Pakistani religious students and activists gather for a protest against social media in Islamabad on March 8, 2017, and demanded the removal of all blasphemous content from social media sites. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

The abortive murder attempt on a senior leader of the secular Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in Karachi early this month has exposed a previously unknown terror outfit with close links to academic institutions in Sindh and Balochistan: Ansarul Sharia Pakistan (ASP).

Investigators claim the organization’s operatives, who they say have been involved in the murders of dozens of police personnel in Sindh and Balochistan, have Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from Karachi University and Sindh’s NED University of Engineering and Technology, (NEDUET).

Following the attack on MQM’s Khawaja Izharul Hassan, the director general of the Sindh police force revealed in a press briefing that, among eight members of ASP identified so far, three had Masters in Applied Physics, three were previously enrolled in engineering degree programs, one was a Chartered Accountant and another had an MBA.

Sources in Pakistan’s spy agencies told Asia Times they believed academics and administrative staff at educational institutions were in collusion with the ASP in disseminating extremist values.

Police say the ASP first surfaced in February 2017 when it was responsible for the killing of a retired Brigadier in the Baloch Colony area of Shahrah-e-Faisal, in Karachi.

Since then, the organization has staged regular attacks, mostly on security personnel. The outfit derives its ideological foundation from Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Jaiesh Muhammad (The Army of Muhammad).

One of ASP’s commanders, 29-year-old Abdul Karim Sarosh Siddiqui, was a student of Applied Physics at Karachi University. He accompanied the man, later identified simply as Hassaan, who attempted to kill Hassan on September 2.

The would-be assassin, who died in crossfire with the police, is said to have been a PhD engineer working as a lab technician at the Dawood University of Engineering and Technology (DUET), a private university in Karachi. 

In an “intelligence-based operation,”  security forces captured Siddiqui at Gulzar-e-Hijri, in Karachi, on September 6. Six others were also arrested, including Dr Abdullah Hashmi, 28, who is said to be the brains behind ASP.

Hashmi has a master’s degree in Applied Physics from Karachi University and is a skilled IT expert. He was an employee of NEDUET and worked in the computer department of that university. Together, the affiliations of the men captured connect the outfit to Daesh, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and al-Qaeda.  

Recent incidents involving young extremists, and the advent of ASP, point unequivocally to the transformation of educational institutions into terror-producing factories

On September 7, two further ASP operatives, from the Quetta and Pishin districts of Balochistan, were also seized and taken to an undisclosed location for further questioning. They were identified as Professor Mushtaq, a teacher at the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS) and Mufti Habibullah, who was running seminaries in Karachi and Hyderabad. Both were accused of hatemongering and spreading militant ideas among students.

The emergence of such an organized, well-educated and tech-savvy terror outfit has prompted the Sindh government to declare that it is beefing up “verification processes and security auditing” at the province’s educational institutions, which appear to have become seedbeds for extremism and terrorism.

The spotlight has fallen on well-educated Pakistanis before, however, without the problem being rooted out. Names including Omar Saeed Sheikh, Naeem Noor KhanDr Arshad Waheed, Faisal Shahzad, Hamad Adil, and Owais Jakhrani continue to haunt the country.

As recently as 2015, the Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah surprised many when he disclosed that three “well-educated” students – namely Saad Aziz, Mohammad Azfar Ishrat and Haafiz Nasir – had been arrested in connection with terror attacks.

Aziz was a graduate of The Institute of Business Administration, Ishrat had an engineering degree from the Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology, and Nasir had a Masters in Islamic Studies from Karachi University.

They confessed to involvement in the Safoora Goth bus shooting that resulted in the deaths of 46 Ismaili Shia, the murder of rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, the attack on American educationist Debra Lobo, and targeted killings of members of the Bohra community and police officials in different parts of Karachi.

Recent incidents involving young extremists, and the advent of ASP, point unequivocally to the transformation of educational institutions into terror-producing factories. It is well past time academia itself became accountable.