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.