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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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.