern-day Turkey to the "historic" Turkic peoples of Anatolia. The Ottomans, Islam's most redoubtable soldiers, and their faith are making their way back into the modern Turkish identity, but the Turks, who have been absorbing European ideas and culture for several hundred years, have still probably produced the smallest number of holy warriors allied with al Qaeda.

It was a fool's errand to believe that Pakistan, a nation built exclusively on religious identity and which has regularly lost wars to its stronger, reviled Hindu (read polytheist) neighbor, would not become an Islamist-friendly society. From the beginning one of Pakistan's most influential figures was the great Islamist Sayyid Abu al-Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), who firmly established on the Indian subcontinent a very modern conception of spiritual renewal through holy war. Mawdudi was never wild about the idea of Pakistan, seeing it as a physical and spiritual restriction on Islam's borderless community of believers. With less overt viciousness than Sayyid Qutb, a better-known lodestar of Islamic radicalism, Mawdudi laid the intellectual groundwork that allowed others to see slaughter as divinely sanctioned.

Pakistani intellectuals, but especially Pakistani scientists and engineers, may be more susceptible to Islamist organizations than their Arab counterparts because their national identity is so soft and is challenged by a strong and successfully politicized religious identity. This is exaggerated by the continued defeats at the hands of Indians, who increasingly resemble Westerners (the ultimate Islamist enemy). Hindu India is by the decade becoming exponentially richer and more powerful while Islamic Pakistan continues its long slide into irrelevance. Pakistanis, especially the many educated in the West, have the brain power to turn al Qaeda and its allies into much more lethal organizations. Can al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba develop an appeal to highly educated men who have so far, elsewhere remained resistant to the call?

Pakistani militant groups have grown up in a philosophically sophisticated environment of Islamic militancy. Where once Lashkar was, more or less, a region-specific terrorist organization (focused on Jammu and Kashmir), its appetite for action is growing. All Islamic fundamentalist organizations, if they turn toward jihad, have the potential for a global mission. (Western-imposed borders on the historic Islamic community, the umma, are an insult to God; the enemy, the Judeo-Christian West, is everywhere and thus can be struck everywhere.)

It's a good bet that Lashkar and other Pakistani holy-warrior organizations will in the not too distant future operationally reach beyond the Indian subcontinent. With al Qaeda now permanently headquartered in Pakistan, it's not hard to imagine the organization and its Arab Sunni core being absorbed by a group like Lashkar. Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5, which is America's best frontline defense against Pakistani jihadists who carry British passports--and tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis, at home and abroad, carry such passports, which make travel to the United States easy--gives the impression that we may have already reached the absorption point. These Pakistani jihadist groups are larger than al Qaeda ever was, and their size is a distinct intelligence vulnerability, especially if the Pakistani intelligence agency is ever willing to move aggressively against them and the larger religious movements that they feed on.

Nonetheless, it seems that al Qaeda may be on the verge of a big growth spurt in the subcontinent. In the Arab world, the birthplace of modern Islamic holy war, al Qaeda's prospects have dimmed. Odds are Osama bin Laden has lost the "decisive battle" in Mesopotamia, and with it, eventually, the battle for hearts and minds among Arabs.

Operations inevitably follow philosophy. As the jihadist philosophy expands in Pakistan and likely into India's 150 million-strong Muslim population, so will operations. Hezbollah became an extremely deadly organization precisely because it drank so deeply from revolutionary Iran's global call to rally the world's Muslims against the United States. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad Organization of Ayman al-Zawahiri became something to fear when its objectives transcended the Nile valley. Operational competence goes up as Islamic holy warriors look over the horizon. Global missions draw global talent. Even without weapons of mass destruction, these terrorists could bring on a terrible clash between India and Pakistan.

We will have to wait anxiously to discover whether Pakistan's Islamist intellectuals and holy warriors can go where an Arab-run al Qaeda has been unable to reach--into the laboratories and minds of men with sky-high IQs. European and American intelligence and security services ought to be increasingly attentive to the possibility that the Pakistani jihadist call will have more appeal and try to monitor those Pakistanis who could make all the difference in the acquisition of nuclear and chemical weapons.

Still, Pakistan may follow the examples of Iraq, Egypt, and Algeria, where all the Islamist savagery finally undid the sympathy of large parts of the population for holy warriors. Jihadists inevitably become infatuated with killing, making their understanding of God's wrath just a bit too much to swallow, even for Muslims who loathe the West. Until that happens, though, we will have to strengthen our intelligence capacities and continue to act preemptively against terrorist plots, and to hope that the Pakistani military, a forceful, proud, and hierarchical institution, will itself act against men who don't recognize its authority--and who blow up women and children.

--Reuel Marc Gerecht, for the Editors