Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist who has been working in Pakistan and Afghanistan documenting the rise of the Taliban and other radical factions since 2001. She is working on a pilot project to counter radicalization in Pakistan and is writing her first book. TED, a nonprofit organization devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading,” hosts talks on many subjects and makes them available through its website.
Sharmeen speaks at a TED event about the dynamics of the suicide bombers and terrorism with a different perspective.
Sharmeen’s full interview with CNN is here.
The Taliban are running suicide schools inside Pakistan, preparing a generation of boys for atrocities against civilians.In my documentary on the subject, “Children of the Taliban,” I came across the cases of many young men who were committed to giving up their lives for what they believed to be the glory of Islam. Fifteen-year-old Zainullah blew himself up, killing six people. Another boy, Sadiq, killed 22 and Masood killed 28.
Since more than 60 percent of the population of Pakistan is under age 25, it seems there will always be a steady supply of recruits waiting to create havoc in the country.The Tehreek-i-Taliban and the various extremist organizations that have been allowed to fester across the country have now joined hands, increasing the reach of their network, sharing recruits, plans, training centers, materials and safe houses.
It was only a matter of time before this would happen, since the Pakistani government’s flawed policy of fighting “Bad Taliban” –those who carry out attacks inside Pakistan — and turning a blind eye to “Good Taliban” — those who carry out attacks outside Pakistan — was bound to come back and haunt them and it has.
Since 2003, the number of suicide bombings has grown exponentially across Pakistan. In 2009, 78 attacks occurred across the country; this year more than 29 attacks have taken place. The Tehreek-i-Taliban is boasting that they have an army of suicide bombers waiting in the ranks to carry out more attacks at their command — and I believe them.
This is no ragtag army fighting in the mountains of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, until recently called the Northwest Frontier Province. These people have a vision, are well trained and their recruitment process is tried and tested.
In urban centers, the Taliban recruit from two fronts, Islamic madrassas and low-income neighborhoods. They have a network of sympathizers who run radical Islamic schools, providing free education to the very poor. Typically, older Taliban fighters or recruiters spend an evening at one of these schools, glorifying the front lines, showing students videos of their heroics, and talking to them about paradise and the afterlife.The students they address have already been primed by years of brainwashing; they have no access to entertainment, sports, books or even their family. The madrassa is the only home they know, they are often beaten by their teachers, told to study the Koran for hours at a stretch in Arabic, a language alien to them. They are frustrated and suddenly, they are provided with an opportunity to give their life up in the name of Islam and earn glory.
They are promised lakes of milk and honey and virgins in the afterlife. The young boys I speak with say to me: Why would I want to live in this world — where they rely on charity, dry pieces of bread and water, where they are subjected to harsh treatment, when they can be free and be the envy of their colleagues in the afterlife. They are only too eager to sign on the dotted line and join the ranks of the Taliban.
In the past few years, the Taliban have relied on other radical organizations, like Jaish-e Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, to recruit young men from low-income neighborhoods in smaller urban centers.
These organizations have had a presence there for years; first they recruited young men to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets, then in Kashmir against the Indian Army. The Taliban have just re-activated these lucrative networks.
Smaller urban centers tend to have high levels of unemployment and the youth have fewer outlets to expend their energy. These radical organizations lure in young men from mosques after Friday sermons, from college campuses and through local neighborhood recruiters.
The young men who show slight interest are invited to selected safe houses where trained recruiters begin brainwashing them. A young man I met in Karachi described the process to me, telling me that in the end he could not carry out the attacks, but that almost everyone he knew from his group was now working for the Taliban and their affiliates.
Once inside the safe house, the young men are provided literature, so-called proof, about the atrocities supposedly being committed by the government of Pakistan at the behest of the United States.
Then, lengthy discussions ensue about their future. Will they ever have jobs, will they be able to provide for their families in this corrupt environment? Would they not want to be part of a process that changes the country and brings accountability? They are promised money, their families are promised compensation and the radical organizations then begin the next phase — training.
A number of young men who had gone through this ideological brainwashing period told me that training to be a bomber was their best option to get out of poverty. They said that they believe in the cause, because these people understood their needs, and provided them with opportunities, while the rest of society shunned them. Weeks of brainwashing also convinced them that they are fighting an evil and are working toward creating a just ideal Islamic society.
There is very little deterrent to suicide bombings, especially in a Third World country like Pakistan. Fighting the Taliban and the various radical organizations on the front lines is like adding a Band-Aid to a cut, it may stop the bleeding but unless you clean it with antiseptic, the germs stay and multiply.
The Pakistani government and its allies must overhaul their policies in Pakistan. They must tackle the madrassa system of education head on and they must look to provide alternate avenues and employment for the youth.
Thousands of civilians have lost their lives to terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, and thousands more will — because, unlike the Pakistani government, which has no coherent policy to deal with the radicals, the Taliban have one to deal with Pakistan and its citizens.
As Sharmeen truly points out, its a lot of socio-economic variables as play. Raw power cannot succeed at rooting out terrorism and this has been proved by the experience of US and allied forces not being able to root out Taliban from Afghanistan. In fact leveraging religious fanaticism, Taliban is gaining grounds elsewhere in various forms and formats. Be it in developing nations like India through organizations like LeT (or by any other name) or in nations like Yemen where religious belief as well as internal instability fuel its growth.
So while our security forces battle it out with terrorists, government and other development agencies need to figure out more inclusive growth policies. The sooner the better.