INTERVIEW: ‘Radicalisation is one step short of terrorism’ Barrister Muhammad Ali Khan Saif | Pakistan Today

INTERVIEW: ‘Radicalisation is one step short of terrorism’ Barrister Muhammad Ali Khan Saif

The government has been incapable of pre-empting terrorism


When the elite and powerful individuals also manipulate and violate the country’s laws for petty personal gains, society becomes radical


A fundamental point in NAP was coordination and cooperation among all intelligence agencies but there is nothing on ground yet


We know that Barrister Muhammad Ali Khan Saif is a member of MQM’s Rabita Committee. He is also a sitting Senator from the party. He served as Minister for Youth in 2007-8.

But what we don’t know about him is that he is one of the few lawmakers to have acquired high in education. He is Barrister at Law and Advocate Supreme Court. He is one of the few lawmakers who have achieved PhD in three different subjects.

He has done PhD from University of Wales (UK) in Law. He also acquired a PhD degree from Quaid-e-Azam University in Anthropology (Suicide Terrorism). Senator Saif also acquired another PhD from the University of Halle, Germany. The subject was again terrorism.

As an expert on terrorism and extremism, DNA had a detailed discussion with him over the government’s drive against terrorist outfits in across country.

Question: What do you make of this Qadri affair? Not just the protests over the week but also the buildup; the large crowds at the funeral, the defiant provocation, etc? What do they show about the government’s position in the present circumstances?

Barrister Saif: To start, let me say that this Qadri affair has many dimensions. First, it reflects how much deterioration we have witnessed in government institutions. It is an utter failure of intelligence agencies and relevant institutions. They failed to strategise ahead of the gathering and the subsequent march towards the red zone on March 27. The government also failed to devise a strategy to deal with Qadri’s funeral procession before allowing his hanging.

The pro-Qadri people were allowed to keep the body for three long days and people thronged from across the country to attend the funeral prayers. The march towards the red zone on March 27 also was a result of the momentum gained at the funeral. Hence, the people from the Barelvi sect were allowed to regroup and threaten the government unlike their peaceful posture in the past. If the government continues with such bad governance, the National Action Plan (NAP) would face more challenges from radical groups.

Now, having said this, we need to review why the Barelvi sect is trying to regroup. A society with high ratio of illiteracy, unemployment, poverty breeds frustration. The frustrated groups mostly always try to vent their anger through violent acts. This leads the society towards intolerance and extremism. With a society where there is no or little writ of government, such radical groups have no fear of accountability.

When the elite and powerful individuals also manipulate and violate the country’s laws for petty personal gains, society becomes radical.

If we see things analytically, societies like Pakistan, India and Afghanistan are prone to radicalisation and intolerance and violence is the only way left for the poor and under-privileged groups to vent their anger and frustration. Extremist groups use such an environment for expanding their agendas and terrorist attacks is their major tool to further their propaganda.

In such a society where violence is used as a tool to further vicious agendas and the government fails in protecting the weak and meek from terrorist groups, even the non-violent groups become radical and use violence as a tool for their survival. This is what happened to the followers of otherwise peaceful Barelvi sect who for past few years have been facing terrorist attacks from various extremist Taliban groups which follow the Deobandi and Salafi schools of thought. Hence, violence is the tool being used by most religious groups.

Q: Psychologists treating terrorism victims tend to say that extremism is one step short of terrorism? Do you agree with this thesis?

BS: Extremism, in psychological terms, is a natural phenomenon as this is only a state of mind and every individual can think on extremist lines anytime. But when an individual starts planning to manifest his/her extremist thoughts, he/she becomes radical. Now radicalisation is one step short of terrorism as this is a state of mind which leads any individuals to manifest their extremist thoughts through acts of terror.

Terrorism is a tactical methodology which aims at spreading fear among fellow human beings.

Terrorists use terror to create fear among their powerful opponents to blunt resistance and opposition to their terrorist agenda.

Q: The government has clearly failed to come up with the crucial counter-narrative that even NAP identified as essential to winning hearts and minds. What, do you think, explains this failure? And what should be done to develop a counter-narrative?

BS: In order to defeat the menace of terrorism, the federal government needs to clarify the fundamentals of the ideology of Islam so that a counter narrative could be framed to defeat the narrative launched by the terrorists.

In the preset scenario, the theoretical paradigm is foremost imperative for defining a counter to the narrative of the terrorists. NAP had identified this fundamental but the government failed to develop a counter narrative against terrorists. Today, the state of Pakistan is pitched against a radical terrorist group which is very clear in its ideology and is hell bent on implementing its agenda. This ideological foundation of terrorists and their conviction on whatever they believe in is so strong that they don’t give it even a second thought when tasked to blow themselves up anytime and anywhere.

One might disagree with the agenda and narrative of the terrorists but we would have to float a counter narrative to defeat the ideological argument built by the terrorists and a mere rebuttal won’t work. The PML-N government has yet failed in floating a counter narrative.

Now there are many reasons for their failure. The first reason is the lack of commitment and conviction among the PML-N leadership, most of whom directly or indirectly have been supporting or funding the extremist religious groups in the past.

The second reason is political expediency. The PML-N leadership doesn’t want to damage its vote-bank as the Sharif family has been driving its force from the same religious extremist groups. Nawaz Sharif, overtly or covertly, has supported extremist leaders from Osama bin Laden to Malik Ishaq in the past and there is enough material available to prove it. There are many MNAs and MPAs of the ruling party in the centre and Punjab who have been active leaders of banned outfits like Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and others.

One piece of evidence I can share with you is the U-turn Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took recently on the women empowerment bill recently passed by the Punjab Assembly. When the religious parties threatened demonstrations, Nawaz Sharif immediately announced to amend the bill per the reservations of the religious groups.

Basically, Nawaz Sharif can’t afford to annoy the mullahs. And if he can’t stand on a bill his party’s government has passed, how can the premier stand tall and form a counter narrative against extremist religious groups?

Moreover, those politicians can frame a new narrative whose objectives and vision are clear. However, short-sighted and compromised politicians can never frame a narrative.

Moreover, another irony Pakistan is faced with is the so-called liberals we have. While liberals are divided on ethnic and political lines, they do not have a narrative either. This vacuum is largely filled by religious fanatics who are clearer than our liberals.

Q: What did the Lahore attack show about our preparedness in urban centres? Despite forewarning, nothing was done to pre-empt the attack. What, in your opinion, explains this oversight?

BS: Lahore attack is nothing unexpected. We knew it was coming and more would follow if we don’t take immediate and prudent actions. This attack proves the truth that despite operation Zarb-e-Azb, the enemy is very much alive, organised, potent and committed to carry out more nefarious attacks.

Moreover, in military terms, terrorist activity is always easier in a divided, compromised and radicalised society. The attacker has always the advantage of an element of surprise. But pre-empting and thwarting such an attack is always a difficult task. It needs a coherent and coordinated response to prevent any attack.

Such an attack can only be countered through timely intelligence gathering and processing.

A fundamental point in NAP was coordination and cooperation among all intelligence agencies but there is nothing on ground yet.

Inadequate intelligence and inefficiency of the law enforcement agencies (LEAs) have led to the failure of the government agencies to pre-empt any terrorist attack. Whether it were attacks on Bannu or DIK jails or attacks at APS Peshawar, Bacha Khan University or other state installations, no attack could be stopped.

These terrorist attacks would continue to wreak havoc until and unless the state institutions act in time and with better coordination and commitment.

Q: Senior ministers of PML-N seem divided on matters related to both extremism and terrorism. There are also rumours that the party is at odds with the military again over the extent of the Punjab operation. Your opinion, please?

BS: The PML-N leadership has a conservative mindset and the same was reflected in the recent reluctance of the Punjab chief minister in allowing military action against terrorist outfits in the province despite the loss of 76 precious lives in the blast. Rather than seeking army action, the Punjab chief minister made it a matter of ego. Perhaps he feared that a military action against banned outfits might expose the evil nexus between the ruling party and the religious fanatics. Moreover, any such move may also expose the fake impression about effective governance in Punjab.

Q: Being a close friend of General (r) Pervez Musharraf, do you see an underhand deal for his visit to Dubai? Now since the court is unhappy over his departure again, how does he see things progressing?

BU: For a long time I have been saying that the treason case against General (r) Pervez Musharraf was weak and politically motivated. The federal government actually made the case toothless by only framing Musharraf in it. Article 6 provides that action would be taken against one who throws out an elected government, as well as the abettors and facilitators of the accused. But the government destroyed its own case by only naming Musharraf in the case.

Moreover, media statements by top government officials against Musharraf also made it a politically motivated matter, which was taken up to settle personal scores. This led to legal flaws in the case. The judgment by special court proved this flaw, which made this matter controversial.

Even the federal government looked least bothered about the case due to successive adjournments. The federal government also lost moral authority to pursue it due to induction of close comrades of Musharraf into the federal cabinet.

A further dent was witnessed when the chief justice accused the government of using the courts against Musharraf as it lacked commitment to pursue the case on legal grounds. Actually, the federal government was trying to send a message to the GHQ through this case — an effort thwarted by the apex court.

Hence, this case had literally become a joke. So everyone among the legal fraternity knew it was coming and pursing the case was a wast of time and taxpayers’ money.

On the other hand, it was General (r) Musharraf who himself decided to return to Pakistan in March 2013 when there was no compulsion. Once back, the former president faced the cases bravely. Often he had to face slogans from opposite camps but he stood his ground and never looked frightened.

Now, when he has announced to return, one must trust his word. But we need to understand that the decision to return would also be his own.

One needs to remember that the Supreme Court did not bar his travel abroad in any verdict. It’s all about some media circles that are exerting pressure, seeking immediate return of the former army chief for certain reasons known to the nation.

Mian Abrar

The writer heads Pakistan Today's Islamabad Bureau. He has a special focus on counter-terrorism and inter-state relations in Asia, Asia Pacific and South East Asia regions. He can be reached at [email protected]