A five-hour long stand-alone faceoff in Islamabad by an armed person, Malik Sikander, has added to the intricacy of ever-worsening security situation in Pakistan. Though various statements are being attributed to the Interior Minister about Sikander’s foreign and local linkages, no credible and irrefutable information has come to light in this respect so far. The Ministry of Interior has also distanced itself from such statements. However, credible sources have confirmed Sikander’s association with a proscribed organisation that dates back to the 1990s. It might take some time to unearth the whole truth.

In any case, the point of worry is that lone wolf terrorist phenomenon has set in. Till now, the terror attacks committed by organised terrorist groups have been the order of the day. Nevertheless, the assaults by lone wolves can be a new nightmare scenario for the intelligence agencies and police in Pakistan. Radicalisation, absence of firm response to perpetrators, and rampant availability of lethal weapons have prepared the soil for the birth of lone wolves.

Given the religious extremism scenario and ongoing terrorist activities in Pakistan, naturally the profile of many lone wolves would be of a radicalised young male from a so-called madrassah or somebody influenced by radical teachings. Even Sikander harped on religious tune as he demanded imposition of Sharia in Pakistan. The intelligence agencies should focus their efforts on identifying and monitoring individuals, who are undergoing the process of radicalisation.  But locating the would-be lone wolf will be a strenuous exercise, as lone wolves do not indulge in activities that attract intelligences agencies, such as contacting known terrorists or visiting training camps in Waziristan. They simply get radicalised by fiery sermons, and make up their mind to strike alone. Undoubtedly, it will be a mammoth task requiring oodles of coordinated and sustained efforts and enormous logistical support.

Jeffrey Simon in his book, entitled “Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat”, wrote: “Not only has the age of lone wolf terror already been here since the anarchist movements of the late 1800s, it is a movement coming into its own now as the internet democratises access to information - from speeches by radicalists from around the world to instructions on how to build bombs from kitchen appliances.”

He quotes the example of Roshanara Choudhry, the oldest daughter of unemployed British and Bangladeshi parents and an exemplary student at King’s College in London, who on May 14, 2010, stabbed MP Stephen Timms twice in the stomach, attempting to murder him for consistently supporting the war in Iraq. She had no contact with any radical group. Investigations, however, revealed that between November 2009 and May 2010, she downloaded and listened to more than 100 sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. She had never met this man or communicated with him, but was impressed by his motivating sermons and speeches. Slowly and surreptitiously, she got radicalised. But to her neighbours, Choudhry was a sweet girl next door, with a promising future. She had managed to keep her radicalisation process successfully wrapped up, as most lone wolf terrorists do.

Unfortunately, the situation is more perplexing in Pakistan, as there are hundreds of battle-hardened former jihadis, who had fought in Afghanistan. Any one of them or a small group can act alone. Recently, there have been incidents of splinter groups, made up of disgruntled elements, detesting the softening of their parent organisation’s stance and choosing to operate on their own. Many more are getting radicalised by awe-inspiring sermons of some reckless khateebs and sectarian outburst of religious teachers. Raw and receptive minds are being bombarded with hate speeches and lessons of intolerance with impunity. Religious extremism and sectarianism are rampant. Walk chalkings and graffiti openly invite to take law into one’s own hands. The environment is conducive for the birth of many lone wolves.  

We need a two-pronged policy to prevent the production of radicalised lone wolves, i.e. intelligence and legislation. Sustained intelligence operations must be unleashed to identify and trail the radicalised individuals before they suddenly spring into action on their own or at the behest of some miscreant. Intelligence bureau and special branches should coordinate and inject their moles in suspected areas and organisations to have a forehand knowledge of the radicalised individuals.  But maximum care must be exercised in drawing a distinction between the young rebels sans cause and the genuinely brainwashed radicals. Surveillance and follow up actions must be supported by proper legislation so that the democratically-elected government could only infringe our privacy for a just cause of our personal security and the security of the country. Legislation enables the agencies to do their job properly without giving them an ugly look of a tyrannical secret police.

It was a noble thinking on part of the Interior Minister to avoid killing the lone wolf, Sikander, in front of his kids, wife and, of course, millions of viewers glued to TV sets. However, the drama was stretched a bit too long. Five hours standoff created lot of scare among the public and further diminished their trust in the security agencies. Moreover, some more potential lone wolves would have been encouraged to imitate Sikander to get their faces on the front pages and in the breaking news competition of TV channels. It was wiser to have allowed the police to adopt less lethal methods of subduing him, which could be done quite effectively much earlier. Learning a lesson from this fiasco, we should prepare ourselves to tackle such situations with confidence and a clear mind in future. A committee should be formulated, comprising reps from police, special branches, IB, and ISI that could make quick decisions as per the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) developed to handle such situations.

Apart from the above, the best tactic that can be adopted, and that we have been afraid of employing so far, is to expose the fallacy and flaccidness of the ideology pursued by radicalised, homegrown terrorists.  The key to de-radicalisation is to methodically and comprehensibly hit at the extremist propaganda inculcated into the raw minds and to bring them in the mainstream of open society where one can discuss and criticise in a healthy manner without fear of reprisal from the government or the extremists. This environment can be created when all stakeholders, ranging from the politicians to the religious scholars, participate in the campaign to curb extremism and radicalisation with a missionary zeal.

The writer is honorary director of the Centre for Peace and Security Studies, University of the Punjab, and holds Master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security from War Studies Department, King’s College London.